Interview: Understanding the voice of the body — Tupac Mantilla presents R.I.T.M.O.

Colombian percussionist, producer and educator Tupac Mantilla is, without a doubt, one of the most exciting musicians in the world right now. He has collaborated and performed with artists such as Bobby McFerrin, Zakir Hussain, Danilo Perez and Lisa Fischer and is the CEO and Artistic Director of the Global Percussion Network PERCUACTION, with which he leads several educational and social projects and initiatives around the world. He is also the Artistic Director of Colombia’s top experimental Percussion Group TEKEYÉ and director of various percussion and rhythm oriented programs in Europe, South America and the United States.

Described as a “nomad” by his peers, this tireless musician is constantly on the move, traveling the world as a performer, speaker and educator. Recently, he was invited to give a TEDx talk in his native Bogotá, where he spoke about “the power of flow” in front of an audience of over ten thousand people.

In recent years, Tupac has devoted most of his creative energy to developing his “solo percussion” and “body percussion” shows, for which he has gained a reputation as one of the most unique and charismatic performers on the modern music scene.

In 2019, he launched R.I.T.M.O. (Rhythmic Immersion Training for Multidimensional Openness) a “holistic learning methodology” which “combines the use of the body as a musical instrument and multiple cognitive skills, with the awareness of understanding rhythm as the mother law” in nature and life.

I met Tupac in 2015 and we’ve remained friends ever since. For years, I’ve been looking forward to doing a feature interview that would capture all the different facets of this fascinating artist and thinker. With R.I.T.M.O. just starting its second year, I knew it was the perfect moment to have a conversation.

We caught up over Skype during his recent visit to New York to talk about R.I.T.M.O., his solo shows, his recent TEDx talk and that time I nicknamed him “The MacGyver of percussion”.

Brother, it’s been a while! How have you been? 

My man, it’s been a busy schedule lately. Especially busy in the mind, which is a good busy. Sometimes people have a tendency to give that a negative connotation. (laughs)

I’m finally getting to the point where I am starting to focus more. I’m always doing a lot of things, traveling back and forth, performing, teaching, dividing my attention between many different tasks. I’m trying to keep a healthy routine as far as developing projects and staying creative but also being responsible with things that I’ve been doing for many years. I’ve been trying to keep up; in some areas with a little more success than others. (laughs)

Now I’ve developed this coaching side and I’m giving talks, so different doors are slowly opening. It’s been an interesting process of seeing how things are developing in life in general.

I’ve noticed on your social media channels that you’ve been focusing a lot on the educational side of your work over the last year. 

I’ve decided to put a little bit more focus on that right now. Teaching is more of a personal mission. It’s about sharing information with people that might benefit from it. A big part of what I’m doing these days is connected with that, for sure.

Before we get into R.I.T.M.O., what are some of the main projects you have going on on right now, on the musical side?

What happened with the projects that I’m doing — especially the ones I’m developing myself — is that, because of having so many things, the process is very slow; which I’m fine with. I don’t complain about it.

I’m pointing it out because I think projects like the solo shows that I’ve been growing over the years are definitely moving along slower than I would like. But the interesting part is that it has allowed me to have a connection with what I’m supposed to do and what I like to do. I’m a performer — a percussionist. Besides that, I like to teach and write. So I’ve been making sure that I’m very creative with my idea of developing the solo show. For me, it’s a platform where I can really put everything in, from a performance side.

I’m definitely collaborating with people here in the U.S. I’ve had my band mates forever — my friends, my brothers and sisters, whom I’ve been collaborating with for almost two decades now. Since I’ve been spending more time in Germany, I’ve also made a lot more connections in Europe, recording with people there. I’m more connected with the European jazz scene.

I’m trying to keep these collaborations but, from the performance side, the main focus is on developing the creative process of the solo shows, which are allowing me to integrate many of the rhythms that I do.

So, in essence, your main project is you

That’s an interesting way to put it. I guess I am my own project. (laughs)

What’s happening is also that I’m feeding myself from the collaborations and the things that I do. I’m consciously trying to say no a little more to a lot of those things, though. I would love to do more, it just has to do with being a bit more coherent with the time that I’ve got in life. Because of that, I’m trying to be a little bit more selective and do things that allow me to keep being creative and keep being focused on the overall picture.

It does feel like the solo shows are the most representative of who you are as an artist. I always used to say to people, “Tupac plays everything but the kitchen sink!” Then I saw a video of you playing a damned kitchen sink. It was so funny. Remember, a few years ago, I gave you that nickname: The MacGyver of Percussion. 

(laughs) You know, what’s funny about that quote is that ever since you mentioned it, every single time I pick up an object to play — not necessarily a percussion instrument, any object — I have to think of that and I get a laugh out of it. That’s a really funny one! Because I really liked MacGyver when I was a little kid. It was kind of a closer side to a human superhero type of thing. MacGyver was that guy! I loved that! I always think of you because of that.

