Photo by Sandrine Lee
If you are familiar with my work, then you know The Music and Myth is very dear to me. It’s a project I set up almost three years ago for no other reason than to share with the world my sincere passion for music and my fascination with this superb form of storytelling. I dedicate countless hours of my life to sifting through the latest in excellent music and then writing about it in order to help promote the artists I love and the products of their extraordinary talent.
But that doesn’t mean that the Music and Myth is not a personally rewarding creative outlet. On the contrary, whenever I receive an e-mail from a reader telling me they’ve checked out a particular artist’s work, bought their record or went to their concert because they read about it on my website, I am on top of the world, both as a fan and as an independent artist myself. But it goes beyond that.
Through this website I’ve had the chance to meet and talk to musicians I’ ve admired for years, discover exciting new music and even make new friends. Whenever I have the chance to interact with these wonderfully talented and dedicated artists, it is a creatively inspirational and all around soul-enriching experience.
I consider the following article my crowning achievement as a music writer. I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with my absolutely favorite vocalist, the exceptionally gifted and disarmingly brilliant Sofia Rei. Her work has been a staple of my musical experience for over a year, as well as a spring of creative energy.
I met Sofia a day before her concert in Vienna, which was part of her most recent European tour. I had a chance to sit down with her for an in-depth interview. From the start, my ambition was to write the most comprehensive article ever written about this talented musician, as a tribute to her always inspiring work. The lengthy feature contains the story of my feverish (literally) six hour car ride, a review of the concert as well as the interview, which I have left almost verbatim so that the reader can really experience the personality of the artist.
Take your time with this one for a glimpse into the thought process of one of the world’s greatest musical minds.
Authenticity through awareness – an in-depth interview with Sofia Rei
“This next song is about all the different masks we have to wear as performers, all the personalities and emotions we have to summon up. It’s a very schizophrenic process.”
With these words, Sofia introduces my favorite song in her outstanding repertoire, the intense and dynamic title track of her most recent record De Tierra y Oro. Against the backdrop of the ornate Mozart hall, Sofia is looking radiant in a bright red dress that reflects her warm and colorful personality. Her long hair is tied in a side braid and she is wearing a pair of large, round silver earrings, looking for all the world like the embodiment of her music: simultaneously elegant and unrestrained, impassioned and cerebral. In the solemn atmosphere of the Mozart Hall, one of the venues in the Wiener Konzerthaus, the New York based Argentine musician stands out as a vibrant presence.
With her on stage, looking focused and determined, her band mates JC Maillard (guitar, saz bass) and Tupac Mantilla (drums, percussion) are joined by guest musicians Eric Kurimski (guitar) and Raynald Colom (trumpet). I’m leaning back in my chair, realizing how lucky I am to have made it here. As Sofia starts singing, my mind is spinning the events of the last few days like the fragile thread of a spider’s web.
Chapter 1: “I hope she was number one!” (The Story)
We’re in the lobby bar of the Lindner Hotel on Belvedere Rennweg 12, about an hour early. My wife and I had initially planned to take a short stroll on the beautiful streets of Vienna before meeting Sofia at 7 PM for the interview, but the absolute shit weather is literally raining on our parade. The heavy rain and skin-piercing wind are nature’s contribution to what feels like an organized effort by the entire universe to compromise the trip we have been meticulously planning for over six months.
I’m sipping on raspberry flavored tea instead of my usual red wine because I’m still on freakin’ antibiotics. Merely three days ago, I was laying in bed with high fever with the upcoming trip looking increasingly like a physical impossibility.
Bent on seeing my favorite vocalist with a determination that spat in the face of reason and self-preservation, I managed to bring my health to a marginally stable condition just in time for the concert. After what turned out to be the most miserable six-hour car ride of my life, where I often felt like passing out and/or throwing up, I finally found myself in Vienna, feeling like I had just enough strength to conduct my interview before ending up in the emergency room reciting my medical history in German.
Photograph by Sandrine Lee
Had it been any other concert with any other musician, I would have probably remained at home, safely tucked in my bed. But there is a certain quality to Sofia Rei’s singing that makes you want to fight rain, high fever and fatigue, just to see her performance.
