Radical Twists and Selva Sounds: An Interview with Mitú12 July, 2018
Mitú is a Colombian project born several years ago in the brilliant mind of multi-instrumentalist Julian Salazar. Although the concept of the project was inspired by Julian’s visit to the jungle when he was still a teenager, it was meeting Franklin Tejedor – a talented drummer from San Basilio de Palenque – that finally led to the formation of this duo whose mission would be to translate the sounds of the Colombian selva with the language of synthesizers and other electronic gear. As Mitú they have gone from recording the epic, studio session-driven debut album Potro in 2012 through the shorter and more structured works Balnear (2014) and Cosmus (2017) to eventually release a surprise LP Los Ángeles earlier this year which resulted in an European tour packed with frenetic live shows all over the continent. This is definitely not their last word though as there already is another album looming around the corner that may see the light of the day in 2018 as well.
The career-spanning interview below was recorded on the last day of May in Berlin, one day before Mitú’s headline show at Bi Nuu.
Julian, your background in music is guitar music, or at least playing guitar when you were younger. How did you end up then in the world of electronic music?
Julian: Actually I think electronic music was my first love but when I was young I couldn’t figure out how to make those sounds. I was so naïve about how electronic music was made. I got the guitar – it was a gift from my mother – and the whole idea was really easy, I was able to get the sound instantly. I went in that direction in the same manner that any other young boy listening to rock music would do. When I was getting older and when I started studying sound engineering, I could finally find out how to make electronic music with synthesizers, drum machines and all kinds of electronic gear. This actually was a kind of comeback to the thing I loved in the first place. I still like rock a little bit but back then at the beginning it was just a way out as I couldn’t make the music I really wanted to.
I guess one of the most important experiences in your musical life was a visit to the Colombian selva several years ago. Did you know immediately when you were there that you wanted to translate those sounds and emotions into music? Or did it come back to you some time after the visit?
Julian: It was the thought I got there instantly. I really wanted to recreate what I experienced and heard there with machines and music. I wanted to go after that sound and it was so special to me that I actually wanted to do it pretty much all the way through my whole life. This was the environment that I loved and I immediately wanted to express it with music.
How long after this experience did you think about creating the Mitú project?
Julian: That visit took place when I was around nineteen probably and Mitú started actually as many as ten or eleven years after that!
Franklin, were you instantly interested in the concept of Mitú, especially in the idea of mixing electronic music with the traditional sounds of your ancestors?
Franklin: Basically all my life I have been this person and musician that was doing everything for my village. At the same time, though, I had this thing inside of me of not only sticking to what I had learned there and I always wanted to get to know other things as well. Together with Julian we automatically had an urge to unite and play together. It was something that really fascinated me, something that I wanted to pursue as a musician: to be free, play without restrictions and simply do what I was feeling at the particular moment and Mitú seemed to be a perfect project to act in this way.
And from your side, Julian, was Mitú even in a tiny part a response to the verse-chorus-verse songwriting that Bomba Estéreo [who Salazar played with for a number of years] do? Were you kind of tired of that and wanted to do something completely different?
Julian: Yes, I think so. When I started Mitú, I did it because I was looking for a way out from the tours and that kind of method and composition that Bomba has. I knew there was more to music than that. I just wanted to go after something else and be honest with myself. I wanted to hear with my ears what I’m having in my mind all the time, the music that I was hearing internally until that moment. For me music should always be about exploring and experimenting so whenever I get tied to the formula, I get bored really quickly.
Your debut album Potro doesn’t have a normal album format, it has very long compositions and as far as I know some of the tracks emerged directly from the very first experiments. Could it be said then that this release was born out of improvisations and jam sessions rather than it was actually planned to be an album?
Julian: Yes, completely. Potro is a rough thing. We just locked ourselves in a rehearsal studio and we got the first ideas from the very first session that we had. I didn’t want them to really evolve much more, I wanted to keep it like it sounded in the studio at the beginning and make an album out of that. We didn’t really stop to think and consider where the whole thing could go, not at all. The attitude that we had was more like: ok, it sounds like this, let’s put it out like this.
