Kappel Ovre: the strolling player

Anders Kappel Ovre has played his way from Scandinavia to the sun, performing and conducting anything from classical guitar music, to pan, parang and more...

Kappel Ovre with his students at St Joseph`s Convent, St Joseph, Trinidad. Photograph by Edison BoodoosinghKappel Ovre, his wife Elaine, and their two sons, Hans and Martin. Photograph by Edison Boodoosingh

Danish guitarist Anders Kappel Ovre’s fingers are nimble storytellers. He is playing Asturias from Albéniz’ Suite Espagnole, and without hesitation, they tell the tale of a city as an earthquake passes through, reaches its climax and then ends. It’s enchanting.

“I have always been attracted to string instruments, more than any other. Give me half an hour with a string instrument and I will make some music,” challenges Kappel Ovre.

(In Anders, the D is silent, so it’s pronounced Ann-uhs. Kappel rhymes with apple, and the closest English approximation to Ovre is “oven” without the N. “I don’t really think people can say the last part,” he says.)

Kappel Ovre’s claim about string instruments isn’t an exaggeration. In addition to the guitar, he plays the violin, cello, mandolin, cuatro and even the baroque lute. He was introduced to the guitar by his mother.

“She played a bit of guitar, so there was always a guitar at home. I guess I just started picking up.”

His first instrument, however, was the harmonica, then the recorder. He started playing the guitar at around eight, and settled on it as his major instrument in his early teens. After high school, he decided he wanted to study music, and so it was off to the Royal Academy of Music in Copenhagen, where he studied classical guitar.

“So my formal training is in classical guitar: that’s what I have paper for. But you only need a paper in music if you would like to be a teacher. Otherwise, you don’t need paper. Music is music.”

In his second year at the academy, he did a master class with Venezuelan guitarist Luis Zea, and was so impressed with his playing and teaching that he asked to become his pupil. Zea agreed, and two years later, after finishing his studies in Denmark, Kappel Ovre boarded a plane to Venezuela. He studied there for two years, learning and mastering Latin American and Spanish guitar music.
Shortly after that, he and a number of friends were performing at a private function in Trinidad when he first saw his wife, Elaine. “I invited him to a Lydians practice,” says Elaine, a former member of the Lydian Singers, a leading Trinidadian choral group. That was all it took. Kappel Ovre returned to Denmark to tie up a few loose ends and came back to Trinidad not long after. That was about 10 years ago. The couple now live in St Augustine with their two rambunctious sons, Hans and Martin.

The support he receives from his wife and children is important to his music.

“I’m not a media person,” explains Kappel Ovre; since arriving in Trinidad he’s done no more than three or four interviews. So he depends on his wife to organise posters and press releases for his various engagements throughout the year. During my short visit, she makes sure I get a copy of Kappel Ovre’s De la Boca del Serpiente (From the Serpent’s Mouth—a reference to the channel that divides northern Trinidad from Venezuela), invites me to an upcoming performance by his blues band and e-mails me several pictures of her husband performing.

The CD is a compilation of contemporary Venezuelan music on which Kappel Ovre’s guitar is accompanied by cuatro player Sylvester Ruiz. The tracks were recorded without dubbing or cuts, in order to “capture the spirit of the music and all the joys and sadnesses of music-making.”
Every August, the family tours Denmark, where Kappel Ovre is reunited with a Danish soprano from his school days for a series of concerts and recitals. The trip gives them a chance to reconnect with Kappel Ovre’s family. Kappel Ovre also seizes the opportunity to take part in as many cultural events as possible. The Danish people, Elaine explains, are very musical. “They are always writing songs for each other. Whenever they meet, music is involved. It goes right back to the Beowulf times,” she jokes. Kappel Ovre concurs. The Danes enjoy a year-round choice from a wide variety of musical events.

On the other hand, “Music in Trinidad is seasonal,” says Kappel Ovre, and he has distinguished himself as a man for all seasons—and many kinds of music. At Christmas, he is involved with his parang band, Los Vikingos de San Jose (the Vikings of St Joseph). Its six members play authentic parang, Christmas songs sung in Spanish, a kind of folk music that came to Trinidad with Venezuelan workers in the 19th century. They use the maracas, cuatro, box bass, guitar, toc toc and, of course, voices. It is a house parang band, meaning no amplification is used. This, he says, is a feature of traditional parang.

“I am thoroughly against amplification in parang. The parang I’ve heard so far that’s amplified sounds awful, and I also think that’s why a lot of people don’t like parang,” says the opinionated Dane. Another feature of the band is that it’s all male. This too is in the tradition of the earliest paranderos: he explains that in the South, in areas such as Siparia, women were the singers, but in the North, the tradition was all-male bands.
At the close of the Christmas season, Kappel Ovre gets involved in the Carnival festivities. This year he made his debut in Panorama, the national steelband contest, arranging and conducting for the Arima Cordettes. The experience was a steep learning curve. “I’m not really a conductor, so I don’t know how to move my hands. I just know what I want to hear.” Even with these reservations, the band made it to the finals, and Kappel Ovre has already begun to plan for next year’s season.

A music teacher at St Joseph’s Convent, St Joseph, Kappel Ovre also intends to enter the school in next year’s Junior Panorama, and already has permission from the Curepe-based Sforzata steelband to use their pans for rehearsals.

Because of his classical background, he believes, he brings a different dimension to steelpan arranging. “A lot of pan arrangers are too conservative. They use a Panorama format: introduction, verse, chorus, variation, modulation, and sometimes a jam.” This, for him, is the problem faced by pan. “If you follow the same recipe, you’ll always be eating the same thing.”

After Carnival, Kappel Ovre, a lifelong learner, dedicates his time to studying. These days, he’s learning more about Spanish guitar music and the country blues of Mississippi John Hurt. “I’m learning a lot,” he says, referring both to his recent studies and his involvement in Panorama, “and once I am learning, I always get excited.”

For the rest of the year, Kappel Ovre is kept busy with Tabanca, his blues band (“tabanca” is a Trinidadian word for heartbreak). The four-member band performs regularly at a restaurant, and this year was also scheduled to perform during April’s Tobago Jazz Festival at the Mt Irvine Hotel. The other members are well known bass guitarist Dougie Redon, drummer Roger Guerra and Ted Mikel on vocals and harmonica (Kappel sings too).

Kappel Ovre has been involved with the Classical Guitar Society of Trinidad and Tobago virtually since his arrival. The group, founded in 1985, had become dormant, but, along with a few other enthusiasts, he breathed new life into it. He was the foundation’s president from 2004–6, and is now its musical director. He’s expanded the group’s repertoire and helped introduce the trophy it awarded for the first time at the 2008 Music Festival to the best guitar ensemble.

In addition to all this, Kappel Ovre occasionally produces concerts with leading tenor Eddie Cumberbatch, with one carded for later this year. The duo performs a varied programme, including Renaissance music (which Kappel Ovre plays on his lute), Spanish songs, African-American spirituals and German Lieder, particularly the works of Schubert. Of these, Kappel Ovre is most excited about the Lieder. “Although the music was originally written for the piano, Schubert was a travelling musician and composed most of his music when he was on the road, using his guitar.”

The travelling Dane seems to have a lot in common with Schubert—except that he’s perhaps a more versatile performer. It comes as no surprise that this Danish-born classical guitarist turned steelband-arranging parandero admits, “I spend all of my energy on music.”