In the past year, since getting acquainted with her talent through a Youtube video of the Song Project’s concert at the Warsaw Summer Jazz days in 2013, I have written several articles about her and developed a deep fascination with her work. She has an unparalleled way of conveying emotion, so much so that I established a rapport with her work that I’ve only shared with that of a handful of musicians in my life. As a music writer who listens to a vast amount of new music every year, I have little opportunity to return to a particular project very often. Yet, over the past year, I must have listened to the Warsaw concert over a hundred times, as well as the other incarnations of Sofia’s art, whether it was her excellent solo records or the plethora of videos of her performing anything from this breathtaking rendition of Mexican classic “Luz de Luna” to this fun display of street music.
While working on my novel, I often found myself playing her music in moments of creative stagnation. Like the legendary Tom Waits, Jan Garbarek and Patricia Barber before her, Sofia has grown into more than just a musician whose work I enjoy: she has become a muse.
Her art is a constant presence in my life, as is her voice. That voice, coming from somewhere in the hotel lobby, is shaking me out of my febrile daze. For the past few minutes I’ve been staring at Raynald Colom, whom I recognize from the promotional pictures. He came down to the bar a few minutes after my wife and I sat down. He took a seat at the bar, his back turned to us. I didn’t want to approach him because I didn’t want to impose, so I decided to just wait for Sofia to show up. To my left, a wall is blocking my view of the rest of the lobby, but I hear Sofia’s unmistakable voice and so does Raynald. He turns to his left, cries out “Querida!” and disappears from my sight. In a few seconds probably spent hugging after not having seen each other for a long time, they both show up and sit down at the bar.
I walk up and introduce myself and she greets me like an old friend. Sofia Rei smiles just like she sings: with the entirety of her being. Her warmth and friendliness instantly shine through, also key elements of her spellbinding stage presence. She quickly introduces me to Raynald as I introduce my wife.
“He is a writer,” Sofia explains. “We got in touch when he wrote some stuff about me. Which was the first one? The top female vocalists?” I nod. “I hope she was number one,” Raynald says with a mischievous smile. “She is now,” I answer and Sofia chuckles. “No, no… it was someone else.”
She thinks I’m kidding, or that I’m just trying to flatter her, but I’m being entirely honest. Life is like a stream, in constant motion and so is my experience with music. For instance, in the year since I wrote the article, I’ve discovered Arco Iris, an excellent and supremely polished album by Amina Alaoui, released under the ECM label, which should definitely be enough to earn her a spot among the Music and Myth’s top female vocalists. In this time, I have also immersed myself deeper into the “myth” of Sofia Rei.
I have often stated in the last few months that Sofia is, at this moment, in my opinion the world’s greatest vocalist. It’s a gut feeling I have based on my perception of several aspects of Sofia’s artistry, just like the feeling I had a year ago when I wrote the article. At this moment, talking to Sofia in person, the question occurs to me: What exactly is it about this particular musician that makes me say to whoever is willing to listen, “This is the world’s greatest vocalist!”, backing up that statement with the credibility of The Music and Myth as well as three years of hard work?
What makes Sofia Rei so special? In a way, finding out the answer to that question is the most important part of this trip.
Meanwhile, the talkative Sofia tells us about her experience in Latvia and how she broke her beloved charango at the airport while traveling to Vienna. Luckily, she managed to get a quick replacement from a man named Luis Parra, whom she had met through common Facebook friends and whom I would personally like to thank on behalf of The Music and Myth. We finish our drinks and I suggest we head to the hotel’s restaurant, to find a quiet place for our interview.
Chapter 2: “It’s nobody’s experience!” (The Interview)
Let’s open the interview by talking a bit about how you got your start in music.
I started at the age of nine with classical music in the Colon children’s choir, which is at the opera house in Buenos Aires. My grandmother took me to an audition. I think she saw an ad in the newspaper or something like that. I was already singing in three choirs by then, I really enjoyed it, so she thought it would be a cool thing to do and brought me there. My parents probably were not so sure it was a good idea but they were like, “Ok, whatever, yeah sure…”
And then I got in. It was a very competitive environment for classical music in Argentina, particularly at the Colon Theater and particularly with the choir director we got. It was completely insane. But this discipline in music has definitely had an effect on me.
And you didn’t stay with classical.
