Colombian musician Carlos “Cuco” Rojas was a master of the arpa llanera (plains harp) and other folkloric string instruments who, with his band, Cimarrón, led a recent resurgence of Colombian joropo, or llanera, music. Rojas died in Bogotá on Friday at age 67. His death was the result of a heart condition, according to a statement from the band.
“Carlos Rojas Hernández leaves behind an indelible mark on the history of Colombian music, with his name on dozens of recordings as a musician, producer, arranger and composer,” the band wrote. Cimarrón’s 2004 album on the Smithsonian Folkways label, Sí Soy Llanero, was nominated for a Grammy in the best traditional world music album category. The group’s latest album, Orinoco, was a 2019 Latin Grammy nominee.
“Carlos undertook a prolonged investigation into the roots of llanera music in Colombia,” Ana Veydó, the group's lead vocalist and also Rojas' romantic partner, told Billboard. Through Cimarrón, which Rojas formed together with Veydó in 2000, he renewed the sound of the country music style and its popularity, in Colombia and beyond. “His academic contributions have become standard references in the study of joropo and the music of the plains in Colombia y Venezuela.”
Rojas was born in San Martín, in Colombia’s Meta region, where he was exposed to the popular music traditions of the area from a young age. During his musical career, he played the harp for audiences that included Gabriel García Márquez, and at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Sweden. “His playing style has influenced new techniques in the playing of traditional strings on an international level,” the band said.
Veydó assured Billboard that despite Rojas’ sudden death, the group would continue performing. The band tours this month with Welsh harpist Catrin Finch in the UK. In April, Cimarrón is scheduled to play at the Black Atlantic Festival in Durham, N.C., and at the Rudolstadt Festival in Germany this summer.