If someone had asked me what I thought I would be doing on a Friday night during my first few weeks at the College, my answer would not have included the words “jazz harpist.” Yet the performance delivered by the Edmar Castaneda Trio last week was better than any alternative I could have imagined.
Castaneda himself was quite a sight, standing tall in his bright red hat alongside his blue harp. His drummer, David Silliman, was perched in the middle of an eclectic group of percussion instruments, ranging from a snare to claves. He held a drumstick in one hand and kept the other free, using his palm as the instrument. The last member of the trio was Marshall Gilkes, who stood to Silliman’s right and played trombone.
At first glance, they really did look like the punchline to some kind of weird joke. But then Castaneda started strumming his harp, the drums kicked in and the tenor of the trombone floated through the air. What once seemed to be a representation of Mad Libs gone wrong turned into musical magic. Glancing around, there wasn’t a single member of the audience who didn’t seem captivated by what was going on.
The first song of the evening, composed by Castaneda, was titled, “Between the Strings.” The piece started out slow and deep, but quickly picked up as the drums made their entrance. Evoking a feeling that seemed inspired by Castaneda’s hometown of Bogotá, Colombia, “Between the Strings” accelerated and rose to a climax in a series of solos by Gilkes and Castaneda, the two virtuosos battling back and forth. Suddenly, a drop in tempo arrived, and the original melody came back in, bringing the song to a close. As the last note rang out from the harp, Silliman and Gilkes left the stage, and Castaneda stepped up towards the microphone. After jovially greeting the crowd with a wide grin on his face, his voice fell. “This next song,” he said, pointing a finger towards the ceiling, “is dedicated to the man up there.” Stepping back towards his harp, Castaneda started strumming and the musician and his harp moved in harmony, swaying back and forth. Castaneda’s hands fluttered along the strings effortlessly. Most of the time, his eyes were closed.
By the time the piece, called “Jesús de Nazaret,” came to a close, I was hypnotized. But the show wasn’t over. Almost like a magician who has yet to unveil his final act, Castaneda called a special guest on stage — his wife, Andrea Tierra, a vocalist from Medellín, Colombia. Silliman and Gilkes returned, and the ensemble performed a traditional Columbian-Venezuelan song, “Carrao Carrao.” The instrumentalists’ delivery was passionate, Tierra’s vocals were soulful and the result was a wave of emotion that swept up the audience, leaving everyone in the hall transfixed. By this point, it seemed as if the performance could not get any better, and yet it did. The next piece “Yo Defiendo la Mujer,” or “I Defend the Woman,” was an upbeat tune the quartet performed with vibrancy. Castaneda and his wife exchanged sly glances throughout the song, as though it was their intent not just to perform incredible music but to ensure that everyone in the audience would fall in love with them.
By the time the final number was finished, there was some greater unity among the people in the hall. Music, when performed at the level it was on Friday, has that power. The Edmar Castaneda Trio’s performance was far more than just a spattering of rhythms, tones and notes — it was something that spoke of love and religion, diversity and culture. But more than anything else, it was a celebration of that simple, inexplicable power of music.