The Musical World of Ernesto Cavour

26 Apr, 2018 | David Fegan


Photo: Ana Diaz

Inside the fertile mind of the Bolivian musician, inventor, author and investigator

Once described as ‘the best in the universe’ when it comes to Bolivia’s national-heritage instrument, Ernesto Cavour can be found playing his beloved charango and other musical creations at the Teatro del Charango in La Paz every Saturday night. I catch up with Cavour to discuss his colourful life, in which he’s succeeded in making his creative visions a beautiful musical reality.

Completely self-taught as a musician, Cavour cites ‘a strong and profound love and passion’ as one of his biggest motivations since he first picked up a charango as a boy in 1950s La Paz. His mother, who raised Cavour alone, didn’t want him to be a musician, ‘but I resisted and made promises,’ says Cavour.

This wasn’t his only professional obstacle, however. ‘I was completely timid as a young person,’ explains Cavour. ‘I was scared to get up to the microphone and play… I found it impossible to play in public, and when I did manage to, I’d start to stutter. My voice, my fingers... nothing responded, to the point that I would play almost paralysed.’


But with a successful career as a soloist as well as part of renowned groups such as Los Jairas and El Trío Dominguez, Favre, Cavour, how did he overcome this?

‘One day, a man who came to my house with my neighbour told me, “You play instruments well, why don’t you join the theatre?” And I said, “No, I’m too scared.” And he told me that I needed to socialise with music and art, that I couldn’t just play on my own. And that’s how I ended up joining the national ballet,’ says Cavour.

In this way, the future charango maestro was able to travel all over Bolivia performing for miners and workers, while at the same time experiencing the country’s timeless magic and beauty. ‘The time hadn’t passed, it had stayed in the same moment,’ Cavour reminisces, as he takes me back to the 1960s. ‘Bolivia was paradise in those days.’

‘There wasn’t anyone there to bother me or tell me “You can’t do that!” and there were already a lot of guitar necks. So I made the most of it and that’s how the guitarra muyu-muyu first came about.’

—Ernesto Cavour

It was also during these travels that he started collecting musical instruments of all kinds, a habit that would later influence his work as a museum curator, an investigator and an inventor of musical instruments. ‘I started to collect instruments because they were very cheap, around 15 bolivianos each,’ says Cavour, who appreciated the beauty and the natural, varied sounds of these instruments which were made in the countryside. ‘I saw vihuelas, guitars, charangos, and so many other instruments with different names,’ he continues. ‘There were flutes of all sizes, of every colour, and every material. There were incredible things that just aren’t around anymore.’

In 1962, Cavour founded the first incarnation of the Museo de Instrumentos Musicales de Bolivia in his house. The museum now resides in a beautiful and spacious colonial house on Calle Jaén in La Paz, where it is home to more than 2,500 musical instruments, including pre-Hispanic pieces. The building also houses the Teatro del Charango, an art gallery, a library, and a workshop, where music lessons are also offered.

During a brief tour of Europe in the late 1960s and early 1970s with Los Jairas and Alfredo Dominguez – pioneers of the criollo style – Cavour had the opportunity to develop his skills as an inventor of musical instruments. Inspired by what he observed in the workshops of the master luthier Isaac Rivas, Cavour was further encouraged to invent when he started writing his first music-theory books. ‘I started, for example, writing methods that would allow people to play the charango more easily… because there were no methods available then,’ he says. His first book, El ABC del Charango, was published in 1962, and ‘it was with these books that I started to create.’

In a large abandoned factory in Switzerland, Cavour experimented with instrument design. ‘There were machines there, at my disposition,’ explains Cavour. ‘There wasn’t anyone there to bother me or tell me, “You can’t do that!”, and there were already a lot of guitar necks. So I made the most of it and that’s how the guitarra muyu-muyu first came about. I then finished it when I returned to Bolivia.’ One of Cavour’s most successful musical inventions, the guitarra muyu-muyu has been popularised by the technical skill of colleague Franz Valverde who, along with esteemed quenista Rolando Encinas, accompanies Cavour each Saturday night at the Teatro del Charango concerts.


However, it is the two-row chromatic zampoña that Cavour is most proud of creating. ‘I searched around and figured out how to get all the tones in two rows,’ says Cavour. ‘Of course, it made things very simple. I played it [he hums the flute intro melody from his 1975 carnavalito classic ‘Leño Verde’] at Carnaval and it became famous… It was the departure for the zampoña to be used to make all kinds of rhythms.’

When I ask Cavour about the essence of his music, he is quick to point out that he doesn’t like to sing about women much, as there are so many degrading songs ‘about how [other artists] want to kiss them, their necks… bending them over… it insults women. What moves me more are customs, the earth and its foods,’ says Cavour, who laments that traditional Bolivian music has ‘stagnated’ in general, despite enduring in certain rural areas and with some contemporary musicians. ‘The way the world is advancing… [people] don’t want a huaynito,’ he says, referring to globalisation, consumerism and modern communication’s influence on popular tastes.

Despite this, Cavour has continually produced a lush banquet from the fruits of his passionate lifelong labours. I ask him what he hopes will happen with all this work in the future. ‘The museum still isn’t finished yet. I hope that in a year the museum is done. I have a few very important rooms in mind. It will enlighten the world about things that have happened, things that have been lost. Many tourists come here [to learn],’ says Cavour.

‘What moves me are customs, the earth and its foods.’

—Ernesto Cavour

One room Cavour has in mind will be dedicated to the natural origins of musical instruments. ‘Some things were created to be played as musical instruments,’ marvels Cavour, referring to any number of the naturally-formed instruments displayed in the museum. ‘I’m also working on a book [on musical instruments from around the globe] that will be important at world level. That’s what’s taking up my time.’

For more information:

The Teatro del Charango is located in the Museo de Instrumentos Musicales

Address: Calle Jaen #711, La Paz

Tel.: +591 22408177


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