Colombian Music Has The Quality To Consume The World: An Interview With Indus’ Oscar Alford

By 22 September, 2022

“Indus is a constellation, the constellation of The Indian, and it seemed to me that it was a name that represented the ideal of the project, the idea of the Muisca (the indigenous group native to the Bogotá savanna and its surrounding region). It was these sounds, like Earth combined with this imaginary astral space, electronic waves and stuff. That union, I felt that the name represented it”, muses Oscar Alford of Indus as we talk about the name behind the project’s formation.

It was a while back now, in May this year, that I sat down with Indus’ Oscar Alford. One of those rare Bogotá afternoons, the afternoon sun exuding a gentle golden hue over the eastern Andean cordillera that lines the capital. As we sat in the serenity of a small fountain, in the mountainside neighbourhood of La Macarena, overlooking Parque de la Independencia, Alford’s dog, Panela, soaking up the rays in the doorway, there was indeed a befittingly cosmic feel about the whole scene.

We are discussing the formation of the electronic duo best categorised as anything from techno-champeta through acid Latin. Though the line-up has since changed a little, Indus originally consisted of Alford and long time collaborator, Doc Keita, best known for his work with Ghetto Kumbé. “The name was the last thing”, he reflects, “Keita and I have known each other for several years, maybe ten or more years. Even before Ghetto Kumbé formed. We’ve always been in the same crowd. We lived pretty close and everyone was interested in similar music, making beats and all that. So that’s a bit of the energy. I feel that he has been there, like behind part of what the project is.”

Getting Carried Away By The Music

Conversation turns to the creative process. “It’s a bit like getting carried away by the music and not thinking about it too much,” Alford reflects. “For a long time that had me blocked, like thinking about it too much, conceptualizing things too much as it’s going to be, how it’s going to sound and it was more about letting go as a theme of freedom and flow with the sounds that were coming out. That’s really what makes it concrete; to get carried away by music.”

In addition to Indus’ own releases, which includes a self-titled album, Indus has also released two singles in collaboration with Colombian stalwart, Palenque Records.

“Much of it is an honour, because there is a generational distance with Lucas [Silva, founder of Palenque Records], with the work that he has done. I feel that the first Palenque Records CDs, in the 90s, were very important when I began to discover this music. For me, I’m very conscious because I’m from Barranquilla and Palenque music has always been very close, but sometimes you don’t even know what’s playing, you just know it’s from Palenque. He makes a more conscious approach, I feel that Palenque Records has meant a lot for Colombia and for the music of Palenque in that sense to open it and show it to the world”

The first collaboration between Indus and Palenque Records came in the form a double release featuring remixes of Son Palenque’s “Yo Me Voy” and Sexteto Tabalá’s “Negra Santa”.

“Well, we have always been close to Palenque Records. I mixed some things. I have mixed some songs by Abelardo Carbonó with Lucas Silva and he really likes the music we make. He has sent me many things. So sometimes when I feel like doing something like a remix, there’s material and that’s a bit like how it comes together.”

We turn to Indus’ most recent release alongside Las Alegres Ambulancias. “This second volume contains the voices of Graciela Salgado and Dolores Salinas who recorded these songs at the end of their 70s. They are very powerful. No one had remixed those and they are the first remixes that have been made and I feel that for this reason they have also attracted a lot of attention because they are songs that are not as well known and have been brought to fore it in a more spacious, modernized way”

Salgado and Salinas passed away around 10 years and it’s almost impossible to overstate the immense stature of both women in traditional bullerengue circles.

Las Alegres Ambulancias performing with both Salgado and Salinas

I ask Oscar how difficult and delicate it can be trying to balance the modernisation of traditional music in combination with the immense respect that both he and the wider public have for the original folkloric sounds. “It can take many attempts, a lot of trial and error too, but generally what works is trying to be very delicate in the intervention that one makes. For me the best remixes are the ones where you hardly feel the hand of the producer, you feel that there is a strong sound, there is a new sound. It has like this frequency of electronic music and you know that it is something new but you feel that at the same time it’s like the original song. This is achieved in a certain way, already entering something more technical, let’s say, in general terms being respectful, but in more technical terms trying to maintain the same scales and so on.”

