History of Latin American Harps HISTORY OF LATIN AMERICAN HARPS
by Alfredo Rolando Ortiz

I am most grateful to have received Dr. Ortiz’ permission to condense and sometimes rearrange the information from the history section of his book “Latin American Harps, History, Music and Techniques”, Third Edition 1991, and to use several photographs from it. For more detailed descriptions of the types of music played, lists of harpists, instruction on playing the Paraguayan harp and printed pieces, please refer to the book itself. – Joyce Rice


Alfredo with a 2008 Vancouver BC harp class and his Paraguayan harp by  famed Paraguayan harp maker Lino Ruiz Diaz

 “I will never forget when I arrived in Venezuela as an eleven-year-old boy. I was Cuban by birth, used to flat lands or very small hills, and approaching by ship the coast near Caracas, with my eyes fixed on the huge mountains which seemed to grow out of the sea, was a marvelous visual experience. Soon after my arrival I was exposed to another unforgettable experience, this time an auditory one: on the radio, beautiful melodies with a lively rhythm and a completely new sound for me…I was just in love with that music from the first moment. What instrument was that? It took only the first music show I saw on television to find the answer: in Venezuela, harp music is the most popular and beloved national music.”  Alfredo Rolando Ortiz.

The most famous Venezuelan singers at the time (1958) were accompanied by the “conjuntos llaneros” (folk music groups from the plains). Harpists appeared frequently on television playing traditional melodies like Seis por Derecho [included in Dr. Ortiz’ book], Kirpa, Pajarillo…and an elegant harpist, Juan Vicente Torrealba, always wearing his hat, often played his own beautiful compositions.

“In my school, every time there was a talent show several boys would play the harp. One day in December of 1961, I asked one of them to teach me. His name was Fernando and I think he was 13 years old at the time. He became my first teacher.”

 In all the Spanish-speaking countries in South America and in southern Brazil, the harp has been present as a folk instrument since the missionaries introduced them centuries ago, but until the 1970s, the worlds of classical (pedal) and Celtic harp were growing with very little awareness of the Latin American family of harps and their marvelous repertoire. In 1976 I was invited to perform and lecture at the national conference of the American Harp Society. There was great interest in our music that has been growing more and more since then. By now I have performed around the world, exposing thousands of harp players to our music, and other Latin American harpists are now doing the same .


 It is logical to assume a) that harps came to America not all at once, but in considerable number during the 16th – 18th centuries of conquest and colonization, and b) that as there had been no standardization of harp making in Spain, there were probably as many harp designs as there were harp makers, and that the present day Latin American harps have evolved from those Spanish harps.

 In the 14th century, minstrels were frequently exchanged between European courts. While Spanish minstrels traveled to other places, so male and female minstrels from France, England and Italy went to Spain.  In the kingdom of Aragón, Juan I (1387-1396) had at least five minstrels. Large and small harps with single and two parallel ranks of strings, carved, with inlay work, marquetry, paintings, ivory or metal tuning keys, wooden or leather cases, etc., are documented in Spain during the 14th and 15th centuries.

In the 15th century, while the courts continued hiring musicians, instrument makers and musicians became more independent and self-employed, working among the middle class. Some 16th and 17th century Spanish paintings show the diatonic instruments in detail. One example, reproduced in Roslyn Rensch’s book “The Harp”, is the painting Adoration of the Shepherds by Zurbarán, which shows a sound-box similar to that of a Paraguayan harp. Beginning in the early 1500s and during the next centuries, Spanish harpists came to America. I assume that it was the diatonic harp that frequently came [with them] because I have not found any mention of the “double harp” in Latin America. Spanish harpist “Maestre Pedro Valenciano” was in the northern coastal region of Mexico around 1520. In 1526 harpist Martín Niño arrived with the expedition of Sebastián Caboto to the area where Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay are located today. Harpists are also documented in Bogotá and Lima.

 In several of the countries where the harp is important today, documented chronicles credit Catholic priests for teaching native Indians to play and make instruments. “The Indians built very good musical instruments, among them trumpets, clarinets, harps…” (Jesuit Father Sepp in 1692). At the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767, one hundred harps were found at the Paraguayan Missions among the instruments inventoried.

 There is much documentation to follow the presence of the harp through Latin America, such as ads for lessons, writings, colonial paintings and sculptures, even in countries such as Cuba where the harp did not remain a popular instrument.




