Cuba-Trained Countertenor Ojam Linchff

By Helson Hernandez

Ojam Linchff

HAVANA TIMES, August 23 — Ojam Linchff is a Nicaraguan countertenor who completed his formal training in Cuba, where he has also performed in numerous concerts.  He told HT:  “For some people the countertenor voice belongs to women, but they speak from their ignorance and limited aesthetic sensitivity…”

HT: To begin with, define “countertenor” for us: 

Ojam Linchff: Well, I can share an interesting reference that the use of the countertenor vocal range dates back to the nascent polyphony of the 12th and 13th centuries and ended approximately with the classicism of the 18th century.  It was a male voice that sang sharp melodies.  Baroque music in the 17th century enhanced the sound that was performed by “castrated” singers, who sang with astonishing technical capabilities.  They were educated in the monasteries to animate the liturgy, with these singers ultimately becoming the main characters of Baroque opera.

For these “kings of song,” a wide and impressive liturgical and secular repertoire was written.  Countertenors are classified as soprano, mezzo soprano and contralto, with this type of voice considered to be the result of physiologic anomalies related to the respiratory system, inadequacies that are taken advantage of artistically to mold beautiful voices.

HT: How was it determined that you were a lyrical singer and wound up being defined with the voice of a “countertenor.” 

OL: I’m a soprano countertenor.  I studied for tenor with tenor maestros: Ramon Gozales and Hipolito Aguirre.  I directed the tenors in the National Choir of my country, but after some vocal examinations carried out by my former-teacher, Yukari Moroi (who came to Nicaragua through an agreement between the Japanese embassy and the National Music School), she convinced me that I was singing in the wrong vocal range.

I love the voice of the tenor, but the exams proved that in that range I’d be no more than a minor tenor, suited only for small concert rooms.  The most convincing thing was to discover a voice that I never expected – though nor did I desire it; still, I had to assume this condition with dignity.  As a result of this realization about myself, and given the frustration caused by my having to accept that truth, I dropped out of the National Choir for a few months.

I returned resolved to re-educate myself as a countertenor with the assistance of YuKari Moroi, who was hoping I made that decision and wanted to devote herself to cultivating my voice.  I thought that I could continue in the choir at the same time, but the director didn’t accept me as countertenor.  Therefore I decided to dedicate myself completely to developing my new vocal range and I ended my singing studies with YuKari.  From then on I began to lose my tenor sound.

My first appearance was along with Mrs. Moroi herself in a recital in the Hall of Glass at the Ruben Dario National Theater.  Later I presented myself in private performances in various venues (before rich families, in university concert halls and at weddings) along with maestro pianists such as Monica Rodriguez and Pablo Buitrago.

HT: In Nicaragua where and how did you begin your training in lyrical singing? 

OL: I studied at the Escuela Evangelica de Musica of the Universidad Luter King, in Managua.  I began studying “ecclesiastic musical education” and later on I carried out other shorter studies in musical education for elementary school students at the Escuela Nacional de Musica and at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Managua (UNAM)).  I like teaching.

HT: Why did you choose Cuba to continue your professional development? 

OL: A song competition that I won in 1999 is what cleared the way for my coming to Cuba.  The “Sandinista University Youth” (Spanish: Jovenes Sandinistas Universitarios) at the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA), my comrades in activities for “Six Percent” (a demand for that percentage of the budget for the right to public university education), Elias in particular, along with a youth from OCLAE in Cuba, Yosvany, thought I should continue my professional preparation continue in Cuba, so they arranged a “scholarship” for me to study art history there.  This was how, in August 2001, thanks to the initiatives of those socialist youths, I came to this country to study at the university.

HT: Concerning your experience on the island, how has your training been, as well as your contacts with lyrical art specialists and artists? 

OL: Overall the island has been a magnanimous school that has educated me and instructed me in life.   Not only have I received scientific knowledge that has enriched me in the theoretical-technical plane as an expert in “culture” and the visual arts in particular, as well as made me a better musical educator, but it also taught me how to grow as a human being.

