Tuesday, January 29, 2008

CD Review: Arpa Venezuela - Rafael Ochoa

Reissued gem by an unsung master of the harp

Arpa Venezuela (Airmail Music/Sunset-France)

Rafael Ochoa, 67, is a maestro of the Venezuelan harp who had his heyday in the 60s and 70s. For years he was part of the orchestra of the legendary harpist and composer Juan Vicente Torrealba, who took the rough and ready joropo music of the Llanos, or plains, and polished it to orchestral standards.

In these studio recordings from the 1970s, Ochoa tackles elegant waltzes and contradanzas harking back to the music’s roots in the Spanish fandango and the more spirited golpes, with their bug-stomping dances that echo the energy of flamenco.

The 11 instrumental tracks highlight the versatility of the Venezuelan harp in the hands of a maestro. Stand out numbers are "El Pajarillo", which takes off at gallop and barely pauses for breath, and the bolero-like "La Reina", where Ochoa is joined by blind pianist Rafael Aponte.

Other tracks feature the golpe tocuyano from the northwest, old-style merengue and Afro-Venezuelan cumaco drums from the coast.

But the real treat is being able to get your hands on this music in the first place. To find the original LP in Venezuela you'd have to dig through the crates in specialist second-hand stores for months. But now, due to some odd international recording deal, which included signing over a load of out-of-stock LPs to a French CD company, it can be yours for a few euros.

The big question that's bugging me is why Venezuelan folk music is so impossible to find in the UK or the USA, or Australia, or anywhere else for that matter?

Joropo is a hugely popular folk music. It's played right across Venezuela and the cattle-ranching plains of eastern Colombia. It is enjoyed both by barefoot cowboys in the countryside and concert-hall crowds in the cities and is ubiquitous on local radio and in barbecued-beef restaurants. But you'd never know it judging by the Venezuelan music you find outside of the country.

Salsa, merengue, reggaeton, hip-hop, rock en Español, all find an international audience, but joropo, the king of Venezuelan folk music, seems to be a step too far for most foreigners.

Perhaps all that will change with some of the great remixes being created by younger talents like Panasuyo and Babylon Motorhome. But until it does, the joyous sound of the 32-stringed harp, accompanied by shuffling maracas and a small four-stringed guitar known as a cuatro will be something tourists will have to travel to the country to experience for themselves.

Or they could pick up a cheap reissue of an old gem like Arpa Venezuela.

Ochoa was absolutely blown away when I tracked him down near Barquisimeto and called to say that this album was available on CD in Europe. He said he was pleased people were still listening to his music, although he could only vaguely remember cutting the tracks at several different studio sessions in the early 1970s in Caracas. He said he had never seen Rafael Aponte again after those sessions.

This is a great place to start for anybody hankering after joropo who likes their harp music on the smoother side.

If you live in London and you want to try before you buy, I suggest you visit Sterns Music at the top of Tottenham Court Rd, near Warren St tube.

Track Listing
1 El Pajarillo
2 Fuiste Tu
3 Dama Antanona
4 Seis Numerao
5 Nuestro Mundo
6 La Reina/El Pajarillo
7 Puerto Abandonado/Golpe Tocuyano
8 Como Llora Una Estrella/El Cumaco
9 Sombra En Los Medanos/Compadre Pancho
10 Canto A Caracas/El Norte Es Una Quimera
11 Llanera

By Russell Maddicks

To buy the CD click here: Venezuela Arpa

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