I love the fact that you’re integrating the surrounding environment into your percussion. It’s a very jam-session-oriented mindset. It’s like, “Let’s use everything we have at our disposal!” If we’re in a room and there’s no percussion instrument, Tupac will still do percussion. There’s a very essential musical thinking in that. 

As you pointed out, to me it’s also a matter of the essence of what things are — what the whole spectrum of reality is. It’s not that I do it on purpose, it just comes to me naturally. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily connected to a chromestesia-type thing but it’s connected with a mindset in which you see something and you already know how it could sound or how could be approached from a rhythmic sound perspective. For me, it’s a parallel world of seeing how things interact with us from the sound perspective or how they could become an entity of a particular sound or rhythm.

Do you play melodic instruments too or was it always percussion?

I actually graduated as a classical percussionist. In that sense, that includes marimba and vibraphone, for sure. Marimba especially is an instrument that I have a very strong connection with, from an emotional perspective. I wish I could devote more time to it but this is why I’m including it in the solo shows.

I was recently doing an interview with Thana Alexa, a great vocalist from New York who is preparing to launch her second album. She is married to drummer Antonio Sanchez. In doing research for the interview, I revisited Antonio’s Bad Hombre album, which is essentially solo percussion. It made me think that it would be really cool if you recorded a full-on body percussion album. Do you have any plans to do so?

Yes. People have been asking me that a lot. This is exactly why I developed the second show, which is called Body Songs. It’s specifically going in that direction, which is to re-discover the voice of the body in order to put out the songs of the body. I thought I was going to be recording an album this year, but it might take a little bit longer. (laughs)

I definitely have an idea. I have these things called circulines. A circuline is a concept for the body percussion methodology. It involves movement in the body. It’s an advanced tool that integrates three realms: the upper limbs, the lower limbs and the voice. The way that it works is that these three different layers interact in polyrhythmic ways. Each one has a specific role. One is an ostinato, which is called a circuline. The second one is a supporting line, which is a steady groove that has the purpose of grounding. The third one is the main line, which is the creative line. It enhances creativity through improvisation.

That’s the concept of it. It can get very intricate because each line has a very strong independent voice but it’s connected with everything. Overall, they make the whole concept work.

With that, you already have a full thing going on. If I do record it, I would do it without overdub. Not too produced. Just me, mics all over and boom!

How did the solo shows start?

The solo show idea had been a long time necessity, in a way. It had a lot to do with my time here in New York.

I found myself in the middle of nowhere. That’s the case for many of us. (laughs) I love what the city has always given me but, back when I was living here, I was kind of in the middle of everything. I was doing jazz gigs, world music gigs, Latin music gigs, pop and alternative things, experimental, contemporary music. And yet, I could not define myself.

In a way, the city works around labels. I’m not necessarily against that, but I’ve been trying to go in a counter-direction. The different scenes welcome you eventually, but if you’re work doesn’t fully fit a specific label, you’re not really part of the scene. I realized that I could do all of those things, but I didn’t completely belong to all of that. I wasn’t able to approach all that I am in one single project.

This is exactly where the solo project comes in. I needed something where I could be myself, with everything that I bring to the table, and highlight certain things that are part of my essence.

In order to follow up with your question, that’s exactly the same thing that happened with R.I.T.M.O. What the solo shows offered me was an opportunity to bring everything together from a performance side. R.I.T.M.O. allows me to do that from a teaching perspective.

How would you describe R.I.T.M.O.?

At this point, I see R.I.T.M.O. as a methodology for learning through rhythm. I can say that it’s definitely at a very early stage, which makes it very exciting for me. It’s like a seed that you plant and then it grows and, eventually, you see flowers. You can see the potential. I’m extremely open to finding out what it will develop to in the future.

In that sense, it was a necessity to use all this knowledge I’d gathered and a side of me that I had developed in parallel to my own music career. I do a lot of reading up on the topic of quantum physics and things that are connected with frequencies. It’s like a parallel life. I was looking for a platform where I could combine this cognitive side with the music side. It’s a process of understanding what reality is and a possibility to bring tools to people with which they can re-approach life, re-approach rhythm, their bodies and awareness.

It sounds like, aside from being an entry into a musical methodology, it’s also like a form of meditation. 

Yes. I’m really focused right now on the concept of flow. I’m fascinated by it. But it has to do with the possibility of looking at things from above and having a clearer idea of what the bigger picture in life is all about.

What would you want people to take away from R.I.T.M.O.? 

That’s a great question! The idea is that people can come to the experience of re-encountering themselves. They can do it on many levels. R.I.T.M.O. stands for Rhythmic Immersion Training for Multidimensional Openness. What it implies is that people can understand that they are not only one entity, but several selves that make them who they are. If they understand that, while also keeping in mind that the tool we have for that awareness is the physical body, then that is already an achievement.

The second goal is for people to understand the science behind it. The process is that you get information and you experience that through your body in order to encounter alternatives of awareness from a point where you can eventually apply that to your existence. It’s much bigger than just music itself. It’s about the rhythm of life and people.

