Since the age of seven, Katerine Espinal has played the piano. This instrument opened her musical and professional path in Nicaragua and also in Norway, where she has lived for the last four years.
“The piano helped me cope with the toughest processes, especially when I was told I had two years to live. The piano gave me hope,” says Espinal, who at age ten had a staph infection and almost died.
The 36-year-old Nicaraguan migrated to Spain at the end of 2018, after cultural spaces closed in Nicaragua due to the country’s socio-political crisis. She arrived in Madrid and a friend took her to Norway, where she now lives and works.
“Edward John, a British singer, made my stay in Norway possible. He invited me to play the piano at his Baptist Church, and a minute and a half later he told me: ‘cancel your return ticket, we need you here.’ I have been in Norway ever since,” she recalls.
For three years, she has been working at the Gjøvik School of Art and Culture, where, with the piano, she provides music psychotherapy to people working on emotional issues.
She has given approximately one hundred concerts in Norway, some as a soloist, others sharing with international bands and artists. “I have had the opportunity to play for migrants and refugees, giving, by means of the piano, the hug one needs in a new country.”
At the moment, she is working on her first album “To Nicaragua with Love”, which will be released soon, in collaboration with Nicaraguan musicians such as Eduardo Araica and Carlos Mejía Godoy.
She is also developing a project to sponsor young Nicaraguans from marginal neighborhoods of Managua who have musical talent. “Not everyone in Nicaragua has been blessed, like me, with a father who recognized my talent and, despite the limitations, invested in me.”
Katerine Espinal’s beginnings on the piano
Katerine Espinal was born in Managua on June 3, 1987, and grew up in Barrio Venezuela in a family that recognized her musical talent and encouraged her to develop it, despite economic limitations.
“Wooden hangers and buckets were my first instruments. I destroyed several of my mom’s. That’s when my dad started buying me my own buckets and hangers because he recognized my gift,” she recalls.
At age seven, her father, Manuel Espinal, enrolled her in the former Baptist Conservatory. It was there that she first encountered the piano. Hearing this instrument made her feel calm.
“I remember looking at the piano and thinking it was a coffin. I was crying with fear, sitting in the front row of the class along with other children, because it was my first time in that place. Suddenly, a US woman came in the room. She started playing, and at that moment I forgot that I was alone without my dad, facing something I didn’t know. I fell in love with the piano.”
Katerine studied at the Conservatory until the age of 14. Students and teachers recognized her talent. She began playing classical music and developing her musical ear faster than just reading sheet music. She also learned other musical styles didactically
As a teenager she played for the Baptist Church she attended with her family. Then, Nicaraguan musicians and music teachers invited her to share stages. “Maestro Mario Rocha was the first one who invited me to the stage. Then I was contacted by Juan Solórzano, Norma Elena Gadea, Eduardo Araica, Katia Cardenal, and Carlos Mejía Godoy.”
She also began playing at the embassies of Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Mexico, and European nations. On several occasions she was invited by the Allianza Française. Her career was beginning to grow, little by little. She was becoming known and taking part in events in theaters and cultural festivals, and as a traditional Latin American popular soloist.
“Norway chose to keep me there”
Espinal arrived on a visit to Norway in September 2018 without imagining that her new life would begin there. “Norway chose to keep me,” she reaffirms.
On her second day in Norway, she began playing the piano at the Baptist Church, where attendees fell in love with her talent and welcomed her. Then she began to give concerts, thanks to invitations she received from people who had heard her play.
Her talent has conquered the Norwegian public. During her time in the country, she has given some 100 concerts, more than 50 as a soloist, and around 30 sharing the stage with international bands and artists. “I’ve been here almost five years and all of this has been through word-of-mouth. Once they hear me play someplace, I receive more invitations.”
Espinal empathizes with migrants and refugees in Norway. Organizations that support this community have invited her to give benefit concerts. “I know what it means to migrate and how music helps refugees to cope with the process.”
On June 14, 2022, Espinal gave a concert for Ukrainian refugees in Norway at the Gjøvik School of Art and Culture, donating the proceeds to the Norwegian Organization for Asylum Seekers (NOAS).