Today a particular type of Mexican harp is the one that has capitalized all the attention of that country and influenced other regions. This is the harp from Veracruz. Once popular all over the country, the harp seems to have survived in only a few areas like Michoacán and Jalisco, southern Veracruz, and the highlands of Chiapas (where it is used by the Chamula Indians) but is increasingly found in Mexico City, Tijuana and Southern California. The Veracruz harp, called arpa jarocha, has its sound holes located in the back of the sound box, while all other Mexican harps have sound holes in the front. In Michoacán the harps have a large sound box and while the harpist plays, another performer uses the sound-board like a drum. The Chamula Indians’ harps are of small size and are built “without the mid-range strings”: the instruments have two groups of strings (bass and high) with a wide empty space in the middle section.


My first training on any harp was on the arpa llanera, indigenous to the Venezuelan plains. After a year of intensive training I had my first encounter with a Paraguayan harp, and it seemed as if I were starting studies all over again. The strings were so close together and so taut that I felt very disoriented.



Venezuela has two types of harps, and the arpa llanera or arpa criolla is the more popular. Usually between five and five and a half feet tall, it has a slender sound box, a straight column, and a string arm or neck with a very mild curve, where the strings are tied to tuning pegs organized in two rows (as opposed to a single row as in other Latin American harps). It usually has three sound holes in the front of the sound-box (two on one side and one on the other of the strings). The instrument is designed to be played in the standing position, although many performers perform while sitting. It is found all over Venezuela and in the plains of the neighboring country of Colombia. Any record store will have a very large selection of harp music, both instrumental and songs accompanied by the harp.

The second type of harp, in the northern states of Aragua and Miranda, is called arpa aragüeña (harp from Aragua).

Not long after my arrival in Venezuela, while walking in the streets of Maracay (State of Aragua), I heard this music coming from a home. Looking through the open door I saw a man sitting, playing on a harp with metal strings. (Bass strings are usually made of gut or nylon.) He was wearing what looked like cymbals with artificial metallic nails, and played at an incredible speed a very long piece that changed and changed and kept on going. (Most players use their own fingernails.) Another man was playing the maracas and singing with a nasal voice which reminded me of the way “flamenco” music is sung. This instrument had a much larger sound box than the arpa llanera. This was the arpa aragüeña with the typical accompaniment of just the singer/maraca player. I will never forget that fascinating moment of my childhood.

The traditional repertoire consists of a number of different song/dance types in 6/8 in the forms of joropo, the slower tonada, and pasajes  and golpes.  The arap llanera is accompanied by a small 4-string guitar, the cuatro, and maracas that play in accented 6/8 creating a complex syncopation with the harp and guitar. There are many other styles throughout the country. (See the article by ethnomusicologist Dr. Robert Garfias in the Folk Harp Journal of March 1979 for more information on this topic.)


   Alfredo Rolando Ortiz’ harp, made by Lino Ruiz Diaz

Paraguay is the land of the harp more than any other place in the world, and the harp is officially its national instrument. A person walking with a harp is a common sight in this country. There are several harp factories in the capital city of Asunción. The nearby town of Luque survives on instrument making, principally guitars and harps. Soccer teams, towns, social clubs and even political parties have harp melodies which identify them. On the road to the international airport harps are sold at about ten different shops. In what other place in the world can you see harps resting against the walls by the sidewalk, waiting for the tourists?

Construction  According to famed harp maker Lino Ruiz Diaz, it was a man named Pablo Ramírez who, several decades ago, designed what soon became the standard type of Paraguayan harp neck. It was built with two halves of laminated wood (usually laminated by the harp maker, not the available laminated commercial product). The strings came out from holes in the center of the lower side. The result was a symmetrical harp (ideal for left-handed harpists) with perfectly centralized pressures, allowing a very light construction not achieved in any other kind of harp. The modern Paraguayan harp is about 5 feet tall. A single sound hole is in the bottom piece of the sound box. Sometimes one or more sound holes are added to the back of the sound box. Its weight is usually between 7 and 12 pounds, and the sound is bright and powerful.

Strings  The usual number of strings is 36, but some have as many as 40. The string spacing is overall narrower that in other Latin American harps, but the spacing increases toward the lower range to allow more room for the fingers and the string vibrations. Traditionally the tuning pegs were made of hard wood, and today are of aluminum. Sometimes guitar-type mechanical tuning pegs are used.

