With his head down and eyes closed, Edmar Castaneda's hands scurry across his instrument — the traditional Colombian harp — like spiders, weaving elaborate webs of sound.
"You can groove on the harp, too," Castaneda told CTNow.
In recent years, Castaneda has transformed the nature of how his instrument is played. He's also turned it into a viable, welcome sound in the world of Latin jazz. He thanks God for that.
"I never planned to follow this path," Castaneda said. "I know it's a gift from God to play the harp, and I know he has a plan for all this… I think this is only the beginning, and I think it's God's plan. I think something great is coming."
On Saturday, Sept. 20, the 36-year-old virtuoso gets to show off his skills at Yale University's Sprague Hall, where he'll be joined by his longtime trio members Marshall Gilkes (trombone) and Dave Silliman (drums). Castaneda's wife, vocalist Andrea Tierra, will also make an appearance.
If you aren't watching Castaneda in action, you might think you're listening to an ensemble rather than a solo player. His left hand pops and slaps the strings, dancing across minor-key ostinatos, while his right hand arpeggiates chords and invents spontaneous micro-melodies. Between both hands, you hear the overlapping polyrhythms of joropo, a complex, triple-meter dance from South America.
"I learned a little about the tradition of the harp in Colombia," Castaneda said. "When I got to this country I never followed any harpists. I was listening to pianos and everything. I never guided my studies with harpists." That led to a wholly original sound and style. "I created a way to play the basslines, to play three or four instruments at the same time."
At 13, Castaneda was already an accomplished trumpet player when he started playing Colombian folk songs on the harp. After relocating to New York at 16, Castaneda used his trumpet studies to learn how to play jazz, eventually earning a bachelor's degree from Five Towns College on Long Island.
But the harp beckoned. "When I got to New York I started studying jazz and all that," Castaneda said. "I wanted to play that on the harp, so I started to adapt the music, and everything came from that… I wanted to learn and feel the language of jazz, and they didn't have that for harp."
Castaneda's most recent album, 2012's "Double Portion," is a collection of solo and duo performances on classical and Colombian harps, with Brazilian mandolin player Hamilton de Holanda, Puerto Rican alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón and Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Before the end of the year, Castaneda hopes to return to the studio with his trio, who joined him on "Entre Cuerdas," a 2009 recording that also featured Tierra, guitarist John Scofield, vibes player Joe Locke and Samuel Torres on cajon.
Castaneda's style, ironically, was forged not only by the harp's promise but also its limitations: traditional Colombian harps are diatonic, meaning sharps and flats are hard to play without some sort of wizardry. You can bend strings or devise other coping strategies, but you're mostly out of luck.
Recently, Castaneda teamed up with French harp-builder Camac to develop a lever version of the Colombian harp, which allows the player to play chromatic tones and switch keys more easily (it's similar to a Western concert harp). "Now you can just move the lever up and you're in a different key," he said. "It came out really good, and I think it will be an advantage for the harp."
But even with pedals, "the harp is very limited," Castaneda said. "That's good, because it forces you to find other ways. If I had all the notes, maybe I wouldn't be able to do all this. I've had to force myself to create something new. Both with and without levers, it's been a process of always trying to challenge myself."
EDMAR CASTANEDA TRIO performs on Saturday, Sept. 20, at Sprague Hall in New Haven. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets are $25-$35. Information: yale.edu.