“This concert was a show of gratitude to Norway for always opening doors for me,” she continues, “and it is also a show of giving my heart to all the people who have had to leave their country in search of a dignified life.”
In addition, this concert was the first one that her parents, Yolanda Meléndez and Manuel Espinal, were able to attend in Norway.
The piano as music psychotherapy
In 2020, she obtained her residency, and a Norwegian, Ola Narten Svendsen, invited her to apply to a job offer at the Gjøvik School of Art and Culture. She competed against seven Norwegians with masters and doctorate degrees in music, but she got the position due to her experience.
“They asked me, ‘What experience do you have with depression?’ and I told them about how music helped me cope with my staph infection diagnosis and the two year life expectancy that doctors claimed I had. The piano has been and is my therapy for life. It’s how I cope with depression and with which I now celebrate life.
She has three years as an accompanist and music therapist for people working on emotional issues. “Playing the piano works for people with deep emotional issues. They find refuge and emotional support in its sound. Music allows them to connect and express their emotions, some cry, some sing, others dance.”
“To Nicaragua with love”
In January 2023, Espinal began working on her first album called “To Nicaragua with Love”, a musical love letter that she recorded with the support of Nicaraguan businessman and cultural philanthropist, Jaime Lacayo Montealegre.
“Lacayo’s words were, ‘I saw a video of you, you brought tears to my eyes. I want to support your talent. I want to sponsor a record.’ And I accepted,” she says.
On March 18, Espinal traveled to Madrid to meet her record producer, Billy Herrón, a Panamanian with whom she recorded seven songs for the first part of the album. “There are six Nicaraguan folk songs on piano, a first for Nicaragua,” she emphasizes.
Other Nicaraguan musicians collaborated on the production, like Eduardo Araica on guitar; Carlos Luis Mejía on marimba, and Carlos Mejía Godoy with a special collaboration on accordion in a medley of three songs from his own composition La Misa Campesina Nicaragüense.
“It’s a pretty simple recording. Maybe the second part will be more elaborate. But this was my first experience in a recording studio with me doing the arrangements. It was eight days of pressure, but an enriching experience, ” she says.
Others who worked on the album were Aurelio Estebanez, sound engineer, percussionist Sergio Martínez, and double bass player Ruben Carles, all three from Spain, and from Argentina, Leo Genovese, on strings, and piano arranger René Pérez.
Currently, Espinal is studying in a Cultural Project Management program thanks to a grant from the Orchestra of the Americas. This program involves 51 people from 12 countries, who have been designated “Latin American entrepreneurial and cultural leaders of 2023”. “The director of the Orchestra of the Americas saw a video of me and reached out,” she says.
As part of the program, Espinal has begun a project she calls Musicaragua, with the vision of promoting cultural music education and emotional education in Nicaragua through music.
Musicaragua will work intermittently and will not have a physical space. “The idea is to be able to get financial support for people with limited resources who have an undeveloped musical talent,” she explains.
Through this project, together with Norwegian Narten Svendsen, Katerine has managed to sponsor six people from Nicaragua for a cultural exchange in Norway at the Gjøvik Cultural Center.
Espinal has her energies focused on developing the project and wants to find hidden talents in marginalized neighborhoods of Nicaragua and sponsor these people in an integral way.
“My desire, although quite challenging, is to invest in them just as my dad did with me, allowing me to develop musically. My dad is my hero, and I am indebted to him for what I am to this day,” she says.
Norway has made her feel at home
For the moment, Katerine has no plans to return to Nicaragua. Norway has welcomed her with love and opportunities to develop her talent. She has found people who she now calls family, who have made her feel at home.
“After a concert, Nina, a Norwegian woman came up to me to say hello and we immediately connected. After several invitations to dinner and conversations, we realized that our birthdays are on the same day. Now I consider Nina my second mom.”
She has spent three Christmases and holidays in Norway with Nina’s family. “Spending time with them makes me feel like I belong, that I have a family”.
Currently, she collaborates with the Mayor’s Office of Osmo and Gjøvik, with projects to play in cultural centers and nursing homes. “My goal is to serve and give back to life through music,” she says. She also studies Spanish as a foreign language online at the University of Salamanca, with the main purpose of knowing the language better so that she can teach it in Norway.