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The Paraguayan Harp and Its Music

By Alfredo Colman Published by: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings (Note: From the booklet of the CD "Maiteí América: Harps of Paraguay")

The Paraguayan harp is a cultural emblem, which represents not only the nation of Paraguay and its traditional music, but also the ideals that contribute to a collective notion of paraguayidad—Paraguayanness. It is a touchstone for Paraguayans’ pride in their national territory, collective historical memory, Guaraní-Spanish bilingual reality, landmarks of the natural environment, and rich legacy of folk traditions. The melodies, harmonies, rhythms, lyrics, and even song titles associated with it evoke in Paraguayan listeners notions of self-identity and sentiments of endearment for the heritage and values that constitute their paraguayidad.

Rooted in a centuries-old colonial past, the harp’s identity as a repository of Paraguayan culture at the local, regional, and international levels issues from 20th-century historical and social developments. The most notable of these include the successful musical career of Paraguayan harpist Félix Pérez Cardozo, who rose to international renown between the 1930s and the mid-1940s; the creation of Paraguayan folk-music ensembles (conjuntos) between the 1940s and the 1980s and the tours these groups made in Latin America, Europe, North Africa, and Asia; the creation and promotion of traditional music festivals in Paraguay since the 1960s; the systematic instruction of the instrument in conservatories, schools, and private lessons; the promotion of the harp and Paraguayan traditional music through recordings and radio and television broadcasts; and the enormously favorable international reception of the image, sound, and virtuosity of the instrument. All these developments contributed to the standing of the Paraguayan harp as one of the most renowned and iconic of Latin American folk-music traditions. Today, hundreds of professional Paraguayan harpists regularly perform in countries throughout the Americas, Europe, Japan, and beyond, and thousands of non-Paraguayans have taken up the instrument and its music. The five harpists heard on this recording—Nicolás Caballero, Kike Pedersen, Martín Portillo, Marcelo Rojas, and Miguel Ángel Valdez—represent several generations of Paraguay’s leading harpists as they display a deep grounding in Paraguayan tradition and virtuosic creativity.


Present-day Paraguayan harps are local adaptations of the instruments brought from Europe by Jesuit missionaries during the 17th and 18th centuries. The earliest references to the presence of the harp in Paraguay date back to the 16th century: Martín Niño, one of Spanish explorer Pilot Sebastián Gaboto’s crewmen, was a harpist (Cardozo Ocampo 1972:237), and in a 1590 account, Hernando Suárez de Mejía describes the auction of a harp in the Río de la Plata region (Furlong 1945:131). The diatonic harp (diatonic means ‘tuned to a simple, nonchromatic scale, like the white keys of a piano’) and several other transplanted European instruments were associated with the accompaniment of liturgical singing in Jesuit missions, where the harp primarily functioned as a continuo instrument (Ayestarán 1953:15; Nawrot 2000:45; Stevenson 1959:204), filling in the harmonies that accompany the main melody. Music became a useful tool in evangelizing the natives. In 1618, four European Jesuit musicians—Pietro Comentali (1591–1664) from Naples, Claude Royer (1582–1648) from France, Jean Vaisseau (1583–1623) from Tournai, and Louis Berger (1587–1639) from Belgium—sailed to the New World in response to a petition for music teachers made by the provincial superior of the Jesuit order. They were later joined by Anton Sepp von Reinegg (1655–1733), from Kaltern, in Tirol. Among multiple accomplishments in the New World, Father Sepp established a music school and instrumental workshop in the town of Yapeyú (in the region of present-day northeastern Argentina), built the first pipe organ in the Jesuit missions, and introduced the double harp (arpa doppia) to the region. After the expulsion of the Jesuits in the third quarter of the 18th century, some mission Indians kept their learned professions and gathered in towns, contributing to the colonial mestizaje—cultural and biological mixing—that resulted in the Paraguayan people of today. Some of these educated Guaraní Indians decided to work in colonial towns as artisans, blacksmiths, carpenters, and instrument makers; others returned to their ancestral habitats.