He continues, “the beat follows the drum, it’s not like a beat and just putting these things on top; it is trying to imagine that one was with them, as if it were a single ensemble, trying to stick more to the traditional. The voice is the main thing and it has been like this for both of the two volumes. But in this second volume, with Las Alegres Ambulancias, there is also the drum, which is very important. So the recordings of the drum are very good, it was Batata’s [percussionist and another parent-like figure in Palenque music] grandson who recorded them, Tomacito.”

“Pajaro de Mar” taken from Indus Meets Palenque Records Vol 2 feat. Las Alegres Ambulancias

A Different Energy

Outside of the studio, Indus’ live shows have gained much acclaim, with the duo a prominent fixture on the bill of many post-pandemic events. The show packs an all-out punch of energy and has audiences noticeably transfixed.

“The live Indus show is different from what it is in the studio, it’s a different energy”, ponders Oscar. “It is more energetic. What I do is take what was done in the studio, what’s on the records, and take it to a more energetic version”, he continues.

We talk again about the concept of taking the traditional Palenque remixes and how this translates into the live dynamic. “The remixes weren’t really made with the idea of playing them live in mind. The live approach is more about experimentation with the synthesizers, but “Pájaro de Mar”, if we are playing it live, is the last track when it is a long show, it appears there at the end of an hour and a half set. It is very similar to what is in the studio, it has the same structure, even the voice and that, but let’s say that live the idea is that the main axis is experimentation with synthesizers and things that are achievable right there live. It’s not like playing a track that is already there, because remixes can be a bit like that. Like a recording that is already there and you can’t really play it live unless you have the musicians there.”

Indus perform live at this year’s Colombia Al Parque festival

The Rise of Electronic Music in Colombia is Both Necessary and Natural

Conversation turns to the place of electronic music in Colombia and its role within the wider Colombian music landscape. “I mean, you can talk of [an electronic music] scene but I don’t feel that in Colombia it is necessarily that. There is much more”.

For Alford, Colombian electronic music plays an integral role within the country’s broader musical fabric. “It is like a super interesting branch and it has more that it tries to deal with; to deal with its roots. I think of it as a scene whereby the more exponents there are, the more music is released, the more good is done for everyone”.

He pinpoints the role of electronic music in bringing wider exposure of traditional sounds to new audiences. “I like to think of it that way too, because I know that traditional music with electronic music has had many stages. It’s something that has been around for a while, well, I don’t know since Sidestepper, or perhaps before that in the 90s, the rise of electronic music has been something super necessary and natural”.

“Necessary because it is the way in which new generations can find a gateway to traditional music. I’ve heard many people say that they started listening to salsa with Sidestepper. Which, let’s say for a salsero, it is like, “what’s happening?” But for a person who did not grow up in that world, it is an entrance point”.

Pondering Indus’ role in the same sentiment he continues, “to say that someone is going to listen to palenquera music through remixes of Indus, it’s like, I wouldn’t dare to say that! But it can happen. It has happened to me, and I feel that for that reason it is necessary and natural because let’s say that a musician speaks of music from where one is and who they are”.

Progression of these traditional sounds, while staying true to one’s own sense of belonging, he emphasises, is important. “We did not grow up in the same context that Abelardo [Carbonó], Pedro Ramaya, Los Gaiteros [de San Jacinto] and these artists grew up in. We are not campesinos [people from the rural areas] and much of this music is campesino, so it is speaking from a position of what one is. I’m from Barranquilla and I grew up listening to this music, but I also listened to Nirvana, Chemical Brothers and all this. So I’m speaking from what I am, it’s what we work with and if we want to speak from there, obviously it’s going to be a fusion of things. It can’t be the purity of folklore because we didn’t grow up like that.”

