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Johnian magazine issue 45

Playlist: a lawyer’s passion for piano

Written by Ivan Guevara (1996)

6 min read

After an MPhil and PhD at St John’s, Ivan Guevara (1996) proceeded to have a very successful legal career and is now Director of Natural Capital Investments, a company he founded to deliver models of sustainable farming and broker carbon emissions offsets. For the past four years he has also been General Counsel of SALIC UK, an agricultural and livestock investment company. Alongside his work, Ivan is a central member of the musical group Classico Latino and dedicates much energy and time to composing and performing.

My passion for music started at an early age in my native Colombia. When I was six I was already able to play by ear complete songs on the piano, which prompted my parents to get me a piano teacher and enrol me at the Music Conservatory in Bogotá aged seven.

My father was (like me after him) a lawyer. He was also a senior politician and trained as a tenor. It was always a highlight of dinner parties at my parents’ place when my father would sing an operatic piece with me accompanying him on the piano. This tradition started when I was 10 and continued until my father’s very last days.

I knew Latin American music very well because I grew up listening to it, dancing to it and singing it with my friends and family, but I didn’t play it much when I lived there. The piano was rigorously reserved for ‘serious music’ – by which I mean classical music, which requires special dedication and technical ability from the performer and sober educated attention from the audience. I was told by all my music teachers to avoid playing anything other than classical music on the piano. They thought that if I ventured into other ‘easier music’ this could ruin my technique. They were all wrong!

When I arrived in Cambridge, I was blown away by the splendour of the music the first time I heard the St John’s Choir and the organ performing at my matriculation service. More than anything, I was amazed to see this fabulous classical music being played by students, most of whom were younger than me: gone was the prejudice from back home that classical music was old people’s music. I was truly inspired and wanted to actively be a part of it all.

It was at a concert organised by the SBR where I first played the piano in Cambridge. I played two very rhythmical Latin American songs, and everyone was intrigued and impressed.

The Master at the time, Professor Peter Goddard, asked me during lunch in College about my country of origin and whether I could play Colombian music on the piano. I told him I could play a ‘pasillo’, which is an Andean rhythm that is a variation of a very quick waltz, and all of a sudden the idea of a Master’s Lodge concert became a firm proposal.

Most people in the UK associate Latin music with tango and salsa, but there is so much more. I was determined to break the myth that Latin music can only be made in Latin America by locals with guitars, maracas and congas: from Mexico to Argentina there is a rich variety of music that can be successfully and elegantly adapted for classical instruments such as the cello, the piano and the violin, and I wanted to show this to the world.

James Martin (1991), a PhD student and former Organ Scholar, suggested that I team up with a cellist to perform Latin American music for the concert. He recommended Graham Walker (1996) as the perfect candidate for this but left it up to me to set this up. I had seen Graham in the College chapel conducting the orchestra and the Choir, and it amazed me that this very young guy (he really looked 12 in those days!) could conduct at such a high level. He was also a Choral Scholar and played the piano – and now I was being told that he was, in fact, a cellist! Graham was the quintessential British young gentleman, but I was convinced that, so long as I managed to explain to him correctly the feeling and passion behind each piece, his indisputable talent would help me translate all those emotions into a language (or a music score) that he could understand and express with his cello.

One day Graham and I crossed paths on the Bridge of Sighs and I asked him straight if he would be interested in playing Latin American music with me. He looked at first a little alarmed at my direct approach, but his curiosity won out. Our first rehearsals were a true collision of two worlds, and our first concert at the Master’s Lodge was a historical occasion: the Colombian who had never played Latin American music in Latin America played this music in public for the first time, alongside one of the most celebrated musicians in the College – and also probably the most British! We confirmed that music really is the universal language.

Together we created Classico Latino, a trio that, 20 years on, has collaborated with legendary artists in Latin America, played concerts in front of thousands of people and recorded five albums.

Having explored the vast variety of music from the Andean region, we decided that our fifth album Havana Classic should explore the super popular music from the Caribbean region. We teamed up with a very talented group of Cuban musicians for what proved to be another incredible exercise of inter cultural exchange.

The album was launched in Bogotá last summer to a sold-out opera house (Teatro Colón) and in the UK to a sold-out West Road concert hall in Cambridge, where the audience rewarded us with a two-minute standing ovation. The album is on all digital platforms, and we are currently promoting it throughout the UK, Europe and hopefully the US and Cuba itself. And there are already many ideas for a possible sixth album, which will likely go deeper into our experimentation of danceable Caribbean tropical music.

I have been very lucky that, throughout my law and business career, everybody has found it so unique to find a concert pianist holding a senior position in these sectors that not only have they promoted my musical activity, they have very often even sponsored it.

Classico Latino started as a little crazy idea, and the incredible musical partnership Graham and I discovered has allowed us to make a contribution to be proud of. Perhaps one day we will be remembered by generations to come for having done something original.

Ivan’s playlist choices

To mark the release of Classico Latino’s fifth album Havana Classic, Ivan looks back on the songs he’s played with the group over the last 20 years and chooses his favourites.

Ariel Ramirez, Alfonsina y el Mar (Alfonsina and the Sea)
This is an Argentinean piece and a South American classic. It recounts the story of Argentinean poet Alfonsina Storny, whose unrequited love took her to live at the seafront of Mar del Plata. One day, totally heart broken, she walked into the sea to never return. This lament has become a true symbol for Classico Latino because it reminds us of the early days when Graham and I played only the two of us.

Carlos Gardel, El dia que me quieras (The day you love me)
This tango by the legendary Carlos Gardel features in an old 1920s film. Gardel himself performs this passionate love song, which tells the story of a rich boy who falls in love with a humble girl. She has nothing to offer him, to which he responds with this song, saying that only on the day that she loves him will he truly have it all.

Ivan Guevara and Graham Walker, Canción de la Tierra (Earth Song)
This is a piece that I wrote with Graham, and it is a tribute to a very mistreated ‘mother earth’ in the era of climate change. It was recorded in Abbey Road Studios in the album Journey Through Latin America.

Ernesto Lecuona, La Comparsa
This classic Cuban song by the legendary Ernesto Lecuona represents the call for people to come to the party. Lecuona uses this lovely harmony to resemble the call normally done with the drums, and it is a subtle and provocative tune.

Ivan Guevara and Graham Walker, Tropical Dream
Written by myself and arranged by Graham, this is my take on tropical music, and especially on Latin jazz. This was included in the Havana Classic album, with the amazing contribution of internationally known jazz violinist Omar Puente. This piece embodies what Graham and I created with Classico Latino: it starts with a piano solo that sounds very classical and then the Latin bit kicks in with passion.

Read a corresponding blog from Graham Walker about his involvement in Classico Latino and discover more about Ivan’s career in agribusiness on our alumni blog.

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Ivan is Director of Natural Capital Investments, which delivers models of sustainable farming, traceability and ecosocial standards. He is also a key member of the musical trio Classico Latino.