On March 30 of this year, I had an hour-long Skype conversation with my absolute favorite vocalist, Sofia Rei, prior to posting my advance review of her latest record. We talked about El Gavilan and how the idea of a tribute record originated in her mind, the influence of Violeta Parra on her life and career as well as recording an album with Marc Ribot, one of the greatest guitarists of any generation. The articles’ title is Sofia describing to me the sensation of performing the monumental title track, one of Violeta’s most haunting and anxiety-inducing works.
The idea was for me to work the conversation into a follow-up interview to our in-depth discussion from a couple of years ago.
As is often the case, life got in the way.
I had to dedicate all of my time and energy to my writing and publishing career and The Music and Myth was put on an indefinite hiatus.
Lots of things have happened since then, most notably the fact that I’m getting ready to publish my fourth novel, I’ve launched all of my books in paperback format and updated my author website, which you can check out at andreicherascu.com.
It’s been a difficult year with a lot of work but, as the year is coming to a close and work is winding down I can finally get to my last entry in my 2017 to-do list: relaunch The Music and Myth.
Fortunately, this interview is even more relevant today than when I’d initially wanted to publish it, especially with the 2017 Music and Myth Awards just around the corner El Gavilan a prime candidate for Best Vocal Record.
Received with universal acclaim, Sofia’s latest release seems to have surpassed in its cultural impact even her brilliant De Tierra y Oro and the charismatic songwriter seems busier than ever.
So, without further ado, here is The Music and Myth’s latest interview with Sofia Rei:
Sofia, when was the first time you heard Violeta Parra?
You know, it’s a really good question. Basically, I knew her work through Mercedes Sosa first. In 1971 Mercedes Sosa recorded an album that is essential to Latin American music, which was a tribute to Violeta Parra. That album I listened to endlessly. I remember listening to it when I was seven or eight years old –that’s how I initially discovered her songs. I can’t tell you the exact moment I actually heard Violeta’s voice. It was interesting because I already knew all of her music, yet I’d never heard her voice. And it’s so drastically different from Mercedes Sosa’s powerful sound. It’s kind of the opposite – it’s very raw, it’s very pure and direct and, at the same time, very fragile.
When did you first decide you wanted to make this record?
The starting point for this was a concert that happened last year in May in Bogota, Colombia. Marc [Ribot] and I shared a tribute to Violeta with Susana Baca, Dora Juarez, who’s a Mexican artist, Marta Gomez from Colombia and the granddaughter of Violeta herself, Tita Parra. This concert had a lot to do with it, because the producer asked me to do a version of “El Gavilan” with Marc. This was the seed for what happened later on. We put it together and did not end up performing it, for different reasons. But that’s when we had the idea of recording “El Gavilan” – just that one piece.
Then, I put together a tribute for my Stone residency last year. I did “El Gavilan” and several vocal arrangements of other pieces, adding to the ones that I had already put together for the concert in May. I felt that, because of the way her compositions are, it really fits this minimalist approach.
Violeta’s songs are very repetitive. They have a small structure that repeats six, seven times in each song, which fits perfectly with the idea of looping. I would sit down and the songs would just come out so easily and I gathered this little collection of arrangements. Then I thought that maybe I should do a full album of this because it would be great to work with Marc. Marc is a big fan of Violeta’s and he’s somebody who has a political and social commitment. He was very interested in the socially charged lyrics and the political content of her work. He asked me for the translations of some of the songs and we talked about it.
When I presented to him the idea of making this album, I had in mind having an A side and a B side – an A side that would be acoustic with “El Gavilan” and some other songs performed as a duo in the original voice-guitar format that she would use a lot and then this other “electric” format where we both would be providing the effects, him with his guitar and me with my vocals and the structures from my looper.
It ended up being more geared towards this experimental format. “El Gavilan” ended up being something really interesting, because he recorded both the acoustic and electric guitar and created a very specific ambiance for it.
I think this album is as much a departure for him as it is for you, because his playing is very subtle and understated here.
I think he is really brilliant in finding the perfect sound for every situation. That’s something very special and very unique of Marc. He really understands very deeply what sound is required for each given circumstance. I think he really did an amazing job and I’m happy and grateful that he was able to do it.
How did you select the songs?
