“Letting Nature Come Back Into The City” An Interview With Teto Ocampo11 February, 2013
Mucho Indio is the current project of Colombian musician Teto Ocampo. Working with indigenous rhythms and melodies from a multitude of Colombia’s tribes, it’s a project with it’s heart firmly in nature and indigenous life but with a sound that pushes boundaries for it’s mix of field recordings, free-form song structures and mix of digital and organic textures, an unsurpassable aural treat that “continually surprises with the quality and density of both it’s spirit and musical richness.”
It’s a long way from Ocampo’s previous role as music director for Vallenato megastar Carlos Vives during the height of his success in the early 90s, but carries on the genre-defying and often political music he made with Bloque de Búsqueda (simply Bloque in the US) and Teto Y Los Virus, as well as his continuing work in Sidestepper.
I met Teto in his home in Candelaria with a notebook full of questions about Mucho Indio and all his previous projects. In the end we talked for two hours and I never quite got further than asking him about Mucho Indio, a project with which he is clearly abundantly passionate and which appears to be satisfying both his musical and political needs. Here is what we talked about…
Could you tell us how Muchi Indio started?
It actually started as a political group. I was asked by some English guys who used to have a party – a cabildo – to direct the party’s committee, in Candelaria. I said “no” at first because I have no idea of political work. But they told me they needed me to do politics through arts. So I thought it would be a nice experience. They knew that my work was pretty political, the lyrics I was using. I used to have this band called Teto Y Los Virus; it was kind of Colombian folk music but with punk sound, very aggressive lyrics, sarcastic. I used to talk about indigenous thinking and history and politics. So this party knew I was doing that and hired me, and I invited artists from around here to some meetings, and I would talk and play music. I would talk about indigenous subjects and how we could turn Western society into a new form of society, find a new way of building the city if we just listened to the indigenous. So I started by announcing a gig from that band, Los Virus, and we would talk and then play punk music.
There was this one time when an artist who was there said “why don’t you play something?” And there was some indigenous people there. And we started playing, indigenous people and city people. We played indigenous music with a very political text. So, that was the germ. That was in 2008.
What’s the significance of the name?
The name came later. We remembered how we always used that expression for insulting indigenous people. It’s actually an insult, to say someone is not decent.
I had many things going at this time with this political thing, and one of these was a word circle. In normal language we are not conscience of the power of the word. The word can heal, can create, can organise, can destroy and can do harm. So if we become aware of that power we can try and use it in a nice way. There are words that are sacred words, there are words that are not used daily. I think “mucho indio”, that expression, came to me in that way as mainly a creative phrase that you discover has the power of making movement. People are so proud of not being racist but sometimes they will use that expression and they will go against themselves. Here in Colombia everyone knows what that expression means, it’s very political, very spiritual, it talks about racism, talks about sacred territory, talks about the ancestors and how we think that we are not indians, and that we can insult indians. That’s the story of the name.
At what point did you decide that you needed to go to the places where many of these indigenous people live and experience their life and music there?
This is not an investigation that started, it was something that just came into my life. All the knowledge, all the information, is just getting here. When I went to those places it was always with a friend of one of the indigenous so I was taken there by him or her. In the case of the Wachus I was taken there by my mother, my adopted mother, so there was a lot of love and respect. That woman is a very wise lady. So every time I spent some time with them I learnt many things, not just music.
Did you go with the group or just yourself?
The plan is to go there with everyone but we have to get the money to do that. So I went by myself to these tribes. If I go I can learn many things. When I go I always travel with computer and microphone because I think music always comes in the last perspective of time. Sometimes I get inspired anywhere, in the jungle or hotel room, on tour or something. I always have material to record myself. I have a very efficient interface, so whenever I have to record something it can be the first take.
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What was the experience of recording the indigenous tribes like?
When I recorded the indigenous they did’t repeat things, they did’t rehearse, you have to record them in the right moment with the best sound possible. I might take my guitar at least and a couple of flutes, a computer and then I don’t know what’s going to happen with that. I will record many pieces of music and see what happens with them.