Aside from the national capital, Asunción, most cities and towns were established in the Eastern Region (Región Oriental) of Paraguay, where fertile soil eased the development of agriculture and cattle herding. Although some documented references indicate the presence and use of the harp in the Río de la Plata area during the 18th and 19th centuries, very little information sheds light on harp luthiers or harp construction techniques. From the last quarter of the 19th century, a period of restoration in the wake of the Triple Alliance War (1865–1870), through the middle of the 20th century, the Guairá area, located in the central portion of the Región Oriental, produced many artists, intellectuals, luthiers, and musicians (Franco Preda: 1972). Among these were performer and composer Félix Pérez Cardozo (1908–1952), the first Paraguayan harpist to gain local and regional recognition, and Epifanio López (1912–2001), a luthier who established the first guitar and harp workshop in Asunción. Typically, these musicians, composers, and instrument makers acquired and passed on their knowledge and skills by oral tradition.

Performance Techniques

The Paraguayan diatonic harp serves as a melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic instrument. Its primary function is to provide a harmonic and rhythmic foundation to conjunto music, but short melodic passages—usually harmonized in thirds or sixths—may ornament or interact with vocal lines by imitation, juxtaposition, or the introduction of new material. When the harp is featured as a solo instrument, it is often accompanied by one or two guitars—and in today’s recordings, by an electric or acoustic bass. (Acoustic string bass is utilized on this recording.) This accompanying ensemble affords the harpist the freedom to perform virtuosic passages using both hands, without having to provide a harmonic or rhythmic foundation. Overall, no rigid performance guidelines prescribe what harpists must or must not do. When it comes to technique or playing style, Paraguayan harp players may be extremely inventive: they often observe and borrow ideas from one another.

Most Paraguayan harpists play both melody and accompaniment, using a combination of the pads of the fingers and the fingernails. When the right hand plays melodic passages, the left hand usually accompanies with broken chords. The right hand typically plays the melody in octaves and harmonizes it by adding intervals of thirds or sixths, or a combination of thirds and sixths within the octave. Occasionally, the right hand will play chords, either as a bridge between melodic sections, or as an accompaniment when a singer or another instrument is involved. A unique feature of right-hand technique is the tremolo (trino, trémulo), which uses a continuous back-and-forth motion of the fingers against the strings. Usually the tremolo is performed in parallel thirds with the fingernails, producing a seemingly sustained sound that is rapid and constant. Although the left hand generally provides accompaniment by playing broken chords in octaves, the thumb of the left hand quickly at times returns to the strings, emphasizing the bass line and producing a punctuated staccato effect. This trait of Paraguayan harp music is known as bordoneado, and it results in a type of energetic “walking bass,” where the bordonas and bordonillas (bass strings) are located. To achieve this effect, the thumb remains parallel to the other fingers and to the palm, which faces the strings. Then the thumb is placed between two strings, with all the fingers serving as an anchor for the hand by making contact with the other strings. As the thumb “walks” up or down the strings punctuating the bass line, the palm works in conjunction, producing a quick and consistent rhythmic muting after each thumbstroke. Another salient feature unique to the Paraguayan harp-playing tradition is the ornamentation of the melody through the use of long glissando patterns, frequently employed irrespective of the speed of the piece. In many cases, particularly those involving the use of melodic repetition, the performer will play entire sections accentuating the melodic line with glissandi. Sometimes, ascending or descending short glissandi are used to embellish a melodic passage—in which case, the harpist may decide to use the muting technique.