Well, I did for a long time. I worked until I started high school, first at the Colon Theater children’s choir and even in the national children’s choir later on for a couple more years, learning theory and solfège and all sorts of things so I’d be able to read and understand a lot of theoretical concepts too. It was a job really, I had to be there every day for rehearsals and concerts.
By the time I started high school, I had such a crazy schedule already that I was… I kind of lost it. I was like, “Ok, this is too much”. And it was too much traveling. I lived right at the edge of the capital. It would take me at least two and a half hours every day back and forth to go to rehearsals. So I quit.
High school was the only time in my life that I didn’t do music professionally. I was singing in the shower like everybody else, but I wasn’t doing anything. Then I started playing drums when I was sixteen.
Yeah, I still have my drum set back home. My niece actually has it now.
See, you can’t find that in any interview.
No (laughs). Actually, when I was thirteen I went radically from classical music to – and my family listened to a lot of other stuff – I turned into a complete punk rocker. I loved loved loved all these bands that were doing this kind of music. Later on, I got into drumming. I got my drum set. But I didn’t play in any bands, I was just playing on my own, you know, learning stuff. And I kept it in my basement for a while; it was a phase.
At some point, from one day to another, I just stopped it completely. This drum set kind of stayed in the family. I’m very glad my niece is playing it now.
After I finished high school, I went back to the professional side of it. I started my career in the National Conservatory. But back home, classical music – it’s sad because it shouldn’t be like that – but unfortunately it has a connotation of stiffness, being out of reality, backwards, retrograde… for no reason. For instance, at the National Conservatory at the time, if you were a singer you would never have a harmony class because your instrument was a melodic instrument, as if you would never have to harmonize with the world or anything. There was no need for you to understand harmony. And they had all these crazy rules. Basically, they turned the students into these robots that were not allowed to play music. So there was no music at the university. And this is like the highest – you know, Conservatory for Classical Music – there was no music in the school: there was no choir, there was no orchestra, there were no ensembles, there were no people making music inside the school.
It’s so insane that I think about it now and I’m still shocked. But that was the situation. And not only that but if you wanted to do your… whatever, if you wanted to be a singer or you wanted to play piano, you had to spend six years with your instrument, studying before you would be allowed to play with somebody else or do a duo ensemble or to have some kind of environment where you would actually play music, you know?
So this was shocking to me from the beginning. I was always finding my own ways to do things. And I got lucky in the world of classical music, because I have a low range. I have both actually, but I definitely have a low range and I could do a lot of roles and could fit into a lot of jobs. I was a mezzo-soprano and that’s an alto. There are a thousand million sopranos on the planet, not so many mezzo-sopranos and altos, so I already got the shortcut for a lot of these jobs, which was awesome. And I could read. I could sight read well, so that was also a big advantage. I had a good musician’s training aside from being a singer.
I got into doing a lot of work in that field, but also with a lot of groups that were doing contemporary music, because I was interested in exploring extended techniques and stuff like that. They were all like: “Can you do this?” (makes a clicking sound with her tongue) “Yeah!”, “Can you do that?” (makes a humming noise) “Yeah!”, “Can you do… “ You know, like “Yeah, yeah sure… show me!” (laughs) They were all like, “Yeah, great, yeah!” and I’m just imitating a sound, but they’re like “Yeah, but the other ones, they can’t do it…”
So that was fun for a while too, all these different circles of contemporary music. So I was doing lots of different styles within the classical music realm but also little by little more connected to other things. I started studying guitar, actually. I played lots of instruments throughout my life and I’m probably really bad at all of them (laughs). But I play a little bit of guitar, a little bit of piano, a little bit of charango, a little bit of all sorts of different percussion instruments . I used to play drums but, I don’t know, I never got the commitment to any of this. And I always always always sang, you know? I never had to think about it, I would love practicing that and doing things like training.
With the other [instruments] it was always more difficult to be disciplined. So after a while I got bored. But I think it was a good thing to have a little understanding of all these different instruments too, for writing and as a bandleader also to understand at least to a minimal degree what your band mates are doing.
Then I got into jazz and improvised music. A teacher of mine – a guitar player – brought me four records. Four tapes, actually. Yes, I’m that old (laughs). One of them was Bobby McFerrin’s Play and I was really blown away by this album. Actually, I didn’t like it. I didn’t even like it. I did not understand. But it was so complex to my ears at the moment and so intriguing that I listened to it a million times.
