How I found the piano music of Colombia...

Sarah Vanegas is bringing a treasury of Colombian piano music to life after recovering the scores from an archive in the country’s capitol of Bogota. The spirited dance music including traditional Pasillos and Bambucos are a unique and alluring glimpse into Colombian culture of the early 20th century.

Vanegas uncovered the piano music while on Christmas vacation visiting her husband’s family in Bogota, Colombia, 2006. Years earlier, she had been enchanted by a Colombian piano recording that she received from a Latin American piano expert, Frank French. There was a mystery surrounding the recording; who was the master pianist, what was this music, when was it written, who wrote it? Vanegas attempted some preliminary internet searches, but found it elusive-- one of the few topics left not easily accessible online. So, while in Colombia, she decided to dig up some answers.

Bogota, a city of 10 million people, can be a daunting place for an American tourist. Yet treading the heels of her husband, who grew up in the city, Vanegas began her search in the public library’s small music room on the first floor. The Vanegas’ were interested in books, articles, tidbits and recordings but mostly names of musicians, personal contacts and the ultimate treasure: sheet music. What ensued was a five day trek across Bogota like ping pong balls from one dusty clue to another until they struck upon a large but ailing collection of sheet music, some long ago out of print, at the high-security National Library. 

After being granted a badge to enter the National Library, founded in 1777, Vanegas climbed the stone steps up to the fourth floor accompanied by a guard. Once arriving at el centro de documentacion musical, she continued her search. When she saw the old tissue crinkly paper manuscripts, some with handwritten music scores, she instantly recognized their importance. To her, they were not merely some historical document, but contained life, a voice from the past. It equaled finding some unpublished, works by J.S. Bach or other classical master in a yellowed box. She photocopied those that were allowed to leave the confines of the library. As keepers of their nations historic documents, the library staff is extremely careful about protecting their collection. Unfortunately, much of this music can be found nowhere else in the world, and is literally turning to dust on the shelves. 

Vanegas sailed out of the library into the bustling streets of Bogota and did not pry her fingers from the photocopies until safely back at her piano in the U.S. 

Luis Antonio Calvo (1882-1945) along with Pedro Morales Pino (1863-1926) and Emilio Murillo (1880-1942) are credited with the creation of popular Colombian piano music. These musical masters gave voice to an intense nationalistic movement in Colombia at the start of the 20th century. Rather than describe events, their music expresses emotion; "Calvo's pieces are not descriptive, they are evocative" (Ellie Anne Duque, Professor of music at the Universidad Nacional in Bogotá). They swell with passion, dance and soul that offers a peek inside the window of Colombian households of the time period. Murillo's Rumichaca seems to particularly embody the uniqueness of this music.

Pasillos and Bambucos are typical forms of Colombian folk music. The bambuco's deep roots are spread throughout many regions and originated from an instrument fashioned from a bamboo tube, apparently introduced by Africans on the northern coast. The pasillo evolved from the European waltz, merging the Colombian melodies with a quick dance tempo perceived more fit for higher society members than the bambuco.

A few notes about the life of Luis Calvo lend perspective to his music. With humble beginnings and little formal training, Calvo was establishing his career and popularity when he was tragically interrupted by a diagnosis of leprosy. He composed many of his more than eighty works for piano from the leper colony, Agua de Dios. A salient feature of his pieces is the pairing of seemingly dissimilar melodies and rhythms. For this reason, the notation alone is often limited in it's ability to translate the true potential of Calvo's creativity. It is in the interpretation that his music comes to life and to that Vanegas credits the recordings of Oriol Rangel (1916-1977), a tremendous Colombian pianist.