Antonio Llaca was 18 when he arrived in Ottawa.
That young man was, as he says today, in love with stringed instruments and he had applied, and been accepted, in the music department of the University of Ottawa intending to study classical guitar.
Ottawa is a long way from Havana, Cuba, where Llaca was born. It’s even further from Venezuela, where his family moved when Llaca was a 12 year old. But in Cuba and in Venezuela, he found his musical beginnings.
That’s where he learned to play the guitar and the cuatro, essentially a four-stringed guitar often considered the national instrument of Venezuela. He also picked up the mandolin and the charango, which is a small lute essentially, sometimes made from the shell of an armadillo.
“I learned to play the rhythms of Venezuela,” Llaca said. And he is still a good salsa dancer from his days in Cuba.
Today, though, much of his time is spent teaching and leading choirs in the Ottawa-Gatineau area, but that’s something that happened here in Canada. Strange how life will send you in a different direction than the one you had imagined.
“I was born in Havana, Cuba. My father went to work in Venezuela. Logically all my family went along. I was 12 when I left Cuba.”
Venezuela in those years was not in the chaos that has seized it today.
“There was a different situation. I lived there from 1996 to 2002. I grew up in the culture. I ate the food, danced the dances, learned the music.
“El Sistema was part of my generation of young musicians. We were formed under that umbrella. Venezuela has so many beautiful things and is so rich in resources, it is sad to see it the way it is now. The last time I was there was 2011. I don’t have much family left there, so there isn’t much reason to go, except to keep in touch with the friends that I do have there.
By 2002, Llaca was considering his options and chose Ottawa.
“At 18, you don’t know very much about where you are going and what you are doing but you have a sense of adventure.”
He knew there were several schools in the city: at the Conservatoire in Gatineau, at Carleton University and at uOttawa. He chose the latter intending to keep learning classical guitar. But instead he discovered choral music and conducting.
“It must have been in my first or second year of university that I decided to take a course in choral conducting with Laurence Ewashko.”
It was an ear-opening moment.
“From then on, it kept developing … into independent study at the university and conducting concerts here and there around the city filling in for others. By the time I had finished my BA I had decided to do a Masters in choral conducting.
“It was an instant love affair musically. It also fit my personality. As a classical guitarist, you spend a lot of time working on your own. That’s understandable, but I really enjoy the contact with people and working with groups. There is an energy in that rehearsal room that builds you up.”
One of his main choral jobs is with Coro Vivo Ottawa. He’s been conducting this ensemble of about 50 singers for a decade.
“When I was appointed I didn’t think it was going to be that long. But you become part of that big family. It is a community choir, however, since I have come in I have tried to push a bit for the level and music choices to be different and to be higher.
“We are at a point now where the ensemble has solidified a sound and is starting to make music that is a little more complex than community choirs would normally approach.
He also conducts the Chinese Canadian Children’s Choir of Canada and led them to China earlier this summer for a festival in Beijing. And at the Conservatoire in Gatineau he leads five different choral ensembles as well as conducting the institution’s orchestra. At Carleton he teaches choral and instrumental conducting and will lead a class in opera this fall.
Llaca could probably have returned to Cuba, stayed in Venezuela but he has stayed in the coldest country Canada.
“I do keep in touch with my Cuban roots. I go back several times a year. It’s nice to keep in touch because I have a lot of colleagues in the music industry there.
“But one thing leads to another and then another and you realize that you are here and you have a family. I have three girls now and this is home.
He is also always willing to share his musical heritage with others in this community.
“I am proud of my culture and I like to share it with people. There aren’t that many cuatrists in Ottawa. There aren’t many chances to hear that music. So I do it. Even with my choirs.”