My coming closer to the theories of the advanced education, with their humanism and scientific approaches, coming closer to the dialectical materialistic method, meeting excellent people, teachers, almost all of whom having masters and doctors of science in education, friends in general, they have contributed to my human and spiritual growth, my performing and my professional competence.

In my first five years in Cuba, I was connected to the “Camerata Vocale Sine Nomine” under the baton of maestro Enrique Filiu.  There I improved my singing technique, which continues to be in a process of development.  Together with the group I was able to meet the director of the early music group “Ars Longa”: Teresa Paz, who shared with me her knowledge of early vocal technique and on several occasions the concert hall in Paula Church, where I was able to give my first recital, “Recuerdos de Amor Recuerdos de Amor,” with pre-classical and classical arias directed and assessed by one of her best baritones, Elier Muñoz.  Those were to some measure the first people who I met who gave me direction.  In addition there were other maestros like the tenor Alberto Palanca, a great person who on occasion was in my recitals and offered me his singing secrets for better vocal performance.

HT: You’ve participated on other important Cuban stages.  Tell us about some of these.   

OL: One of them was conducted by the artistic promoter Valenti Figueroa, in the Grand Theater of Havana in the Garcia Lorca Hall on October 2, 2004 at 8 p.m.  It was a beautiful experience along with great lyrical singers, the sopranos Milagro de los Angeles, Cheyla Rizo, Haydee Herreras, the mezzo Lily Hernandez, the tenors Alexander Gonzalez  and Adolfo Casas and the soprano Legipsy Alvarez, with whom I sang in duet “Ave Maria” by Shübert and later the aria “Che faro senza Euridice” from the opera “Orfeo y Euridice by C. Von Glück.  That performance was important because somehow it legitimated my initial — but forced — artistic activity as a countertenor.  The Garcia Lorca Theater and its hall of the same name mustn’t cease being the most important step of a lyrical singer in Cuba…

Later, with the short track record that I’d accumulated over those four years, I was able to request space in other concert halls.  Since then I’ve sung in almost all the concert halls in Old Havana and in the Ernesto Lecuona Hall, which was one of the most important performances in my artistic career.

HT:  In Latin America there still exist prejudices about the acceptance of so-called lyrical singers, some people going so far as to call them “counter-tenors.”  Have you found this to be the case, and has this influenced your career, particularly in Nicaragua and Cuba? 

OL: In my first performances, in Nicaragua, I was a little shy.  Added to that, people knew very little about lyrical art, so when they saw me and heard me sing in such a high voice, they weren’t especially thrilled.  The concept of countertenor turned out to be even more difficult for them to get their arms around.  But I understood such attitudes.  I’ve always thought that “culture,” as a global and subjective entity, can enrich itself.  I’ve also had the hope that cultural entities would concern themselves a little more with holding lyrical activities that educate people about this technique.

This is what is being done in universities and music schools right now and has been done since the late ‘90s in independent initiatives by sopranos Monica Rodriguez (Mexico), Tatiana Bandert (Russia) and the Cuban tenor Alberto San Jose.  I find that the little bit of knowledge surrounding vocal classifications in general, and the knowledge of those castrated and countertenors of early and modern music in particular, is a matter that should be evaluated in all of Central America, the Caribbean and Latin America as a whole, without dismissing countries like Argentina that have stood out in activities concerning musical and vocal education.

In Cuba, early music has been made known since the ‘90s by the didactic-musical work of the group “Ars Longa,” and subsequently by “Sine Nomine” and countertenor soloists like Ubail Samora and Edwin Ramirez.  People are increasingly becoming familiar with and enriching themselves through the lyrical performances of these proponents of the art form.

Ojam Linchff

For some people the countertenor voice belongs to women, but they speak from their ignorance and limited aesthetic sensitivity.  It’s a “gender-related cultural matter,” but if we educate children in musical education and vocal classes with the technique of “white voice,” it’s almost certain that when they begin to develop or reach puberty they could conserve their falsetto or head of their voices.  If this was more common in elementary schools, and therefore in the secondary and music academies, there would be a better understanding of vocal classifications.

