Celso Duarte: Son of the South

Music Features Celso Duarte
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Celso Duarte: Son of the South

Hometown: Curenavaca, Mexico
Album: De Sur a Sur
For fans of: Gipsy Kings, Adreas Vollenweider, Joanna Newsom 

For Paraguayan-born, Mexican-raised harpist and violinist Celso Duarte, music is the family business. And business has never been better.

Duarte’s father—Celso Duarte González—is a renowned Paraguayan harpist and music instructor who taught the younger Celso to play. Duarte’s mother is a classical pianist and singer. And his two brothers and sister are also professionally involved in music. Some of his earliest memories are of playing with the family band, Los Duarte, on tour in Japan, the U.S. and South America when he was just 10 years old. “The whole family played harp and other stringed folk instruments,” Duarte says. “When we grew up a bit, we studied classical music, too, but my specialty remains the harp—that baroque influence from Veracruz as well as Colombian harp, Irish and Celtic harp. I still love that music.”

After further study at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico’s prestigious National School of Music, the virtuoso accompanied singers ranging from Placido Domingo, Olivia Molina and Julieta Venegas (the two collaborated on the soundtrack to the Oscar-nominated film Maria Full of Grace) to Mexican roots heroine Lila Downs. But despite making a solid living and terrific reputation for himself, Duarte pursued a solo career playing Son Jarocho, a traditional Veracruz fusion of Spanish, Huastecan and African musical elements in which the harp serves as a primary instrument. The best-known example of the style is “La Bamba,” the 300-year-old melody Ritchie Valens set to a rock beat and popularized back in 1958. Duarte’s latest album, De Sur a Sur (“From South to South”), is the modern manifestation of Son Jarocho’s characteristic style—amazingly nimble harp lines played at blazing speeds (“Apolonita”) while occasionally backed by traditional female folk singing (“Cascabel”). It’s an intoxicating mixture, and entirely different from other regional folk-music styles better known to North American audiences.

“I am trying to make a new type of folk music for Mexico,” Duarte says. “When most people think of our music, usually they think ‘mariachi’ because it’s the most famous—what you hear in tourist restaurants and bars. I’d like to see another style of popular folk music come from this country.”