I did quite a lot of research. I have many, many albums of Violeta’s at home and I had some collections of unknown recordings and songs. She was a composer but she was also an ethno-musicologist. She was very important in recovering forgotten and lost Chilean traditional music, which she kind of reshaped. So there are also these songs that she rescued and recorded in her own way.
I listened to a lot of these songs and some of them are really like the soundtrack of my childhood. I recognized the songs I grew up listening to, which is very special. And some of them just made a new impact now.
I thought it would be important to record “El Gavilan” because, to me, it’s Violeta’s masterpiece, where she can show her versatility and her musical genius in a way that’s very different from what you would normally expect from a folk artist. She’s exploring dissonance and sonorities that are very uncommon and more linked to contemporary classical music than the traditional music of Chile. I found that, in the way she uses the text and in the way the guitar and vocals interact, it’s a very unique and special piece. It hasn’t been recorded that much, for many reason. First, because it’s very long. Second, because it’s very challenging for a guitarist and vocalist to play and third, because it’s very deep and very heavy.
I think it’s a piece that people are increasingly recognizing as relevant, not only to her body of work, but in general. So I thought that it would be very important to record it because of that. And I thought Marc would be great on “El Gavilan” as well.
Then, “Casamiento de Negros”, “Maldigo del Alto Cielo” – these are songs that I heard since I was a child and they have a very relevant meaning today. Violeta’s songs talked about the people that were forgotten, invisible – the socially irrelevant.
I’ve noticed a dichotomy between the lively quality of the music and the heavy content of the lyrics.
She did that in many songs, where she is being super ironic and light in the presentation of the music, yet the lyrics are super hardcore. In this song that I was arranging yesterday – it’s called Mazúrquica Modérnica – she talks about very intense things and the music is almost like a children’s song. She had the mission of creating awareness and introducing the tradition of Chile to a broad audience. She had her own radio show, she tried to spread the awareness of all these situations. So I think it was a conscious choice sometimes to present the music in a lighter way or in a non-complex way, like “El Gavilan.”
The more I read about her and saw documentaries about her life, I discovered that she was a very complex woman. And she was a fighter, you know, she was a very special woman. She had to struggle so much and she was really brave. And I think she was really alone. I felt her pain and her struggle and it made me feel really sad that she ended up committing suicide as an act of despair for the indifference that most people had towards every effort she made.
It was also related to the pain of love and this guy who left her. “Run Run”, for instance, is one of the last songs she wrote and it talks about her lover, this guy who abandoned her and went North, to Bolivia, to remake his life and found another woman. He was a much younger guy. She was almost turning fifty when she committed suicide.
She created this kind of cultural center in the middle of nowhere in Santiago. She had a peña where people would gather and play music and she would always have artistic events and food and dance. This enterprise was really difficult because it was in a difficult place to access and all of that. I think the fact that this disintegrated in time and didn’t succeed and the fact that this guy left her and she was disappointed in the younger generation and the political shifting that was already palpable in Chile, I think all of that had to do with her suicide, it wasn’t just one thing.
How did you decide on the placement of the tracks? Is there any sort of narrative continuance from the point of view of their topic? As a writer, this is something I always ask musicians and the answer is almost always, “No.”
(Laughs) It’s a good question. I spend a lot of time trying to make sense of the order of an album, even though these days probably most people don’t listen to it as an album, which is interesting. But I still find that it’s important.
I take a lot of things into consideration. Not necessarily a narrative in a literary way, but sometimes I consider the styles of the songs and what makes sense as a cohesive portion of the album. You don’t want this schizophrenic skipping from one song to another, so it’s a lot of different things, even the keys of the songs. There is a musical part to consider. The different keys and the interventions of Marc and the types of arrangements. There is a lot of thought behind it but, in this case, not necessarily in the theme of each song, but rather in the music and intensity.
Some songs need to be where they are. “Run Run” was definitely a very conscious choice to finish the album. This song is actually very long, it has four verses and I only took the first verse, because the first verse finishes with the line, “and tell an adventure that’s starting like this.”
I felt that was a very beautiful line to close the album, to summarize the idea that this is Violeta’s legacy. She left us 50 years ago, yet that’s exactly when her legend starts, when she becomes an iconic figure.