At the heart of Paraguayan harp repertoire are polcas paraguayas and guaranias, genres within the body of musical expressions in Paraguay. When accompanying singing, the harpist plays steady harmonic and rhythmic patterns, and has occasional melodic interactions with the vocal or instrumental lines. Other musical genres in which the combination of harp and guitar play an essential accompaniment role are the compuesto, the rasguido doble, and the vals (or valseado). In addition to the polca and the guarania, Paraguayan harpists since the 1940s have expanded their repertoire to include traditional songs from Latin America and internationally recognized popular and classical compositions. Commonly called música internacional, this music consists of compositions borrowed and adapted to fit the technical capabilities and stylistic conventions of the instrument. This recording focuses on the two core traditional musical genres, the polca and the guarania.

Perhaps the best-known and most cultivated of all musical forms in Paraguay is the polca, a song and dance in compound duple (6/8) meter, characterized by a lively rhythmic drive. Its name derives from the Bohemian polka, which became popular in Paraguay and the continent during the second half of the 19th century; however, apart from its name, the Paraguayan polca is sharply distinct from the dance of European origin. Its melodic phrases are short and highly syncopated, usually connecting the last beat of one measure with the first of the next. In general, tonal harmonies in parallel thirds or sixths, frequently following a I–V–I–IV–I–V–I harmonic sequence, accompany the melodic line. Bolstering the steady rhythmic propulsion characteristic of the Paraguayan polca is an accompaniment pattern typically consisting of broken chords in the bass with the support of strumming patterns (guitar) and/or arpeggiated chords (harp).

The guarania is a vocal and instrumental urban musical genre created by composer José Asunción Flores (1904–1972). It shares similar melodic and harmonic features with the polca, but the slowness of its tempo offers the possibility of creating longer musical phrases and variations in melodic accentuation and syncopation. Originally conceived as an instrumental genre, it quickly became known as a songform. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, other Latin American musical genres and styles, such as the bolero and the bossa nova, influenced its harmonic language and vocal performance. Nowadays, Paraguayan harp is the instrument par excellence for the musical accompaniment of guaranias. Its melodic and harmonic capabilities provide ample possibilities of playing delicately while accompanying a vocal soloist or improvising during introductory musical passages and interludes. Since harpist Luis Bordón’s arrangement of India for his 1959 Harpa Paraguáia recording, instrumental versions of guaranias showcasing the harp as a solo instrument have been featured regularly in folk-music festivals, recitals, and recordings.

In general, Paraguayan traditional music shares three traits of the musical traditions found in other Latin American countries: a primarily diatonic harmonic vocabulary, the use of short melodic phrases, and improvised harmonies in parallel thirds or sixths. A feature distinctive of Paraguayan traditional music is the rhythmic syncopation frequently found between the last beat of a measure and the first beat of the following, in which the melody anticipates the beat, creating a sense of forward motion. Most traditional compositions use 6/8 (compound duple) meter with sesquiáltera or hemiola rhythms.The sesquiáltera rhythm results in an aural ambivalence felt by the listener when the performer combines duple and triple groupings of rhythmic pulses. An interesting rhythmic effect common to Paraguayan traditional music include the rapid exchange between compound duple (6/8) or simple duple (2/4) meter and triple (3/4) meter, as well as a more sparingly used pattern, consisting of the pairing of eight beats (two groups of four, known as cuatrillos) against the six beats of the 6/8 compound duple meter. In regard to form, traditional compositions tend to be songs, which typically consist of several stanzas and a refrain. Either a short instrumental introduction and a bridge or recurrent instrumental interludes are performed before and between stanzas. Regardless of the rhythmic energy and pace of a song, compositions in the old performance tradition frequently ended with a rallentando-like effect, in which the harp and the guitar emphasize the tonic area by playing ascending broken chords at a slow tempo in three or more octaves—a practice that most contemporary performers have opted to replace with a fast and vivacious ending, borrowed from the Argentine tango.


by: Carlos Raúl González Alborno
Por Carlos Raul Gonzáles Alborno

(Note: This article was published by the Folk Harp Journal No.59, page 27, winter l987) Used with authorization of, Carlos Raúl González Alborno and Bernardo Garcete Saldivar, #23 "The Paraguayan Harp"

It is good to remember the great contribution made by Jesuit priests in the Parana Basin. Among those priests, I would like to mention in chronological orden, a priest from Belgium named Juan Vaseo, a music master teacher from Rudolph II´s court, who came to the Paraguayan missions in 1610 and remained here until his death in 1623.