HT: We know that currently included in the repertoire of “countertenors” are musical selections conceived for female voices.  Have you included this novelty?  Do you consider it a contribution or something audacious?  

OL: I was educated by a lyrical soprano and she sometimes taught me certain techniques and coloratura, among other aspects, with opera arias for female sopranos.  Therefore I became familiar with a considerable repertoire of arias and with some of them I was able to rehearse with purpose.  Presently there are countertenors who have recorded famous arias written for female sopranos, one of them is Edson Cordeiro.  I’ve observed in these countertenors impeccable performances that bear generous and true artistic creation.

What is most important when engaged in this activity is to contribute to the artistic-historical and vocal culture.  Eternalizing a belcantist or romanticist chapter with clean and stylistic aesthetics and respect for the vocal art is a task and duty of all male and female singers.  The art of singing well or excellently doesn’t make a “commentary on gender” that impairs the technical-vocal expression.  When a sample exhibit of it has been given, one must not allow inopportune and irrelevant concessions.  The singing voice is a gift from our God-goddess of the universe and who has it to you in a given register.  One has the duty to educate that voice without prejudice and without fear – that is if one loves the profession.

HT:  Do you think that you will be able to demonstrate to the Nicaraguan public the entire range that you’ve acquired as a performer since you left the country? 

OL:  Sure, when I return to my country I plan to give recitals and teach classes and conferences on “formative musical education.”

HT: You created a new methodology for musical education instruction at the elementary school level in Cuba.  Tell us about this interesting project.  

OL: Yes, through my master’s thesis I was able to demonstrate that specialized art instructors (in music) possess psycho-pedagogic and rhythmic-melodic inadequacies for confronting activities of musical education with the theoretical-technical demands of Cuban schools, and that these are decisive for facing diverse educational needs in elementary school.

I created a new type of musical education class called “Class-session of Musical Education with Didactic-musician-therapy Orientation” for teaching in elementary school.  This type of musical class seeks to reinforce what has been established in current Cuban musical education and proposes new objectives that respond to the compensatory and psycho-motor needs that children in general demand, particularly those who evidence a “special diagnosis.”

I think that this initiative will to some degree solve the need that some Latin American countries have pointed out, the one of taking musician-therapy to regular schools and to work to ensure that all children — without distinction as to social class — have access to it.  This breaks with the aesthetic of the psycho-physical and vice versa, until forming a cycle of art and health and of health and art.  At the moment I’m preparing some rehearsals for publishing on the Internet so that all art instructors in general, and specialists in music in particular, will have access to such knowledge.

HT: Were there other people who contributed to your approach in some way? 

OL: Yes, the doctors in pedagogic sciences Paula Sanchez Ortega and Gudelia Fernandez Perez de Alejo.  Also maestro Xiomara Morales Hernandez, Dr. Alberto Valcarcel and doctor of special education Juana Bert, among other maestro comrades, valued the didactic-pedagogic aspect of my approach and its psycho-pedagogic and developmental function.  For Dr. Valcarcel I feel great respect and admiration for his being a great humanist, for his time dedicated to the research that I carried out and for his pointing out other possible lines of development in my research.

HT: And now what ideas do you have for your future? 

OL: At the end of September I’m going to return to my country to work hard offering my knowledge, particularly on musical education, and to give recitals.  I intend to obtain a doctorate in pedagogic science, but for that I’ll have to put in a lot of work, and the cost of that degree will be high.

I’ve thought about writing to the government to request a tuition reduction, perhaps they can offer it at half the price.  I would like to get a doctorate to put into practice all these experiences and ideas.  I would like to see that the product of that work be the specialist art instructors of music because it was because of their need for upgrading that the approach was created.

I would like to return to Cuba another time to investigate and work in music directed toward special education, because that’s a study objective that I admire.   Every year living here has made me love the island.  My desire to contribute to the preparation of art instructors is great, so I’m waiting for my God-goddess to give me the opportunity to achieve some of my goals, to be able to accomplish objectives relative to the Cuban people.