Perhaps the growing popularity of the Paraguayan harp is endangering some other types of harps, at least in areas where the others were not too strongly established. For example, in Ecuador and Chile some harpists perform in their own style but on Paraguayan-type instruments. It is hard to say how much has changed or will change with the exposure to the Paraguayan harp design and technique. Paraguayan harps are now being made in Europe, the USA and other parts of the world. The marvelous sound of these instruments is even affecting the way some Celtic harp makers design their own instruments.

The harp traditions of Mexico, Venezuela, Paraguay and Chile share the basic Spanish harp technique and play music primarily in the rhythms of 6/8 either alternating or super-imposing subdivisions of 2 against 3. In spite of this basic stylistic similarity, the harp styles of each of these regions are distinct in flavor and each has its own repertoire. Many seem to employ local or regional variants of the old Spanish Fandango. Of all these styles, that of Venezuela must certainly be one of the most exciting and complex.





Peru’s music is unique in that, instead of the 6/8 rhythms, the huayno (or wayno) in 2/4 is the most common. The huayno is a pre-conquest Peruvian Indian dance which is still performed, now with the harp and other instruments. The Peruvian arpa indígena usually has a very large sound box with sound holes in the front in symmetrical pairs at both sides of the strings. Some instruments have elaborate ornamental carvings. In some areas of Cuzco, another harp called domingacha is popular and has a wooden “half-pear” shape sound box, thought to be a wooden version of the cuca-arpa, a small harp with the sound box made from a large gourd.

 Some arpas indígenas have a hook carved in the top of the neck which allows the instrument to hang upside down, resting on a sling. During some religious and Indian festivities, the harpists play them in this position while walking.


Some of the instruments are large while in some areas small harps are more popular. Some have simple construction details, others are beautifully carved. The sound holes are usually three: two in one side and one in the other, as in Venezuela. Instruments with a Paraguayan-style double neck, but with an Indian head carved in the top like some of the traditional harps, are now being made.


There is considerable evidence of harps being used in Chile in the past centuries [see also the Folk Harp Journal Fall 2006 issue] as in neighboring countries, and harps continue being made and played in Chile. But today most Chilean harps are made after the Paraguayan type or are imported from Paraguay. It is the main accompaniment instrument of many folk groups from Chile, and the Chilean style is spectacular with loud glissandi and short two-hand fast arpeggios.

Common Features among the Different Latin American Harps

Performance  The harp is placed against the right shoulder. The right hand plays the melody while the left plays the bass section (usually “Alberti” type of bass patterns).  The use of fingernails on the right hand is a general practice. The left hand sometimes plays with the fingertips only and at other times with the fingernails.  (Left-handed harpists frequently play with the harp on the left shoulder and reverse the hands.)

Construction  Besides the obvious differences in shape and size among the different Latin American harps, a great number of construction details are quite different. Materials are not standardized and availability determines the wood to be used. Only some of the best makers have standardized this aspect, especially in Paraguay, but there are differences from maker to maker in the choice of woods for some parts of the instrument. “Spanish cedar” is the most used wood for our harps. The number of strings is usually between 32 and 36.

Strings  While gut was the most common material in the past, the strings used today by most harpists are made of nylon. For the thick bass strings many use gut, but also specifically torched nylon strings are used, particularly in Paraguay. Metallic strings, used in the past, are common today only on one type of Venezuelan harp, in some regions of Mexico and in the Andes.

Tuning  Tuning is diatonic, using major or natural minor scales. The use of colored strings for some notes is very recent and not yet standardized. In Paraguay two notes are colored, usually red F and blue C, but other systems exist including a recent attempt to adopt the use of red C and blue F as in the modern pedal [and lever] harps.

 Making accidentals  Temporary modulations within a composition can be made by the harpist’s use of pressure on the string close to the tuning peg to alter the pitch one-half step, a technique also used by the harpists of Burma. Isabel Aretz mentions that in Argentina, some harpists change the tuning of only some strings in different sections of the instrument in order to play melodies that would otherwise be outside the diatonic range of the instrument. (Many harpists in other countries and traditions also use this system.)