“Still I would also like to think that also from the volumes we have done, with Las Alegres Ambulancias, Sexteto Tabalá, that traditional musicians can also acquire more visibility.”

Colombian Music Has The Quality to Consume the World

As we talk of music from various regions in the country and Alford himself hailing from Barranquilla on the country’s Caribbean Coast, I ask about the apparent paradox which appears to exist in Colombia whereby much of its creative strength is often drawn away from those regions and concentrated in the capital, Bogotá.

“I am very critical of Barranquilla”, he reflects “because I feel that there is a great cultural wealth, but I don’t know if it is a political issue of the administration or something. There is nowhere to play in Barranquilla. It’s not only Barranquilla but also Cali, for example, you see that musicians come to Bogotá. You see the people of the Pacific and everyone here. But they are not able to do things in their regions and the same thing happens from Barranquilla with [Abelardo] Carbonó.”

The phenomenon is not anything new however and might even be seen as but another sad symptom in the broader history of the Colombian music industry. “Many of these older musicians have very sad stories in which they end up in abandonment, I don’t know if it’s a state issue. People definitely love them, people enjoy their songs. There is a song called ”Las Cuatro Fiestas”. If you grew up in Barranquilla, that song touches your soul and plays every December, everyone knows it. And can you believe that the guy who composed it [Adolfo Echeverría] died homeless and poor? It’s not fair.”

So, while the rich heritage of Colombian music without doubt derives from its cultural and regional diversity it is the lack of musical infrastructure in such regions which seems to create an apparently perpetual cycle that draws much of the best talent away from them. “I would like to live in Barranquilla but I can’t because there is no work there, there is nowhere to play, so the situation is complicated. It is a great source of inspiration though and I think of it in a lot of the music that I make since I grew up there as a child. But yes, the current scenario is a bit sad.”

“It’s super important, all the links in the industry, very important for the development of music, that is. One who is already inside the industry already knows how it works, but it is worth mentioning that when you listen to a song on the radio that you like, there are a lot of links behind that going on. The composition of the song is like 10% of the work, there is the post-production part that is a working team. There is the part of the image, the cover, the video, another working team. All the promotion. These are links within a chain that we could call the music industry and in Colombia, well, Bogotá being the capital, and where there is more movement”.

This industrial power pertaining to the Colombian capital is perhaps typical of most national epicentres, yet the regionat dilemma that Colombia faces is something that the country also faces in exposing its music scene more broadly on an international platform. “There is still a long way to go to reach the level of other cities or other scenes because, I mean, why listen to Taylor Swift, for example. Or we listen to, I don’t know, Anglo music in general. Why do The Beatles mean so much? I mean, yes, it’s because of the music of course! In many cases it is good music but in a lot of cases it’s much more than that. It is an industry with power that eats the world and Colombian music has the quality to eat the world too, but what we do not have is the muscle of the industry to do it!”

“It has been growing a lot since the 90s. In the 90s there was nothing. Yeah there was Aterciopelados and a few other bands but it was very difficult to record an album in the 90s and make music, there was nowhere to play either. So things have been advancing. There is a lot of self-management now and the internet. In a certain way though, that is also an illusion because you can put your music there on the internet and yes, some people will listen to it but also to become massive, to reach an audience is another issue and we are talking about that in Colombia. In Bogotá there are two stations that play alternative music! The rest is vallenato and reggaeton. So the independent, alternative music industry, these record companies that you mention (Palenque Records, Llorona Records, Mambo Negro Records, Incorrecto) do a very important job, trying to grow that industry. It’s also important what the media does too”.

In spite of any challenges, Alford’s tone is resolute, he’s focussed on working hard and reaching a new audience, and you get the impression that this is what Indus thrives off of. We finish our chat by considering what comes next, “We just want play lots. I feel that spaces have been opening up. We’re happy with that, we’re preparing a new album and yes, that’s what’s coming. More music, more shows, many collaborations.”

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