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At 3 she snuck in to play piano, at nearly 80, she's a Colombian classical legend

Colombian pianist Teresita Gómez is a legendary figure in that country's classical music scene.
Akiro Palacio
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The Cartagena Music Festival
Colombian pianist Teresita Gómez is a legendary figure in that country's classical music scene.

When the most renowned pianist in Colombia, Teresita Gómez, came out for an unexpected solo encore at the Cartagena Music Festival at the Getsemaní Auditorium, she completely stole the show with a piece by her favorite European composer, Frédéric Chopin.

During a rehearsal, Gómez explained why she identifies so deeply with Chopin, an expatriate musician who lived in France and always felt displaced.

"He was a person who suffered a very strong uprooting, he was a very lonely person, even though he was surrounded by some of the great musicians of his time," Gómez said. "That's not easy."

It's never been easy for Gómez either. She was placed for adoption a few days after she was born.

"I was born in 1943. And it was not easy for the Black daughter of custodians who were white," she said. "It wasn't easy for a person like me to enter that world of white people."

Her white adoptive parents lived where they worked, at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, an exclusive fine arts school in the city of Medellín.

When Gómez was only three years old, one of the teachers allowed her to watch — from a distance — while she was teaching the little white girls who were her students. Gómez paid careful attention to where the students put their hands. At night, when her father walked around doing his rounds, she went along with him, playing on all the classroom pianos.

She opened the door and screamed so loud I can still hear it. 'The Black girl is playing piano!' I started crying. I thought they're going to beat me.

"I did all this in hiding. My mom was so worried they would catch us and throw us out," she remembered.

One day she was caught. A piano teacher walked in while Gómez was playing a lullaby. "She opened the door and screamed so loud I can still hear it. 'The Black girl is playing piano!' I started crying," she said. "I thought they're going to beat me."

But the piano teacher lifted the little girl up in her arms and told her, 'I'm going to teach you in secret every Tuesday.' Eventually, the teacher secured a scholarship for Gómez at the school. Soon after the star pupil was getting encores at recitals.

Teresita Gómez, with Orquesta Filármonica de Mujeres at the Cartagena Music Festival in January, 2023.
Diego Vega / Cartagena Music Festival
/
Cartagena Music Festival
Teresita Gómez, with Orquesta Filármonica de Mujeres at the Cartagena Music Festival in January, 2023.

Music critic Juan Carlos Garay works with the Cartagena Music Festival and describes Gómez as the country's most important female pianist. "Because of her story, because of her background, because of what she represents," he said. "Apart from, of course, she's a great performer."

Gómez debuted professionally at age 12 at Bogotá's Teatro Colón, the country's equivalent of Carnegie Hall. After graduating from the country's top conservatory, she became both a professor and a pianist. In the early 1980s, Gómez did something revolutionary. She began to study and perform the music of Colombian classical composers.

"I thought it was important that we shouldn't be embarrassed to play Colombian music," she said. "I wanted to get rid of that shame."

"She was amazingly brave," observed Ana María Orduz, a music professor at the Universidad de Antioquia in Medellín. When Gómez started playing Colombian composers, she explained, their music was considered less valuable than European classical music. "People started criticizing her. Like, 'oh man, she cannot play the big composers so she has to play Colombian music!' Thanks to her, 40 or 50 years after she started doing that, we Colombian musicians can play our repertoire with pride."

Over the course of a long and influential career, Teresita Gómez has toured the world, recorded multiple albums and performed during the inauguration of President Gustavo Petro in August 2022. Especially significant was the presence of the first female Afro-Colombian vice-president who, like Gómez, comes from a working-class background. This year, Gómez turns 80. She is adding a book of memoirs to her lengthy list of accomplishments.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Betto Arcos
Betto Arcos is a freelance music journalist. He writes stories about music from around the world, with an emphasis on Latin America. He has been a contributor to NPR programming since 2009, when he began reviewing music for All Things Considered on the weekends.