I must mention father Antonio Sepp, a very cultured man, who taught Guarani indians how to play the citara, organ, flute, trumpet, guitar and the harp. Father Sepp built, in the Candelaria region, the first Paraguayan organ. In Yapeyú he built the First Paraguayan harps now known throughout the world as the best sounding harp. The handcrafting was done with local wood entirely, copying the models brought from Europe. Father Sepp was a German missionary born in Tirol in 1655, and after missioning for 41 years he died in San Juan, in 1733 (No wonder a century and a half later in the same city of San Juan, Agustín Barrios Mangoré, the best Paraguayan guitar composer/player, was born and started his marvelous career).

That was how everything started for us, Paraguayan harpists. Since then the harp became the national instrument in Paraguay. Of course, the models changed year after year until the first half of our century, when the Paraguayan harp got its particular shape and design. I understand that it is the only harp with strings coming out from the middle of the neck. Félix Pérez Cardozo is responsible for this invention and for adding two more strings to the harp, now with 36 strings normally. Abel Sánchez Jiménez raised it to 38 strings and added little "taquitos"(wooden rods) to make sharps by pressing strings against them. He also built double-strung harps of 74 strings with naturals at one side and sharp notes at the other. Some harpists use 43 strings. Other harpists use special devices to produce sharps. Nicolás Caballero plays sharps by pressing the string at the right place with the metal tuning key and with a metal ring for fast chromatic scales. To play Paraguayan harps requires unique and specific techniques.

Paraguayan harps are tuned five halftones higher than classical harps thus having red strings as F note and blue strings as B flat. (Sometimes C). There still is controversy on this issue, but I think we should go back to the international set with red Cs and blue Fs.

Nowadays, different models by many makers are sent all over the world and I must say that the Paraguayan harp is probably the most widely used internationally by players from all over the world. It has loud shiny sound used by many Paraguayan groups "conjuntos" touring the world. I can name a lot of them, but this is probably a matter for other articles. The truth is that not only Paraguayans play the Paraguayan harp. Kings, princesses, famous actors, etc. have started learning to play it. We now have many Japanese, French, Dutch and German harpists who play professionally. One American harpist using a Paraguayan harp is Miss America 1985, Sharlene Wells, a beautiful girl from Utah who studied paraguayan harp since childhood and played and sang live for millions of viewers at the Miss America Beauty Pageant, and won the contest. Paraguayans really scored by having such a wonderful woman play our national instrument. We were very proud and we gave her a great reception when she came to Asunción shortly after she became Miss America. Harpists, singers, famous composers, authorities, friends, etc., cheered her at her arrival.

That´s all for now. I hope I can send you more articles in the near future about the Paraguayan harp, harpists, music, typical groups, and everything related to us.

For now, SO LONG and ROHAIHU

More about the Paraguayan Harp

The Paraguayan harp is the national instrument of the country of Paraguay. This instrument has several unique features that make it an outstanding harp.

The harp neck is designed so that the strings come from the center of the neck, eliminating the tendency for the neck to roll over to the left because of string tension.

Since the pillar and soundbox don't need to be extra strong to accommodate this unbalanced tension, the whole instrument weighs far less than a comparable Irish harp. The Paraguayan harp weighs just around 12 pounds if not equipped with sharping levers, and about 16 pounds with sharping levers.

The Paraguayan harp is lightly strung, and has the largest bass volume of all harps played today. The upper register is very bright. Contrary to popular belief, virtually any type of music can be played on this harp, especially if it has sharping levers.