Around the time of release of your debut album your music was given a name of techno palenquero or selva techno. Did you get, due to those terms, a mixed reaction from the crowd and listeners, with one side saying: “hold on, this is not techno” and the other saying: “hey, this is not palenquero?”
Julian: Yeah, all the time! People that are very much into electronic music were coming up with many other genres, saying that our music is more drum and bass or acid house than techno. And on the other hand of course people were saying that it’s not Colombian at all but we don’t really care. People will always have an opinion and always have to put boundaries on everything. And I really hate boundaries. We came up with those terms just because our managers told us to do so because the press needed it. But you can call it whatever you want, it doesn’t really matter.
At that time you also gave an interview in which you said one very important sentence that I really like: “no todos somos tan felices”. It was in the context of this whole scene of so called ‘tropical music’ that has had a boom in the last ten, fifteen years. Is there a message that you’re also trying to send in this area with Mitú? To show that there are other aspects of being Latino and Colombian?
Julian: Yes! I think that you can feel that there’s a cliché that music from Latin America should always be cheerful, full of joy and you can instantly dance to it. And there’s much more behind this music than that, there are a lot of unexplored things, mental states and deep thoughts and they sit quietly, not as loud and upfront as all those more straightforward aspects. That’s the thing that interests me more, to get some other feelings from the same landscape.
Coming now to your second release, Balnear, it had more of a standard album format, it’s also much shorter. Where did this change come from?
Julian: Potro was a result of experimenting with the aim of putting out an album and then going out and playing it. Balnear, on the other hand, was made rather the other way around, from the stage to the studio. I think we just started calculating things a little bit, thinking about what should we do. I think of this album as a whole thing, a piece of art. We made a decision to make an album the best we can whereas Potro was, as I said before, a really rough thing. I would compare it to painting a wall. You make a decision to paint it in one way and that happens. With Balnear there was much more thinking about what should we do and what could we actually do with an album.
There’s also another new element on Balnear, namely new voices including Teresa Reyes who contributed vocals to “Solitario”, your most popular song to date. How did you end up implementing these new voices into your music?
Julian: I started hearing it in my head that I want to have a couple of songs with lyrics and I told Franklin that we should go to Palenque to record them because I love keeping things in-house. I don’t like this modern and hyped idea of having a record with twenty or more people involved in it. I think the right thing to do was to go to Palenque and find the accurate voices for those tracks. Also, if you know a little bit about Franklin and that area, the whole town is pretty much a family so I thought we could easily manage to do everything ourselves and I didn’t want anyone from outside of the project to mess with it. So the way we did it with Teresa for example, everything stayed in the family and within a core of everything. And it also must be said that she’s done an amazing job on this album.
Franklin, what was the reaction of your family and friends when they heard the music that you were doing with Mitú?
Franklin: I think it was the third show that we did as Mitú when it happened that my father was there. I felt a lot of adrenaline before the gig actually because I didn’t really know how he would react or how this music would make him feel. But I really wanted to share with him these sounds which were something totally different from what he had been listening to his whole life. Twenty minutes into the concert I raised my head and saw him dancing! I thought that if my dad is taking this music so well then the same will be with the whole community because I guess it can be said that he is a kind of percussion guru in my village. Later on we went a couple of times to Palenque and people indeed liked the sound of Mitú. A lot of my friends are supporting this project.
Somewhere between the release of Balnear and Cosmus, and I think it happened for the EP Siempre, you switched from playing actual drums to electronic percussion. How did this happen?
Franklin: This change resulted from all the experiences that I had had in the Mitú project. For me it was a bit like incorporating a completely new approach to the thing that I had been doing all my life which is playing tambor alegre. I [thought] that this can give me more space in playing drums and can add more colours and harmonies to our sound. Obviously, I didn’t know anything about this world but I started playing the machine that Julian had and it had a big amount of different sounds that I could use. This was a way to fit much more into our music compared to what we had done on Potro and Balnear. Getting to know this world of melodies that electronic percussion allowed me to use was like going a bit further with drumming than I thought was possible.