Of course, the third goal is just having fun. (laughs) Have a good time together where you just learn to understand the voice of the body.

Is there any further reading you would recommend for someone who would want to understand this from a scientific perspective?

The main thing would be to understand brainwave theory first, because the brain is a receiver and a transmitter of frequency. That’s the starting point. I’m not talking about super complicated stuff, just to understand what brainwave theory is about. What is a delta state? What is theta state? How do they connect with our learning process? When are we in alpha? Why is alpha like that? Why or how is it happening? Just to put people into a thinking process where they realize their frequency level and see how they feel and what happens. The other thing has to do with understanding neuroplasticity.

At the beginning especially, I wouldn’t get into very technical aspects. Just research a bit what that is and how it could apply to you.

How is the workshop structured?

It’s in a structure of two and a half days. In the first day, I’m doing a lot of games and exercises to open up and connect with the body. I’m doing a lot of body percussion using the system I have. At the end of that day, I do a talk. In this talk, I share the concept of the methodology, specific ideas on what’s going to happen, what types of concepts I use, what type of ideas, how they’re going to be applied to the body.

The next two days are an immersion process that contains different things like grounding, balance and self-awareness. It has a large spectrum. It follows the script of the overall methodology but it’s extremely intuitive. I depend on what I feel with the group. It’s interesting because it’s moving along and developing as the people awaken into the process. You see a lot of breakthroughs.

Did you get different responses depending on the countries in which you’ve presented it?

That’s a great question! In essence, no. Because the concept is for human beings in general. What’s amazing about it is to see how the collective identity just shines through. Of course, what happens is that there are certain behavioral aspects that depend on the local culture. Respecting this cultural framework, of course, I try to make sure that people can let go and simply connect with another human being.

For example, something as simple as being able to hug some one. In some countries that’s seen as an invasion of personal space. At one point, when you break it down, you can see how much people just need a hug. You can see how much they benefit from it on a deep level, from the human connection aspect. It’s beautiful to see this.

One of the major themes in my books has to do with the barriers that people place between themselves because of all kinds of social paradigms and how this leads to distance. R.I.T.M.O. seems to be about breaking down these synthetic barriers. 

This all goes against flow itself.  In a way, when you analyze this from a frequency point of view, you can see that you’re stuck right there. You crash. That’s it! Barriers don’t allow an organic perspective of understanding that we are all connected.

It feels like a great empathy-building exercise. When you’re connected in that way, when you’re going through the same experience, it makes it easier to understand how the other person is feeling at that moment.  

What is great about sharing the training with other people is that they become mirrors of yourself too. You can really recognize yourself in them. It’s so important to be able to have the other in front of you. It’s a reflection of what you are too.

People realize that having this open, honest connection can allow them to come around to who they are. I try to be as personal and as present as possible. To me, there’s an important authenticity behind that.

You’ve recently had a TEDx talk in Bogotá. Please tell me a bit about that. 

That was such a trip, man. It happened pretty much last-minute. So far, it has been the biggest TEDx talk in history. To put pressure on you, they tell you that too. (laughs)

Usually people prepare TED talks for many months. This whole thing happened in a month. I’ve known the guy who organizes this in Bogotá through one of the people that worked with me on the management side. We talked and we clicked. I was in the middle of R.I.T.M.O. and also touring and recording and it’s like , “Okay, so… TED talk now!” (laughs)

It was interesting because the only thing I could think of was exactly what I was immersing myself into: working with different strategies to achieve a state of flow, from the rhythmic perspective. The whole theme of this TEDx was resilience — being resilient in life. I was honored that I was invited to do this. I was able to be there, explore what’s going on inside of me and share it with people, to give them tools to understand what I perceive a state of flow to be.

It was great. A lot of pressure, of course. Having ten thousand people in front of you and trying to grab their attention is not easy. Just standing there, I realized that the way to do it was by completely being in the flow of myself. They published the link and said, “Wow, it’s interesting. This is the first Ted Talk in history where no one uses a word for the first five minutes.” (laughs)

Now that R.I.T.M.O is going into its second year and you’re already getting a feel for it and how it’s developing, what is your vision for it? 

I think it has endless possibilities. There is an infinite potential for growth, as with all things. It depends on how relaxed I can be in my own evolutionary process. That’s great, because it means depends on me. It’s going grow as high as I’m going to be growing myself.

My main goal is just to be relaxed and open to the depth of it. That’s what’s going to dictate where this will go. I have to remind myself that the process is very intelligent. In a sense, you have to be able to just let go and stay out of it. Of course, I’d love to bring the project all over the world, to present it to humanity. But it’s there for a reason. It has a purpose to serve in a specific context. I have to let go and see what it’s going to bring.

That’s what happens in life: you have dreams and wishes and everything, but if you’re really focused on the present moment and you are coherent with the talent that you are giving as a human being, then whatever true wishes you have and resonate with will manifest.

Find out more about Tupac’s work on his website.

Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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