How do you then shape what you record into the final songs on the record?
Every song has a different approach. I sometimes write harmonies or compose new sections; I use jazz instruments or electronics, synths even. For example with the first one that was recorded here I wanted to get the accordion player to play to a metronome, but I played that metronome and it was like it was non-existent. He couldn’t play to one quarter note. So I recorded the melody and learnt the melody on my guitar, just as one note, so he could play against it. But the accordion has lots of harmonies all the time. So I recorded the harmony with another guitar track, and I thought, wow, it sounds pretty, and I recorded another one. It started getting a very spiritual feeling. A very clean feeling, really happy and soft. I asked the guy which song was that and he said it was a song about the devil. And I wondered why the devil in that community is so soft and warm and clean and innocent. So I thought some speech could be nice there so I asked a guy Victor from another community, in another language to translate something. There was this song by my group [Teto Y] Los Virus where I complained about metal, hard rock, all of that thing; it’s actually a really heavy piece, and it criticises the way that metal players scare people. “Why are you shouting at everyone?”, it goes, the devil doesn’t exist. You can puke and you can scream and it won’t turn me into metal, I like wood. That’s what the song says, with very sarcastic language. So I asked the guy from Nasa to translate it and record it in Nasa Uwu, and he did, but we had to stop after every phrase because he was laughing so hard at what he was saying, because they never say it in their language. And when people hear it they think it is a speech about ecology, but it’s just a punky lyric.
There is another spoken word piece, by Maria Teresa. They don’t know the difference between being recorded and not. So they will just stop playing and speak. So the first time we recorded her she started clapping, with no timing at all. It was the only recording I had. So I had to try and arrange that, including all the clapping. So the next time I recorded her I told her not to clap and when we recorded in the middle of the song she did one clap and said “sorry, I wanted to clap.” That’s in the song.
Have there been any songs or melodies that you’ve struggled to interpret with the group?
There’s one song there that I didn’t know anything about. It was on a record I’d loved for many years, of a community playing the song. I didn’t know anything about the community, but I felt like doing something with that melody, and it’s a very nice rhythm that people in the city here liked a lot. Then I met the guy from the community and asked him what he thought about it. He didn’t say much, but his father who is a very important shaman said “what are you doing with my music, my ancestral music?” Then I was invited to his house and listened to indigenous musicians playing the song and I understood how it should be played. I didn’t have that opportunity before. It means that the way we have to do it is to go and share time with people and listen to them playing, not from a CD. You can’t understand what’s behind the music otherwise, because it’s not just any sound. It’s something not human, something spiritual.
How many communities have you visited in Colombia?
I’ve been to three communities. I’ve been getting new friends to know more. What I have to do is go to those communities, get to know them, record some music there, and see what happens.
Apart from the music, what do you think you’ve learnt from these visits? How has your philosophy changed?
Every time you go to a place like that your life changes, it transforms, the things that we always think are logical aren’t, or aren’t all of the time. The first indian guy I met was a Wachu and he said to me some of the most important things I’ve ever heard. That’s the power of words once again. He told me words that changed my life. He said one day, for example, “the problem is concrete, so why don’t we make holes in the concrete?” That’s an incredible philosophy. Because that’s the image of someone breaking the concrete, and letting nature out; it’s a nice image. But actually it’s true in every sense of life, every profession, almost everything is covered by a layer of concrete. So we have layers of concrete covering us and we can tear them down one by one, starting with a little hole. What I think I’m doing is trying to get rid of that concrete, to let my natural self come out.
We can’t afford to keep cities growing. Until when? Until all the world is a city? We’d die. What I think is threatening the jungle is the cities. If we want to keep the jungle we have to make the city into a more natural place. That’s what my work tries to do, to let nature come back into the city. There are many ways of doing this but it has to be done in every way; in every work and every job and every mind.
You can buy Mucho Indio from Polen Records’ Bandcamp
Check out the Sounds and Colours Colombia book if you’d like to find out more about Colombian music and culture: soundsandcolours.com/issues/sounds-and-colours-colombia
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