[Some harpists press near the soundboard, either with fingers or with a tuning key. Australian Paraguayan-harp maker Robert Hart writes: Paraguayan harp players often wear rings (specially designed with a protrusion) to make accidental notes, e.g., F# during a tune. (See one at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eOpq_SUjP7U.) Some Paraguayan harps have little wooden pegs on the string bar (center strip on the soundboard) to push the string against to temporarily sharpen the note. Most Paraguayans and other Latin harp players have a different attitude to music to us impatient westerners. They do not need to change key so much and often have guitars and singers playing with them to carry accidental notes. Also there is rarely any problem waiting for the harp to be retuned.

Recently western makers of Paraguayan harps have been putting levers on Paraguayan harps, but there is a disadvantage. The brilliant warm sound unique to the Paraguayan harp relies on a very light-weight harp. Levers add weight and also suck sound out of the strings when they are in use.  (www.harpsatsang.com)] 


(In 2009 Dr. Ortiz adds: There are now many harps that are being modified with levers. In Mexico you may see a full set or just a couple of levers.)

Standing or sitting? While the arpa llanera is of a large size so that it can be played standing, the Paraguayan instrument is much smaller and is comfortably played in a sitting position or standing, with the instrument on a stool. When the harpist is at home or plays solo, the sitting position is the most usual. In a working situation within a conjunto (usually a trio or quartet where the others play guitars and sing) the standing position is more popular. In this case, due to the size of the Paraguayan harp the harpist places the instrument on a chair or uses specially made extender legs.

Latin American harpists learn by ear and not by musical notation. Free style is another characteristic in some areas and each harpist will often have his or her own arrangement of every piece instead of copying exactly from that of another.

An interesting feature, perhaps unexpected by harpists in other countries, is the fact that most Latin American harpists are men.

The variety of music styles associated with the Latin American harps is growing: “Classical repertoire with Latin roots” for the Paraguayan (or any) harp has been created and recorded by the author of this book. “Jazz” with a wide variety of influences has been recorded in the USA on arpa paraguaya by Carlos Reyes (b. Paraguay) and Roberto Perera (b. Uruguay) and on Venezuelan arpa llanera by Carlos Guedes (b. Venezuela.)

 Enjoy the music!



Alfredo Rolando Ortiz plays Merengue Rojo


 Today Paraguayan-style harp music is found and appreciated around the world. Music and CDs are readily available in European music stores. Japan, where Lucia Shiomitsu and the late Hirohiko Honda have taught hundreds, has many players and holds competitions.  The Shah of Iran used to hire a trio of Paraguayan harpists for major events.

If you are interested in locating a player in the Paraguayan style, check with your local consulate for Mexico, Paraguay, Venezuela and Colombia.

A few current players in South and North America are:

  • Alberto de la Rosa, Veracruz, Mexico

  • Maricela Gonzales, Caracas, Venezuela

  • Mercedes Gómez, Mexico City

  • Fernando Guerrero, Venezuela

  • Ernesto Franco (Paraguay), Palm Springs, California

  • Cesar Daniel Lopez (Paraguay), Palm Springs, California

  • Carlos Reyes (Paraguay), Bay Area, California

  • Silvio Solis, New York

  • Jose Luis Rodriguez (Puerto Rico), New York City

  • Mariano Gonzales (Paraguay), Las Vegas

  • Roberto Perera (Uruguay), Miami, Florida

  • Pavelid Castañeda (Colombia), Florida

  • Edmar Castañeda (Colombia), New York

  • Rene Devia (Colombia), San Antonio, Texas

  • Carlos Guedes (Venezuela), Dallas, Texas

  • Lorenzo Gonzalez (Paraguay), Dallas, Texas

  • Santiago Maldonado (Mexico), Southern California

  • Arturo Gerst (Mexico), Southern California

  • Fermin Herrera, Southern California


For more information on this topic, see The Indispensable Harp: Historical Development, Modern Roles, Configurations, and Performance Practices in Ecuador and Latin America by John Mendell Schecter, 1992. You can preview many pages at Google books.

[To author biography]            [Back to top of page]

Home | What is a harp?
Historical Harp | Folk and World Harp | Pedal Harp |
Harp Building | Harp Works | Non-Harps |
Camps & Concerts | Links | Glossary |
Donate! | Get Involved! | Contact Us | About Harp Spectrum

Copyright 2002 - 2017, Harp Spectrum All Rights Reserved