By presenting acclaimed Colombian harpist Pavelid Castañeda in the waning days of 2013, the Casbah's announced close of its venue as a music club becomes even more sad and incomprehensible. While none of us are privy to the owners' financial situation, will re-opening as a game bar and killing all music really enhance their pocketbooks? For the past three years the Casbah has anchored downtown Durham's burgeoning music scene – inclusive of all genres and varying levels of fame of the musicians. To think that this jewel will now become just another generic bar with pool and foosball tables is, at the very least, disheartening to the Triangle music community.
There is one word that can best describe this evening's celebration, gathering, and music: Family. This was billed as a CD release party for "Fiesta en Naranjal," the latest creation by Castañeda, which pays homage to Naranjal, the region in Colombia where he grew up and where his musical heritage originates. Recognizing that his career and musical sensibilities are indelibly intertwined with his family, the Casbah was flowing with his extended relatives of all ages, as well as those playing in his band. At times, outsiders like me may even have felt like wedding crashers, although nothing was overtly done to cause that.
Presented by the Triangle organization Friends of World Music, among other things this concert showed the hidden musical treasures not only performing but also living in our own backyard. After living in New York City for about a decade, Pavelid and Gladys Castañeda moved to Chapel Hill. Remaining behind in the big apple was their son Edmar Castañeda, who at this point appears to have even surpassed his old man's fame and influence on the jazz/folk harp and who made a special appearance with the band at this show, playing here the cuatro, a small four string guitar. In fact, all of his children were on the bandstand: Pavelid Castañeda, Jr., on guiro and maracas, and daughter Johanna, singing a few tunes.
The posted 8:00 p.m. start time had long passed as 8:45 arrived and there still seemed to be a lot of coming and going across the backstage curtain. As several patrons remarked, starting times are just a fleeting suggestion in their culture, so no one appeared to be surprised, concerned, or impatient. The eight person band then walked onto the stage, crammed with instruments, but first we heard a welcome speech from an unidentified elderly man – all in Spanish. Pavelid Castañeda, Jr. – a 2008 graduate of Duke University, where he was a star soccer player – served as translator for this and everything his father said to the audience the entire evening. Of the eight players, four were percussionists, highlighting the predominance that rhythm plays in Latin American music.
Castañeda, the elder, played his harp standing up throughout. The instrument itself is a bit smaller than an orchestral grand harp but much larger than folk Irish harps. There are no pedals on this instrument, but it appears that the string lengths can be adjusted through clips where the strings attach to the frame. The music is highly energetic and rhythmically propulsive, even in several songs where it started out slowly and lyrically. Tim Smith on saxophones and flute provided a nice opposition to the four rhythm players and Peter Kimosh on electric bass.
As mentioned earlier, songs of family and homeland that cross generations are pretty much what this new album and this concert are all about. From stories of the initial meeting of Pavelid Castañeda's parents to songs about his grandchildren, it became clear that music and family are perhaps indistinguishable. Especially poignant was "Song for Fahir" which memorializes a young son who died from cancer. But even there, the sadness lasts only briefly and then the joyous rhythm kicks in as a celebration rather than a tragedy.
By the time the concert ended, mothers with sleeping children in their arms and only slightly older kids sleepily slumped in chairs were spread all over the Casbah. What a wonderful picture and feeling as this celebration of family and music wound down. In a few weeks a "game bar" will replace what are possibly the two greatest attributes of being human.