The harp's heavenly sounds fill Paraguay

Paraguayan harp master Nicolas Caballero teaches musical techniques to student Cristian Ramon Portillo in Asuncion, Paraguay.
Paraguayan harp master Nicolas Caballero teaches musical techniques to student Cristian Ramon Portillo in Asuncion, Paraguay. Jack Chang / MCT

ASUNCION, Paraguay — The sounds of heaven, plucked on 36 strings, fill the ramshackle houses and potholed streets of this sleepy capital.

Some of that music comes from the basement of harp master Adolfo Bernal, better known here as Papi Galan, who has spread the distinctive folksy strains of the Paraguayan harp all over the world.

The music also drifts from the living room of Cristian Ramon Portillo, a 14-year-old who says he's "enchanted" by the harp and aims to join his uncle, Martin Portillo, as one of the musical legends in this nation of 6.8 million people.

Paraguayans of all stripes have plucked the instrument since Jesuit missionaries first brought it to this impoverished, landlocked country nearly five centuries ago. Paraguayans have since made the harp their own, composing thousands of songs for it and even inventing their own smaller, more versatile version of the instrument.

Now, they want international recognition for their harp magic.

To be precise, Paraguayans want UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural wing, to designate their capital, Asuncion, "the world capital of the harp." They deserve no less, they say, for carrying the instrument's long legacy into the 21st century.

"The harps we have here are copies and maybe bad copies, but for us, they're perfect," said Bernal, who spent three decades playing in Europe and Brazil and builds his own pine-and-cedar harps in his basement. "You could be anywhere in the world, but as soon you hear one note, you know a Paraguayan's playing."

The local style is playful and quick and full of flourishes that Paraguayans call "fantasy," meaning echoing runs down the strings and improvisation. Musicians from around the world have copied the style. In Japan alone, as many as 3,000 people are studying the Paraguayan harp, musicians here said.

The music comes in two styles — a slower, more melancholy rhythm and the livelier polka, which, despite its name, doesn't features tubas or accordions. Harp legend Felix Perez Cardoso, who was born in 1908 and died in 1952, is credited with inventing the modern Paraguayan style of playing.

Sometimes, harpists sing along in the indigenous language of Guarani, with most lyrics recounting the country's war history or celebrating its natural beauty. Many songs mimic the sounds of waterfalls, twittering birds and other bucolic sounds.

And then there's the mother of all Paraguayan harp events, when as many as 1,200 harpists play together in a kind of celestial symphony.

"The tradition of the Paraguayan harp is a giant in Latin American music," said Daniel Sheehy, director of the U.S.-based Smithsonian Folkways Recordings label, who was in Paraguay in April to record local musicians.

"All the harpists in the world look to Paraguayan musicians for their technique. It has European roots, but it also has a feeling that's very Paraguayan."

With the hoped-for designation of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Asuncion would join the likes of Bogota, Colombia, which was 2007's UNESCO World Book Capital City, and Bologna, Italy, which UNESCO designated a World City of Music in 2006.

Paraguayans hope winning the designation would turn Asuncion into a Mecca for harpists from around the world who'd come to this rundown capital to play and study. To win the honor, the city must not only document a history of harp music but also set up institutions, year-round events and even a monument dedicated to the instrument, local officials said.

Paraguayans say their isolated country has become the guardian of a tradition that began as long ago as 6,000 years ago, when the first harps appeared in ancient Egypt.

"With the number of musicians here and the quality of the music, Paraguay is already the world capital of the harp," said Nicolas Caballero, considered a master of the Paraguayan harp. "Here's where we've developed a sound and technique that's completely unique."

Harpist Cesar Cataldo said winning UNESCO recognition would bring some glory to a country known mainly for its political corruption and poverty.

"Paraguay has a very bad reputation, and we know that," Cataldo said. "With this, we can at least say there's one thing we've done well."

For 14-year-old Robles, what started out as an obligation to his harp-loving grandfather has turned into a personal obsession.

"I want to become professional," he said. "I want to play the harp all my life."

Finding a quiet space to play the harp, however, isn't easy. He practices in his family's living room while his cousins chase each other around the wooden instrument and workers hammer and glue shoes just yards away in a factory run out of the garage.

But all the noise falls away when Robles' fingers dart across the strings, releasing a cascade of shimmering notes and five centuries of Paraguayan song.


Video of Adolfo Bernal performing:

Video of students from Asuncion's music conservatory playing: