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Chapter 4: First Day of MANANA Festival

By - 29 November, 2016

Day 4, 4th May 2016

Hoping to avoid a repeat of the guagua experience I’d had getting to Santiago, I head out first thing in the morning for the Cubana Airlines office on Enramadas to inquire about airline tickets back to Havana.

From a few blocks away I hear jangly street drums playing a kind of Cubanified hip hop shuffle beat, and follow the music until I find a guy playing percussion with whatever makeshift instrumentation he can find. He sings his heart out and, looking into his basket, he is clearly not making a lot of money doing it. I’ve seen plenty of more virtuosic street performances that this, but he plays and sings like his life depends on it, which it probably does.

I wonder: “When was the last time I played the drums with that kind of urgency?”

“When was the last time I played live and didn’t worry about being original or perfect and just went for it with no reservations, on an instrument that I had built myself no less?”

I realize I need to up my musical hustle. Badly.

Do what you love and do it with passion.

This guy right here is the embodiment of MANANA:

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La Lucha es Real

I continue on to the Cubana Airlines office. After waiting for close to an hour for assistance, I finally meet with a kind, older gentleman who consults a 20 year-old monochrome computer terminal and eventually informs me that there are no available flights for the next four days. I have no choice but to take another bus back to Havana.

I make my way to Plaza Céspedes, a few blocks over, my de facto outdoor office and WiFi hub, to try to book a ticket on the Vía Azul bus lines for Friday night. There are still a few seats available on the midnight bus, which will get me back to the capital in about 14 hours. Not ideal, but it’s a big step up from the butt-bruising guagua that brought me to Santiago.

I’m working on recording a 360 degree video of the city’s main avenue, Enramadas, when I run into a guy I met a few days ago at the Tambores de Bonne show in Plaza Martes with Aaron. His name is Eider Bouly Hernandez and he’s a reggaeton singer who came to MANANA hoping to connect with some music producers and record a track while here.

I’ve never heard his music before and reggaeton is not really my production forté, but I’ve got some time before the first MANANA show of the day and since I’m carrying recording gear, we decide to give it a shot; Eirder and I head to my casa particular and set up a makeshift studio in my room where I record his vocals on a Zoom Q3HD, feed them into Ableton Live running a simple reggaeton drum loop that Eider can hear in his headphones.

My laptop starts acting strangely and we have to cut the session short about thirty minutes in, but I feel like we’ve gotten the best take possible given the circumstances. Eider leaves and I walk over to Teatro Heredia to see the opening performances for Manana at the Pacho Alonso Stage (Pacho Alonso was a Cuban singer and bandleader from Santiago de Cuba who is attributed with creating the musical form pilón).

Since arriving in Santiago, there’s been a current of excitement and creativity rushing through the city, but when the first performances are underway at Pacho Alonso, I immediately understand that this festival has likely not been as heavily promoted within Cuba as it was in the U.S. and Europe. In the audience, I observe plenty of foreigners dressed in trendy clothing and armed with professional camera and audio equipment, but hardly any Cubans.

This is a bit of a disappointment given MANANA’s heavily publicized mission as an intercultural exchange project and the fairly even mix of Cubans vs. Euro/UK/US natives I’ve seen at rehearsals and side shows over the last two days. The fact is I’m just another camera-carrying white guy like the rest of the press pass-wielding culture vultures around here. I’m suddenly self-conscious and hide my press badge, using my iPhone to record instead of my DSLR in order to stick out as little as possible.

Fortunately, as afternoon turns into evening, the crowd starts to balance out with the arrival of more Cubans. An electric performance by Rumba Aché accompanied by an arresting, interpretive dance number helps heighten the tone of the event to one of engagement rather than mere removed observation of the musical performance.

Several people dressed in elaborate mythical creature costumes made out of found materials painted an iridescent black appear among the crowd, intended to be moving sculptures created by Alberto Lescay, the famed Cuban sculptor who designed the Plaza de La Revolución sculpture. These performers wander all around the festival ground for most of the three days, adding an element of dark surrealism that seems to find its way into both the music and the general tenor of the crowd.

I decide to redirect my focus to the inspiration behind the festival itself – rhythm and collaboration – rather than concentrate on the surface activity like most of the other press around here, as well as the Cuban artists playing here; specifically the ones who aren’t already music blog famous.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big fan of nearly all the UK/Euro/US musical acts filling MANANA’s programming schedule, but even a quick glance around the Teatro Heredia’s three stage areas that day is enough to tell me there will be plenty of other larger media outlets to tell their story.

I want to go deeper to find the perspective of the artists at MANANA who live and work in the Cuban music industry and how they are making a life of music work for them and their families. I want to find out what it is that drives them, year in and year out, to push forward with making music a career in an economy that offers little compensation for being a professional artist unless you have that rare confluence of both creative virtuosity and socio-political diplomacy.

Silvio Echevarría is one such working musician and, in yet another fortuitous encounter, I manage to find him backstage in the main theater right before the next act is about to go on. As seems to be the norm here in Santiago, Silvio is a member of multiple bands and ensembles in the city and plays batá drums with the Ballet Folklórico Del Oriente. With just minutes to go before the curtain call, I convince him to let me put my 360-camera on a microphone stand in the middle of his group:

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A bit later Silvio and his friend and band member from Ballet Folklórico Del Oriente, José Luis Guzman, and I all meet up to watch the Quantic show at the Pacho Alonso stage. The Cristal beer flows freely and we chat for hours into the night about working as a musician in Cuba, MANANA festival logistics, Afro-Cuban musical history and the various forms of Afro-Cuban religion found in Santiago. Perfect.

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After chatting with Silvio and José for a few hours I serendipitously run into my friends Holmes and Claudia who are here from Mexico with two other friends. We watch Quantic bring his particular brand of Latin-flavored funk and soul to a great set of mid-tempo songs made from his collaborative efforts with local Santiaguero musicians in the studio the previous week. He is followed by the prodigiously talented live electronic jazz trio led by Havana-based DJ and electronic producer Wichy de Vedado — another electric performance that typifies the spirit of Manana: old-school Cuban jazz and rumba sounds mixed with live samplers and drum machines. I also run into my new friend Aaron Liddard again right before he jumps onstage with Wichy de Vedado for a guest saxophone solo, which he kills.

Afterwards we head inside to check out the Fania / Calentura party to finish out the night at Cafe Cantante. I’ve been rocking their recent compilation Calentura: Global Bass quite a bit in my DJ sets and have been looking forward to seeing this crew perform for a while. As we enter the nightclub / bar area of the theater, the vibes and music are all about the get down.

“Might music play a role in sexual selection? Darwin thought so. In The Descent of Man he wrote, ‘I conclude that musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male or female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex. Thus musical tones became firmly associated with some of the strongest passions an animal is capable of feeling, and are consequently used instinctively…’ In seeking mates, our innate drive is to find — either consciously or unconsciously — someone who is biologically and sexually fit, someone who will provide us with children who are likely to be healthy and able to attract mates of their own. Music may indicate biological and sexual fitness, serving to attract mates.”

Daniel Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music

If Darwin’s position on the role of music in sexual selection is correct, it certainly would help explain the completely different musical and social scenes found in the Café Cantante vs. the main auditorium of Teatro Heredia, where all the folkloric music of MANANA was being presented. The club vibes from Fania’s Calentura party are filled with sweat, sex and sidelong glances. This wasn’t just due to song selection and a big club sound system hitting the crowd’s pelvic region with waves of undulating bass; there were just a lot more scantily dressed women and men in the club with that hungry look in their eyes. And, while one doesn’t want to make any assumptions in this day and age, it became fairly clear as the night wore on that a number of them were professionals. It’s not like we don’t have prostitution back in Miami, but it’s all a bit more obvious here in Santiago. Sex is a physical currency and a lot of people are exchanging it for paper.

Despite a number of blatant solicitations from women, my friends and I still manage to have a great time dancing our asses off to some world-class global bass music courtesy of Canyon Cody, Jeremy Sole, Uproot Andy and Nickodemus. These guys are paving a bright future for Afro-Latin and folkloric bass and club music worldwide and it’s exciting to see them here in such a completely different context that the clubs and bars of LA, New York or Miami.

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Amigos reunidos

After Calentura I’m ready to walk home and sleep.

Nicola Cruz - Sonar Barcelona 2016

We’re Living in a Nice Moment, Exposing Something Sincere and Unique: A Conversation with Nicola Cruz

By - 31 October, 2016

Ecuador’s folklore futurist, Nicola Cruz is in the middle of a tour taking in Europe and Latin America. Back in June, at Sonar Barcelona 2016, Sounds and Colours caught a moment to chat about the people and places that inspire him, Latin American electronica’s rise, and what the world can learn from folk culture.

What have the reactions to your sound been like from European audiences?

Well, so far so good! It’s always interesting to show my music all around. I think also, we are in an interesting period where people accept this music: the identity with roots and origins.

It seems like roots and cultural identity are strong influences on your work. Where are those roots for you?

Yeah I was born in France, I lived there for three years then I moved back to Ecuador – my parents are Ecuadorian – living in countries like that, you know, in South America you are really exposed to folklore all around: on the radio, when you walk around the city.

Of course, these are my main influences, to tell stories from the place, to tell stories from the coast, or the mountains, and use those types of colours. It just happened naturally.

Was music a big part of your childhood in these places?

Always, especially percussion. I always played percussion, and the world of rhythm, then I moved to sound design and studying acoustics and it just made sense to compose folklore and electronic music.

What kind of records were playing in your house when your were a kid?

[Laughs] I hate this question, cause there’s so many things I could say. Marimba music I guess, music from the Pacific. Latin music, I’ve always been into it, it’s very rhythmic.

Nicola Cruz - Sonar Barcelona 2016

Those rhythmic elements of Latin electronica is what really appealed to me when I discovered this music, especially the connection between rhythm and psychedelia that artists are experimenting with in scenes around Latin America. Why do you think there is such an interest in these particular musical aspects in the continent?

Well, I would say it’s the jungle [laughs]. You know, the jungle in essence is extremely psychedelic. The repetition. The repetition of greens, in the colours of the animals. I don’t live in the jungle myself but having the Amazon there is such an inspiration, having such a huge natural forest across the continent.

Given you don’t live in the forests, what other landscapes inspire you?

Quito, where I live, is really interesting because, first of all, we are at 2,800 metres above sea level and it’s really geographically irregular, you know? You travel around it and you always end up going up and down hills, you have these beautiful landscapes of huge mountains and volcanos.

I was really impressed with your version on the Luzmila Carpio compilation that was released by ZZK. They seem to be doing a great job bringing together artists from around the region. Do you feel a sense of community with other Latin electronica and modern folklore artists when you go abroad to Europe?

Yeah, like, Chancha Via Circuito or El Búho, SidiRum or Barrio Lindo, Matanza. We all know each other, we’ve all played together a couple of times. It’s always nice to meet, wherever we can. The Luzmila thing, Luzmila’s from Bolivia so she has this amazing type of folkloric music – Bolivia’s one of the most representative countries in Andean music – so it was really nice to do this reinterpretation of her work. I felt really honoured.

What do you think has made it possible at this moment in history for this music to travel internationally?

Well, I’m also trying to find that out! [laugh] I feel it’s a moment when people are recognising their origins, their roots. In a way that’s what Prender el Alma [Nicola’s 2015 release] speaks about: having this wider consciousness of where we come from. I feel we’re living in a nice moment, exposing something sincere and unique. I see that not only in South America, but also with folklore all around the world.

The collaboration you did with Huaira for the single from Prender, “Colibria” was really interesting. Who would you love to work with in the future?

There’s lots of people I’d like to work with, for example Quantic. I really like his work. He’s actually from England but he’s a genius how he understands Latin music, being from another place. That’s another example of how music is a universal language. You don’t need to speak French or German, or English or Spanish to communicate through music, it’s this one universal thing.

The music videos for your work are particularly impressive. How important are visuals to you and your work?

Part of conceptualising an album or certain songs is creating this circle: music and visuals. For example in the “Colibria” video I worked with a friend of mine called Camila Coba. He’s a really good director who specialises in photography, which you can see throughout the video, the frames are really special. I remember we thought it through a lot. We did this nice pre-work, then we shot in this jungle an hour away from Quito. It was very special, and now every time I see it I see something new that we did.

Your work seem to be very much representing the highlands, the mountains, like a painting with sound. Are there any film-makers who inspired you with a similar sensibility?

Cinema has always been an influence for me. I can’t think of any names right now, I would say mostly documentaries. [I suggest his music would be perfect for Baraka by Ron Fricke] [Laughs] That would be great, I’m a huge fan of Philip Glass. I don’t know if my music is for that situation. However I do feel my work is cinematic, whenever I begin a song I have this pre-image I would like to introduce sound to, so this visual aspect I talked about is always hand-in-hand with the music.

Finally, away from music, what have you been reading recently that really resonated with you?

I finished reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead last year. It’s a very complex book but it has this approach to death that meant a lot of people had recommended it to me. While I was travelling I decided to start reading it.

It makes me think a lot about the last period, when death is approaching, and how to take it. I feel we’re not nearly there, but for example when I speak with my grandfather I feel he’s closer. I see the relationship between the book and him as natural.

Is it this spiritual component which folklore speaks about that’s missing from everyday life?

I don’t know about missing, because who’s to say what’s missing from someone’s life? More than spirituality, it’s a bigger consciousness that’s needed, like awareness in lots of daily stuff. Where I come from they like to explode natural resources, lately they just want to completely destroy it. This is the kind of awareness that’s missing, that there’s a point where there’s no going back with our effects on the places we live or the people who live there.

Nicola Cruz - Sonar Barcelona 2016

cuba-manan-chapter3

Chapter 3: Que Bonito es el Turismo

By - 10 August, 2016

Day 3 / 3rd May 2016

The housekeeper at Casa Marmol offers me breakfast of an omelette with ham, toast, tropical fruits and coffee so strong, it keeps me wired all day.

After some WiFi time at Plaza Céspedes, I head to Sala Dolores, where I was told Ariwo will be rehearsing and again run into Aaron Liddard, who’s headed there too. While hanging out inside the rehearsal room watching the band I realize that I am very content to be where I am at that moment, witnessing the creation of entirely new forms of music drawn from at least four different historical sources: Persian music, electronica, Afro-Cuban and jazz. This is, after all, the whole point of Manana: to bridge cultures and generate forward-thinking electro-folkloric musical collaborations between Cuba, the UK, Europe and the Americas while simultaneously honouring and spreading awareness of older Afro-Cuban music.

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Aaron Liddard, Saxophonist & Stand-Up Gent

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Yelfris, Noda and Hammadi from Ariwo

I break away to catch the tail-end of the festival’s official opening ceremony speech at Teatro Herédia, a mixed bag of Cuban propaganda and arts advocacy with Alberto Lescay, Manana ambassador and designer of the massive sculpture at the nearby Plaza de la Revolución. The plaza sculpture, which is the largest in the country, depicts Santiago’s native son and hero, Antonio Maceo, sitting atop his horse in front of 23 huge machetes that look like an abattis designed by Richard Serra. When I wander off to explore the Teatro Herédia complex, I discover that there is no running water in the bathrooms and no flushing toilets, which is a bit worrisome given the hundreds and maybe even thousands of people expected for the festival tomorrow.

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Plaza de La Revolución

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Hand-drawn sign for MANANA CUBA

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Hand-drawn sign for MANANA CUBA (detail)

As I return to the veranda I notice the people assembled for the opening speech moving inside the Teatro Heredia. so I follow the crowd inside where I hear the distinctive sound of Batá drums and bells. Given the revered place that Yoruban percussion and singing has in Cuban cultural and spiritual life, it’s not surprising that the ceremonial opening of the Manana festival begins with a group of Batá drummers called the Santiago Batá Ensemble:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?list=PL-PbHYCUuJ4pllnu-iEbuTQlDCWg2TXEZ&v=wOOlwqoHb8Q

After the performance, I speak with a member of the group, a man named Silvio Bell Echevarría, about the significance of this opening performance and of the Batá drums that already seem to be everywhere at Manana. I’ve been pondering about this, not only for my research but as a fellow percussionist. Silvio’s face perks up with a warm smile and a rich baritone voice belying years of musical experience. He tells me about how and where different types of ceremonial (Fundamento) vs. secular (Aberikula) Batá drums can be played and with which rhythms. It’s all a bit much to remember amidst the constant stimulation of new visual and aural information I’ve been taking in since I arrived in Cuba, so after we finish our rum and cokes, I ask him if he’d be interested in doing an interview the next day. He accepts my request and we agree to meet up the next day for a few performances and a late-afternoon interview on camera.

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Silvio Bell Echevarría

As the week continues, Silvio and I will fall into a sort of barter-based, professional friendship, spending hours together each day, during which he will educate me about the different types of Afro-Cuban rhythms and song forms presented at the festival, as well as the differences between music of the Oriente (East, i.e. Santiago) and the Occidente (West, i.e. Havana/Matanzas) of Cuba. He will describe styles such as Tumba Francesa (Santiaguero music societies with Franco-Hatian origins), Guaguancó, Changüí, Son Montuno, Son Cubano, Gagá, Vodún, Rumba, Son, Merengue Haitiano, and expound on the differences and overlaps between music of various Afro-Cuban religious sects from Ifá to Palo.

By the week’s end, I will have bought a couple of CDs from Silvio, T-shirts, and many drinks for us both. In return, he supplies me with a wealth of insight into Afro-Cuban music and its cultural and spiritual roots. Our conversations last for hours and Silvio never seems to tire of my questions.

From my end, it’s more than a fair deal.

That night, after taking in a spectacular sunset at Balcón de Velasquez…

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Sunset at Balcón De Veláquez amidst Zika virus fumigation

I make my way to Casa Micaela, formerly Casa de la Música, expecting another performance, but the place is still empty and the band is still rehearsing. Gradually, the place fills with a mix of foreigners and Santiagueros. This show is not officially part of the Manana Festival programming but many of the artists performing — DJ Jigüe & Guampara Productions crew, Wichy De Vedado, Nickodemus, Uproot Andy — are on the festival schedule. It seems word of the off-site performance has gotten out because I see professional video cameras start to set up and it’s not long before the press presence begins to dominate the space, with cameramen edging onto the stage to get their close-up shots.

Despite the large film crew presence onstage in such a tight space, the artists eventually get comfortable enough to dance and perform while navigating around the half dozen active camera operators, and deliver an electric performance nearly until dawn.

While a I wait for a moto-taxi at the plaza to take me home for the night, a staggering drunk man sings boldly into the night to an audience of none, though with an incredible voice that makes me think this man should be a star.

“One day I’m going to become a millionaire from my music,” he tells me when he passes me by.

Then, “Can I have 3 CUCs so I can get some more rum?

cuba-WIFIDelica

Chapter 2: Quiero Conectarme a La WiFi

By - 08 July, 2016

Day 2: 2nd May 2016

After breakfast, I leave the casa particular shielding my eyes from the bright sun as I lost my only pair of sunglasses at some point in yesterday’s airport-guagua shuffle and there doesn’t seem to be anywhere around town where I can pick up another pair.

Instead, I turn my search to Wi-Fi.

Private home internet access is virtually non-existent in Cuba except for embassy residences and for those with government connections. Often what you’ll find is dial-up modems, so most people only have the option of connecting to newly established government Wi-Fi networks in public parks and plazas with access cards purchased through ETECSA, Cuba’s national telecom. At the first ETECSA kiosk I find, I purchase three Wi-Fi cards with an hour of connectivity each for 6 CUC and circle around the corner to Plaza Céspedes where locals and tourists sit scattered on benches, and stare into phone and tablet screens.

In Cuba, even the internet is an outdoor activity.

I spend an hour or so checking social media and posting an obligatory old car photo, then head in the direction Café Dranguet, Manana Festival’s information hub, and run into Natalia Linares, the festival’s Cuban-American press coordinator on the way. She briefs me on the day’s activities and somehow during our conversation, we end up trading her sunglasses for my internet cards; bartering, I will soon learn, is standard practice in Santiago.

Time to check in at my new home for the week: a 1950s style two-floor casa particular called Casa Marmol, sourced through Airbnb. My room is clean, simple, and frosty with air conditioning. I unpack and gather my various digital media devices to catch the rehearsal of an artist called Gifted and Blessed at Iris Jazz Café that Natalia mentioned to me earlier. Shuttling around the city in taxis can get expensive, so, for a fraction of the price, I hail another moto-taxi and pull out my camera to record the experience in 360 degrees:

iris-jazz-club

Iris Jazz Club is empty, save for the barman at the front. I ask if this is the right place and the barman says yes, just that nobody has arrived yet ; we’re on Cuban time. I can’t resist ordering a mojito while I wait, setting up my recording gear in the performance hall, which is dimly lit with dark wood panelling and a psychedelic mural of strange-looking horns blowing out a whirlwind of multi-coloured geometric shapes. There’s a photo-wall of famous jazz musicians, many of whom have graced this very theatre. Onstage there’s a piano, a drum set, some congas and a set of batá drums.

Gabriel Reyes-Whittaker, aka the musician Gifted and Blessed, in from Los Angeles, shows up with a backpack full of gear including an Elektron Octatrack drum machine/sampler and an Analog Four synthesizer/sequencer, donated to the Manana Festival by the Swedish electronic musical instrument company Elektron to foster collaborations exactly like the one whose genesis I’m about to witness:

Gabe and his two Cuban collaborators jam for about an hour so, in what appears to be a somewhat unfocused, but still compelling, mixture of sequenced electronic drums, jazzy, modal Bossa-flavoured chord progressions by GB via the Elektron, piano solos, live break-beats and Latin-jazz fusion beats on drum set and percussion. Though I’m thoroughly enjoying the music and mojitos, I’ve been here for hours and have got to move on and see what else Santiago has to offer this evening.

In the main lobby, I check to see if I can pick up the Wi-Fi signal from Plaza Martes across the street. Another tall white Yuma (Cuban for “gringo”), also on the hunt for Wi-Fi, sits nearby and we get to chatting about music and our hometowns. He’s Aaron Liddard, from London, and his friends in the group called Ariwo have invited him here; a musician, like myself, but not playing at the festival, or at least not officially. We talk over a couple of beers, until interrupted by what sounds like a large percussion ensemble playing outside in the plaza. We step out to see what’s happening in the square and come across a comparsa called Tambores De Bonne. They are not performing at Manana, but the music is typical of the type of Santiaguero folk ensembles that are gracing the schedule.

Comparsas are large ensembles of musicians, singers and dancers with a specific costume and choreography which perform in the street carnivals of Santiago de Cuba and Havana. Congas santiagueras include the corneta china (Chinese cornet), which is an adaptation of the Cantonese suona introduced in Oriente in 1915, and its percussion section comprises bocúes (similar to African ashiko drums), the quinto (highest pitched conga drum), galletas and the pilón, as well as brakes which are struck with metal sticks)” — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conga_(music)

tambores-de-bonne

Aaron and I eventually part ways, and after about four blocks walking along Calle Enramadas (Street of Tabernacles), the main commercial promenade stretching from one end of downtown Santiago to the other, I manage to get hooked into one of Cuba’s most common tourism schemes: the impromptu tour guide posing as your new best friend.

Two wiry black men with ruddy but friendly faces approach me asking if I like live music.

“Sure,” I say, a little suspicious, but interested given that this is the entire purpose of my visit here. “Why?”

One of the guys, who claims to be a dance teacher, tells me that close by a great music ensemble is playing Son Rumbero. I decide to roll with the guys to the bar. It’s early evening on a well-lit street with plenty of people everywhere. I feel like these guys will probably end up asking me for money at some point, but for now, I’m just killing time.

They must sense my American caution, though. To reassure me, the more talkative one pulls out his Cuban national ID (carnet) to show that he is, in fact, a registered, government-approved dance teacher. Then his friend pulls out his own carnet proving that he, too, is a registered teacher: of boxing.

The bar is, of course, a total tourist trap, with a mediocre band. I’m hungry, and the guys tell me about another place, a nice restaurant with live music too. I’m a little sceptical of their tour guiding skills at this point, but we head over, and I buy the guys a couple of beers for their services. We talk about life in Santiago and the music scene here compared to that of Havana, while a young woman and old man playing a guitar perform old Cuban boleros.

The dancer and the boxer tell me how hard it is to make a living as a salsa instructor and as a boxing coach who, though a former pro, has suffered too many concussions.

I notice the dance teacher wears a green and yellow beaded necklace and bracelet, for the orisha Orúnmila, syncretized with St. Francis of Assisi, for protection from death arriving at the wrong moment. The conversation shifts toward Santería, then to Fidel, about whom the dance teacher repeats a popular local rumour that the reason Fidel has lasted so long and survived so many assassination attempts, never losing his power over the island, is because he’s a secretly a babalawo, a priest of Ifá.

I’m fairly sure the rumour is apocryphal but who knows: it’s not like there’s a free press in Cuba to either confirm or deny the rumour and it’s probably worked to Fidel’s advantage to neither confirm or deny it.

As expected, when we head back to the Plaza Céspedes sometime around midnight so I can catch a moto-taxi home, the dancer and the boxer reveal their hustle by making their pitch to me for some cash.

No sob stories though. They tell me all they want is to be able to buy a bottle of rum to take to a party.

I respect their honest hustle and give them 5 CUC, thanking them for showing me around.

paladarmaria

Chapter 1: The Yuma and the Guagua

By - 29 June, 2016

Day 1: 1st May 2016

Cuba does not care if you are uncomfortable or in a hurry. Here, you learn to wait. I become aware of this detail of cubanidad almost upon arrival at Jose Martí International Airport in Havana where, after a slightly awkward exchange with a female airport security worker who tells me, “eres muy lindo” as I remove several articles of clothing for the baggage scanner, I spend half an hour searching for the currency exchange counter.

The three different people I ask for help give me three contradicting sets of directions, making me question my Spanish, which I’ve always believed to be fluent. At the Cadeca, four women in brown uniform shirts count stacks of cash, by hand, blanketing their desks with bills. After thirty minutes of waiting for them to finish and open for business, I take a seat on the airport floor below the counter and doze off, tired from a long night preparing for this trip, and the 4am flight check-in time. Another ninety minutes passes before one of the women shakes me awake, and I see a fat queue of impatient foreigners has formed behind me. I change some Euros I got in Miami to the Cuban convertible peso, aka the CUC, and get on my way.

From the airport, I take a taxi to the El Cobre train station, hoping to catch the six o’clock train to Santiago de Cuba, on the other side of the island, where the Manana Festival will begin in three days. When I ask the security officers at the station where I can buy a ticket they stare at me like I’m asking for the nearest bullet train.

“You can’t get a ticket because the ticket office for foreigners is closed,” one officer tells me.

“When will it open?” I ask.

“Tuesday.”

It’s Sunday morning.

“Can’t I just buy a ticket to get on the train?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because it doesn’t work that way here in Cuba. You have to have a Cuban National ID to get on the train right now.”

“I need to get to Santiago, so is there any way I can get on this train?”

“You’re not getting it. You can’t. It’s not going to happen today. You have to wait until Tuesday. Try the Vía Azul buses.”

Ok then; Santiago by bus it is. After going through another fruitless and frustrating exchange with the ticketing agents at the nearby bus station, I find out I have to go to yet another bus station specifically for foreigners, only to find that the only bus to Santiago that day has already left. Next option: a guagua. Cuban guaguas are essentially heavy-duty trucks of widely varying quality and construction, retrofitted with metal cabins and bench seats or old, used bus seats. They are not very comfortable but they are considerably cheaper than any other form of long-distance ground transportation making it a popular choice for Cubans.

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El Yuma

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La Gaugua

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Cubanos en La Guagua

The price for a fifteen-hour ride to Santiago: 12 CUC, or about 12 US dollars. I console myself with the idea that I’m getting an ‘authentic’ perspective of the trip between Havana and Santiago, travelling as ‘real Cubans’ do, and find a seat on the front bench of the bus facing the guagua (full of passengers staring back at me) the uncomfortable Yuma who only just now realises this is going to be a very tedious, ass-jarring, day-long ride over Cuba’s poorly-maintained highways. Various items rain down from storage shelves above us, secured with dry-rotted rubber bungee cords that threaten an avalanche of makeshift cardboard luggage and bags of rotting potatoes and onions. The guagua breaks down three times on the road to Santiago, nearly catching fire from a loose battery cable, and has to be push-started on the side of the highway twice. Not one passenger seems surprised in the least.

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We make a late-afternoon stop in a dusty little village restaurant called Paladar María (Paladars are privately-owned restaurants) where I find temporary relief in a cold Cerveza Cristal and some chicken with beans and rice.

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The guagua jangles along for another 8 hours before I arrive in Santiago at 2:30 in the morning, deposited on a deserted street, unsure of my exact location, without the help of mobile service or Google to help me find my way to my destination.

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I flag the nearest motorcycle taxi I can find, ask him to take me to the Plaza Céspedes, climb into his sidecar and rumble off into the dark early-morning heart of the most humid and petroleum-scented city I’ve ever seen.

Members of the late-night staff at Hotel Casa Granda, near the Teatro Herédia, where the Manana Festival is set take place, graciously help me find a room in a local casa particular to spend what’s left of the night. I’m welcomed with a private bathroom, fresh towels, air conditioning and a Chihuahua named Beatriz. I shower off the day’s sweaty travel grime, drop onto my single bed covered with peach-coloured sheets and slip into an easy asleep.

Welcome to Cuba.

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Wrapping Up With A Room Full of Fuzz: Sónar Day 3

By - 19 June, 2016

Day three of Sónar Barcelona 2016 was a quiet affair for this reporter. With only one artist hailing from Latin America, Saturday was a welcome opportunity to wind down before leaving town early Sunday.

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Malard is the musical brainchild of Colombian-born Sebastián De Los Ríos, currently based in Barcelona studying sound art and audio installation. His skills and interest in the artistic side of performance was on full display today in the Redbull-sponsored Dome, where his set was a great mix of cerebral and sensory.

Sending a guitar signal to a laptop and then messing mightily with the sound, Malard is a project that suited the mood of a slightly washed out Saturday crowd perfectly. Ambient and drone influences are clear, as the minimal input from the strings gets stretched out into impossible new shapes made up of white noise and echoes of melody.

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Malard’s stage presence is minimal, in keeping with the musical aesthetic: content to simply lead the sound in organic directions, he layers fuzz and phasing noise in an unstructured and unhurried fashion. There’s strong pulses of bass, rising to fill the hall and resonating somewhere just behind the ears, at the base of where the skull joins the spine.

The departing effect is to leave a very appreciative, if visibly dazed, crowd to applaud and try to process at the close of the set, as the final note fades.

Malard’s performance concludes Sounds and Colours featured coverage of Latin American and Latin influenced artists at Sónar 2016. But, but, buuuuuuut, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and, as always, keep an eye on the website.

We should have a full-length Nicola Cruz interview conducted at Sónar up soon, as well as photos and video from the last three days of festivities!

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Dreampop, Swamp Psychedelia and the King of Sleaze: Sónar Day 2

By - 18 June, 2016

Day two of Sónar started early with Argentine solo artists Sobrenadar (Paula Garcia, pictured below). Setting up centre stage in the cavernous hall with only a handful of people looking the worse for yesterday’s festivities, Garcia’s ‘aquatic dreampop’ (according to Wikipedia) soon won over the entire room and brought in a steady flow of interested ears. With only a guitar and a laptop/synth setup, Sobrenadar’s sound is surprisingly huge; like taking a deep dive in a warm sea of percussion and waves of bass.

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Awwz (Spain, pictured below) saw her 2015 release Bimba garner great reviews in the indie and dance press in Latin America, and made steps out of Spain with tour dates in Mexico. Today she was playing to her home crowd in Barcelona but had to contend with the weather, which turned torrential soon into her set. Playing to a dedicated hardcore of soaking wet dancers in the main arena (and a whole lot more cowardly but dry folks undercover) Awwz showcased her blend of futuristic R&B, storm be damned.

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Heavy on the sub-bass and kicks with nice shuffling hi-hats, there was a recurring sigh of synthesiser underpinning her music that added to the edge of melancholy and set it apart from the uptempo and upbeat that can dominate a festival. It’s not dour or gloomy but it has a nice emotional bite that may come as a surprise.

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Colombian DJ Las Hermanas (pictured above) was instantly my favourite performer on sight, simply for the band t-shirt from stoner doom band Sleep he took to the decks in. Given the apparel, his set was a totally-appropriate mix of treacle thick bass and dubby psychedelic soul. The selection was abrupt and choppy in places, but the mixing of ambient samples, creepy vocal clips and vintage brass was great, as if Nightmares on Wax were raised in a swamp in the lowlands and fed a steady diet of peyote and classic films.

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Trying to fit in two legends from either side of the Atlantic, I caught parts of performances from Roots Manuva (UK, pictured above) and Underground Resistance (USA). The former is a laconic rapper from London with a slack-seeming but razor-sharp delivery that makes him the sloppy ninja of British rap. The latter is a seminal Detroit techno outfit that influenced a generation of artists around the world. Both are worth checking out on record and in the flesh if you get the chance.

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Finally, Chile’s prodigal Germanic son, Matias Aguayo, was there to shake the foundations and to shake his hips in a militant fashion in his bid to be crowned the king of electro-sleaze (in keeping with the royal titles in yesterday’s roundup). Aguayo is energetic to the point of mania, irrepressibly filthy in his manner, and in possession of the finest selection of tunes to touch on everything between two musical/cultural stereotypes: innuendo-laden, lithe bodied Latin, and heavy-duty, fist-pounding teutonic techno stomp.

Thankfully the hour is late, and the crowd are in the mood to be seduced. The set starts slow with some simple pop games, breaking the ice before the evening descends into a tropical fever. In my notes for the set, I’ve written ‘just relentless’ (that’s a positive). Throughout Aguayo urges the crowd on, singing dirty, and chanting robotic filth into a vocoder’d microphone over rolling tech drums and 303 filter abuse.

There are enough varied breaks and hints at Aguayo’s continued fascination with pop to stop it being a one note display. Some mutated cumbia breaks out at various points, and a big vocal bridge sets up a wall of crazed snares hinting at the upcoming drop that grows and grows, until the wave crashes down and the crowd explodes into a frenzy of movement.

With that, its time to fix up, shower down, and bid farewell to another day. You can get in touch during the third and final instalment of this year’s festival via Twitter @MumblingMusing.

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Melting Landscapes, Puerto Rican Princes and Mad Professors: Sónar Day 1

By - 17 June, 2016

Spending a day of sunshine and blue skies dodging wonky dancers and ‘serious music types’ is a strange experience at a festival. Everyone attending Sónar seems to be there for the music but the casual bacchanalia is clearly present in the sunburn and too-big grins of some attendees. Getting photos and navigating crowds in a mix like this is a matter of not stepping on the toes of chin-strokers, and smiling wider than anyone sane if you happen to bump into the ones too far gone. Thankfully some of our featured artists were there, as well as some honourable mentions, and duty obviously kept this reporter on the straight and narrow.

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The first day started in a reassuringly righteous manner thanks to the the ever brilliant Mad Professor and the Spanish Dub Invasion. The veteran dub-reggae producer had three fine local MCs on hand to help fight off the vampires of Babylon, backed up by a none-finer selection of riddims. The set was largely heavily-versioned reggae standards, featuring crowd-pleasers from Bob Marley and Max Romeo, so that while not very far out by the good Professor’s standards, it got the crowd skanking and singing early.

Nicola Cruz drew a good crowd to the indoor stage, for a set that pushed some hefty doses of synth along with the ambient soundscaping he’s perhaps better known for. Combined with a tremendous projection graphic of morphing rorschach inkblots and melting landscapes, Cruz’s set was a reminder of how much space there is to get lost in the rhythms and interlocking, puzzle-piece melodies that go into the music; guitars lurch and shimmer in and out of the beat but always land when and where they should, and shakers keep a subtler and slipperier time than militant kick drums do.

There’s plenty of shuffling in the audience as most respond bodily, even if their brains are still trying to process, and the set draws more people in as it gets heavier. More synth leads and bass lines get introduced, and leavened a little with folk instrumentation at the bridges and builds. It’s a testament to the strength of the material and to Cruz’s performance that he can take the crowd to some quite unfamiliar territories and still keep them together throughout.

France’s Acid Arab are a great DJ duo pulling the best and most hypnotic elements of acid techno and Mediterranean Arabic music together into a wonderful stew of finger-cymbals, 303 bass and ululation-inspiring build-ups and breakdowns.

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Lady Leshurr (UK; pictured above) brought the house down with a short set of her ‘Queen’s Speech’ material, added some grime to Sister Nancy’s classic “Bam Bam” and generally performed like she owned the place. Long live the Queen.

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Brooklyn house’s Puerto Rican prince, the Master at Work, Kenny Dope closed proceedings on the shortened first day (the following days go until the early morning) with a set that laid down a mark for the days to follow. Showing off a selection that drew on classic garage and hard house, polished modern beats and a mix that kept the whole crowd moving. It may have been the late hour and the last show-of-the-day feeling but it says something about a DJ who can bring together silver-haired disco mums, undercut sporting tech-heads, the summer-print fashion mafia, and the crustiest dreads.

Bring on day two, fingers crossed on the sun and blue sky…

All photos by Charlie Bailey.

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Argentina’s Pablo De Caro Pays Tribute To Velvet Underground

By - 15 April, 2016

The classic saying that has always stuck with Velvet Underground was supposedly once said by Brian Eno: “The first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 copies in the first five years. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.” It speaks of the influence of the band, especially in terms of their ability to influence other bands.

Since Eno said those words I think it’s fair to say that their influence has grown even stronger, spreading far and wide across the globe, with its tentacles reaching and setting root firmly in Argentina. A few years ago we reported on the fact that the Argentine indie music scene had put together a track-by-track cover of VU’s debut album Velvet Underground & Nico. Now, it’s the turn of Argentine singer/songwriter Pablo De Caro who has put together a 5-track tribute to the Velvet Underground.

Imaginatively titled Vuelvete Underground (translating as something like “Becoming Underground”), the EP features covers of three Velvet Underground tracks, “Femme Fatale”, “Candy Says” as well as the less-known “Over You”, as well as covers of Nico’s “The Fairest Of The Seasons” and John Cale’s “Andalucia”, all of which have been translated into Spanish. Simply recorded with guitar, vocals and sparse cello, drums and keyboards, the release shows once more the incredible influence of the Velvet Underground worldwide, as well as the Argentinian passion for a bit of VU.

Listen and download (for free) Vuelvete Underground below:

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Episode 6: Disques Barclay and the International Collection

By - 12 November, 2015

Music is as long as it is wide. from the smallest pluck of a string, to the incessant groaning of all the human beings on earth just living their lives. Linear narratives are just not enough.

CAIFE distributed records for Disques Barclay, one of France’s most influential platforms. This week’s sounds come from a whole series of Barclay’s master tapes that were received in Ecuador for the pressing of Barclay 45s. Eduard Ruault, also known as Eddie Barclay, founded the record label in the 50s. He was known for having a good nose for music. He famously brought the incredible Dalida to fame, but is also known to have refused to sign Bob Marley.

This week’s tapes are just a cross section, a core sample, a sliver of what was going on around the globe while CAIFE was pressing records. From chachacha, to French westerns. From the jungles of Paraguay to the pyramids of Giza. This is a little taster of CAIFE records’ international section.

Track Listing

1. Intro (Musica Interncaional Orquestada — no alt. label)
2. Unknown
3. Lucia Mendez – Polvo
4. Unknown – La Invasion
5. Unknown
6. Salgado Jr. – Mambo Borracho
7. Francesa Epic Western
8. Jevita Mia
9. Les Stranpontins – Shame and Scandal in the Family
10. Los Guaranís – La Noche y tu
11. Unknown
12. Badabada Bing Bing
13. Jacques Brel – Bruxelles
14. Quinteto América – Mulata (Cumbia)
15. Los Trovadores del Paraguay – Cascada (Polka Paraguaya)

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Will Smith Makes His Comeback on Remix of Bomba Estéreo’s ‘Fiesta’ [VIDEO]

By - 19 October, 2015

Excuse me if you’ve heard this one before as this track has been rattling around the Internet for a week or so now. This is the unlikely tale of Will Smith‘s re-emergence on the music scene after a near-decade silence. For his comeback he decided to work with Bomba Estéreo on a version of their “Fiesta” track, from their recent Amanecer album. The collaboration came after “Big Will” (as he perpetually likes to call himself) heard the track on a trip to Colombia and felt the need to get jiggy on it.

The resultant collaboration can be seen and heard below in a brand new video set in a dystopian warehouse perfect for the track’s carnal pleasures. As for Smith’s return to rapping the less be said the better. Quite why Smith thinks peddling stereotypes about going to Colombia in search of his own Sofia Vergara or other colombiana in designer clothes is beyond me. And the rhymes (asking a mamacita for a beer-a!) well there can be no doubt he’s out of practice.

Yet Smith’s presence has propelled the track onto new heights. Whereas “Fiesta” reached #20 in the Latin Pop digital charts on first release, this remix has already shot to #1. Which tells you all you need to know about the price of popularity. Get a Fresh Prince on your track and you’re guaranteed a hit, even when it means he then has to rap on it. Let’s just hope that the new fans Bomba Estéreo have surely accrued through the exercise stay loyal and the group stick to their roots rather than get too wrapped up in Miami’s superficial sound machine.

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Episode 5: Música Popular Ecuatoriana

By - 07 October, 2015

Before being a musical genre, complete with tonal structures and rhythmic conventions, pop music was just short for popular. It was not dictated by any aesthetic constraint, but simply had to be appealing to large groups of people. Pop music existed everywhere, and was different wherever you went. In the days before the internet fuelled globalization, popularity of one genre to the next varied from valley to valley, mountain to mountain.

When we talk about Ecuadorian popular music we are talking about hundreds of years of history. The cross-pollination of native musical forms and instruments with those of Spain which in turn had within them infused elements from across Europe.

When we speak of national identities, we tread a quagmire. The nations of the Americas are all very young: born out of the Royal Audience of Quito, a territorial division created by the Spanish that spanned a territory of one million square kilometres and reached the Atlantic ocean at the mouth of the Amazon.

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This map shows the full extent of the Royal Audience of Quito and its successive loss of territory from 1563 to present day Ecuador.

This region was created in 1563 and subdivided into provinces controlled by the Spanish who used the Amazon River as a means of communication and transport. Inevitably, culture was transported up and down the river, and its waters became as much a cultural confluence as a fluvial one.

The lands of The Royal Audience of Quito were conceded over the years, mostly to the Portuguese, but also to what would become Peru, and Colombia.

Ecuador became independent in 1822 as a province of the Gran Colombia, which lasted nine years and then dissolved. It is only by 1831 that Ecuador became a formally recognized nation. The music we consider to be Ecuadorian is like water; it crosses borders freely and diffuses slowly from region to region; it pools in fertile ground winding slowly through the plains but eventually reaching the ocean. The instruments may change, the ensembles vary, but the Venezuelan waltz, the Colombian and Ecuadorian pasillo, and the vals Peruano, are all deeply connected.

There are however, certain genres that have become inseparable from the cultural fabric of this region. Today’s mixtape/show focuses on two (of many more) Ecuadorian musical forms: musica mestiza, and musica criolla.

Musica mestiza took the basic structures of indigenous musical forms and adjusted the ensembles; replacing clay drums with wood drums, interweaving flutes, guitars and other lute like instruments that evolved into charangos, ronrocos, requintos, and bandolines; the sanjuanito is the most famous of the latter’s forms, but the albazo, and tonada are also heard everywhere, from tiny radios, to street performers.

The tonadas and albazos are considered to be the great grandchildren of the yaraví, three and six count, story laden structures. The tonada tells stories of loss, filled with wise phrases about the cruel relentlessness of time. They often carry a sort of drunken swing to them, with sharp emotional melodies, switching from minor to major and back again, the tonadas have survived with great strength, taking hammond organs and casio keyboards under their wing over time.

The albazo, or cachullapi, is a tad faster than the tonada. Albazos are meant to energize the festivities when dawn has finally arrived, hence the name ‘alba’-zo. Not to play favorites but albazos have always had a big impact on my ears. The dynamism of the bombo, and rim, and the inevitable groove that it sends your body into. They have a gallop about them. Albazos can be heard all over the Americas in varying forms. The chacareras of the Southern Andes, and even some Venezuelan and Peruvian vals. These songs transmit the feeling of a hopeful future, energizing and positive.

The sanjuanito, or San Juan, is in 2/4 and has the feeling of a quick and short stepped-march. Its origin is not certain; some scholars believe it to be rooted in an ancient ceremonial dance, a celebration of the summer solstice, the Inti Raymi, which became known as the San Juan after the Spanish conquest. However, Raul and Margarita Harcourt, the famous French musicologists believe that the San Juan is a derivation of the huaynito, an Inca Musical form that spread throughout Ecuador in the brief 30-60 year Inca conquest. But there was, for a long time, a tendency to overestimate the influence that the Inca empire was able to have in its short occupation of what is now Ecuador.

The sanjuanito is born from festivals with ornate characters, parades, processions, theatrics, and fireworks. The streets are invaded by creatures from another world, like the Aya Huma, a two faced devil with a giant headdress, wearing bull skin chaps, goat hoof shakers hanging from his belt, and bells around the ankles. What I mean to say is that sanjuanitos were made for marathon parties, built to make the participants last, for week-long bacchanals, celebrations of cosmic wealth, abundance, sacrifice and homage to the gods.

the aya huma, is a sort of two faced devil, and is a dancer at the San Juan festivities. (photo credit: Francesca Rota)

The Aya Huma is an essential part of the San Juan festivities. (photo: Francesca Rota)

Of these three forms, the tonadas are heard most often and tend to be mislabelled sanjuanitos or pasacalles. Slower than the albazo, tonadas became hits in the cantinas. They aren’t all sadness though, alternating from minor to major, they convey a sense of hope and expectation, that is bound to be dashed by tragedy.

Musica criolla, was a term coined by the criollos to distinguish their music from the music of the natives and mestizos. It was surely a move motivated by the false ideal of European superiority. Musica criolla adopted popular musical forms from Europe and integrated them into a local context. This brought the Viennese waltz to our shores, and made the paso doble the preferred dance of the European settlers in their ballrooms. However, these European genres struggled to remain ‘pure’ and eventually became intermixed with their native counterparts. The pasillo emerged, borrowing the rhythms of the waltz, slowing it down, and giving it the cadence and tone of the sanjuanitos and tonadas. The pasodoble, on the other hand, quickened and adopted the manner of a San Juan, thus becoming the pasacalle.

The term criollo (‘creole’ in English), comes out of a racial discrimination based on percentages of pure European blood. The criollos were full blooded Europeans that had been born in the Americas. Musica criolla was the same; European music born in the Americas.

It must be said, that as time goes by, these superficial distinctions recede into the tides and cultures blend and cross-pollinate in ways that unify them for the future. To us, the distinction is an aesthetic one, and not a very significant one, to the point that in our time pasillos, pasacalles, sanjuanitos, albazos and tonadas can fit nicely together into a solid playlist.

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Laura Muenala plays everyday on Calle Chile in the old city centre of Quito. She is blind and is part of an association of blind accordionists who play on the streets for money. Laura was playing “Cansados Pies” as I photographed her, a song that is part of Episode 1, but that I hadn’t been able to identify until today. Her musical memory is impressive and she plays and sings hundreds of songs every day of the week.

There is a tendency to view the idea of a musical genre as something fixed, parametrized, something that can be defined by tempo, but in fact every musical genre is a continuum, a process. The process has not stopped, and in a way this is a glimpse into the origins of the process. Today there is a new mestizaje going on. Just like it has always been, the process of creating musical culture continues, and with it come new tools, ideas and platforms which have the potential to enrich and also decimate our local culture. The roots of Ecuadorian popular music are of a constant and vibrant interplay of the seemingly disparate.

On October 1st, the Ecuadorian Ministry of Culture celebrates a national day in honour of the pasillo Ecuatoriano, and though I’m all for celebrating our musical forms, it seems unjust that the pasillo would be the only one to have a day in its honour. Our mixtape this week, again from the unlabeled section, is a selection of six Ecuadorian musical genres. Tonadas, sanjuanitos, albazos, pasillos and pasacalles. Some of these tracks are instrumentals, and none of them were labelled, so I had to play this mixtape to all the willing ears to see if they could identify any of the songs, and they did; these tunes run deep in the collective mind.

Tracklisting:

1. “Poncho Verde” (Instrumental) – Unknown (Tonada)

2. “Ay Caramba” – Mendoza Suasti (Tonada)

4. “Huashca de Coral” (or “Peshte Longuita”) (Sanjuanito)

5. “La Naranja” – Unknown (Tonada)

6. Unknown (Albazo)

7. “Romance de Mi Destino” –  Valencia (Pasillo)

8. “Cuatro de la Mañana” –  Valencia (Tonada)

9. “Mi Adoracion” -Fausto Salgado (Pasillo)

10. “Chola Cuencana” – Duo Benitez Valencia (Pasacalle)

11. “Ayayay Cuando Me Muera”  – Fausto Salgado (Tonada)

Thanks to: Laura Muenala, Francesca Rota, Fidel Eljuri, Ata Wallpa, and Guanaco Mc for their help with the research for this episode.