Cosmus took one and a half years to make which was a massive change compared to the previous two albums. Was it because you wanted to do something completely new this time?
Julian: There were three reasons behind that. First of all, at that time I thought that we should really take all the time we need to make a new thing by putting ourselves in a new scenario. We were playing a lot back then and also we had the same formula for over four years. We were making music the same way and I really wanted to change that. I thought that we needed to take a moment to rethink the whole thing. Secondly, I was tired of the instruments we were playing so I changed them all, rebuilt the method to work and developed a new work flow with new instruments. I needed time to properly master them so that we were ready to make an album. Last but not least, I was expecting a baby girl around that time so I also wanted to have some time to share with her and get ready to be a dad.
Cosmus was released in 2017 and it was also the year that you quit Bomba Estéreo for good. Was there even a tiny part of this decision that was about sending a signal and telling the world that you’re resigning from something as big and popular as Bomba to concentrate fully on Mitú so everyone should pay attention to this project?
Julian: No, not really. I took that decision because it was the right thing to do. Of course it was really controversial around my circle of friends, the Bomba Estéreo family and my family as well. Everybody was telling me that one can make good money there and so on but my thinking was that in the long run we are all dead so in the end what does it matter with all that success if you’re unhappy doing it? I just didn’t want it to go on because I felt it had drifted somewhere else where I don’t really want to go.
Now you’re touring on the release of your new album, Los Ángeles. You have said many times that it wasn’t planned. Why was it made then? What is the reason behind this album?
Julian: This album was made just five months after the release of Cosmus which was released in August 2017 but had been completely done by January 2017. So at the end of last year I was making music again and I didn’t want it to wait maybe a year and a half to be released. Also I just needed to make this music because of personal motivation. Last year brought a radical twist in my life due to lot of things so this new music on Los Ángeles represents that. I really wanted to make a statement of the year when my life changed so this record is what I needed and it is a very personal one.
It has also been said about this album that it’s the big break for your careers. What has changed since it’s been released?
Julian: I don’t really know but the truth is that the first thing I thought when I listened to Los Ángeles when it was mastered was that I’m making music for the first time in my life. Not trying to make music. This is not a hobby anymore, it’s now an actual process of making music. That’s the thing I mean when I say it’s a radical change.
This album also has new elements to it that come in the form of brass instruments, for example on tracks like “Pukapuka” or “Oki”. Where did this come from? It’s something completely new in your music.
Julian: When we were recording the album I just started hearing those elements. I really love brass instruments, the sound of them. Sometimes I try to imitate it with synthesizers but this time I wanted to record the real thing. Additionally, some of the tracks sound to me more like moments rather than actual songs so sometimes I think of those compositions as though they are a soundtrack of a movie, something very visual. It just felt the right thing to do to add these brass instruments and put them in a context of not doing songs but rather painting the landscapes or something like that.
Who played those instruments on the album?
Julian: Two people actually. One of them is called El León Pardo who has his own project. He plays trumpet and he’s an amazing musician. The other one is a girl called Mange, she plays clarinet in Meridian Brothers. The funny thing about this is that when I contacted her about the project, she suggested contacting some other guy because she pointed out that he has this feeling of playing clarinet in a very traditional way. And I told her – that’s what I don’t want. I wanted it to be the jazziest thing ever, I didn’t want it to be traditional music because we were never trying to achieve that.
In March you published a status on Facebook saying that there may be two albums of yours coming out this year. Is this really possible?
Julian: Yes, I think so! We’re working on another record right now. We’ve already done a fair amount of fresh songs and if we manage to finish that between the gigs it’s going to be a new thing once again. It can even possibly be a kind of pop record!
Get the latest from Mitú at facebook.com/Mitumusic
Listen to Los Ángeles below:
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