I went through the same thing with Tom Waits.
Yes. I was like, “What is this?” But there was something so appealing in the bad, you know, that I just kept listening. That opened up a whole new world for me. Because my family never listened to jazz. My parents were more into a lot of tango, folkloric music from Argentina, from Latin America. They didn’t know about it, it wasn’t around. My friends… pff…they were far away, I’m talking about the other punk rockers (laughs). It wasn’t around, it really wasn’t around. And then, all of a sudden, I started listening to Carmen McRae a lot and Ella, Sarah Vaughan and Nina Simone and all these singers. It was like discovering a completely new planet. It was fascinating. I think I always liked challenges in general. I can’t stay with one thing, I get bored. I have to find something that’s going to be difficult. There’s that competitive side of me, I guess.
In a way, jazz was a very interesting, intriguing thing because it was very challenging. I understood from the beginning that musicianship here is key. You have to have amazing ears. You have to really be able to hear all these things in order to improvise. You have to be able to actually reproduce anything you’re hearing; that’s improvisation. They really have to develop that, because what you don’t hear, you can’t sing. That translation of what you hear… When you have this amazing line or this great thing and then something comes out that’s different, it’s the biggest frustration on the planet.
So that’s what you train: the translation. And also what you can actually hear. That was fascinating to me from the beginning. I was trying to really get into this deep musicianship and musicians’ world. That was kind of what led me to moving to the U.S, you know? It was like “Ok, go to the source.” I was super into jazz at the time and vocal improvisation and what you can do with your voice as an instrument, the different possibilities. Everything led me to either New York or Boston, mainly those two cities.
You went to Boston first, right?
I went to Boston because I applied to three music schools. I got into all of them, but I had the luck of being on tour with the National Youth Choir, which was yet another organization I worked for in Argentina for four years. We toured a lot. We toured Europe a lot and Brazil and Argentina and the U.S. We were doing a U.S tour and we had a stop in New York, so I visited the Manhattan School in New York and Berklee and NEC [New England Conservatory] in Boston and I just got a great vibe about NEC, you know?
I was like, “This looks like the real thing.” They are all about artistry, they are all about kind of pushing the personality out of the musician, rather than massively imposing content and that one way to do things that some bigger schools do. They have to, in a way, because it’s unavoidable when you have five thousand students. You have to format because it is so difficult to do. It’s out of hand really when you have so many people.
But NEC had a very small jazz department at the time. I think there were one hundred and ten students altogether in the whole jazz and contemporary music department. The cool thing was that they had this contemporary improvisation department that was kind of like a world music-slash… whatever didn’t fall into these two big categories of jazz and classical. So they had music of Turkey, music of India and they also did a lot of other… they kind of connected… it was called the Third Stream Department, because it literally was. You could take classes on any of the three. It was very free. Every teacher there was already an amazing musician. They didn’t give a shit about things like, “Oh, you have to go over your major scale again!” because, in fact, nobody cared about it. It was like “Ok, here is something that might interest you and you’re going to pass the class… probably… “ I mean they might not tell you, but you know already that they don’t care. You already got into this school, it’s very competitive and all your classmates are these phenomenal musicians that are eighteen, nineteen, twenty – whatever age from eighteen to forty – incredible, completely out of the box and brilliant. So already the company was good. It was really a great experience.
And you also got involved in teaching.
Well, I was already teaching in Buenos Aires. My mother is a philosopher and she’s a philosophy professor. She made a living as a professor all her life, so she loves teaching. Basically, if one of your parents is a teacher, it can be the most annoying thing or it can be awesome. There is a line she always gives me when I’m like, “Mom, you know, I discovered about such-and-such and whatever.”
“Ah, Sofia, yes… there are libraries written about that subject!” She’s always saying that to me (laughs). And I’m like “Mmhm… I get it…ok.”
But it was a really cool thing because she’s a very knowledgeable person. She really knows a lot about so many topics, so much about history and art and literature and of course philosophy. So it’s just cool to be around her, because it’s kind of like sitting in class. I think she really is a great teacher and I think she inspired that in me. My sister also teaches. Nobody in my family is a musician, they are in different fields. But there is that “teaching gene” and I like it very much, especially when it’s in the format of workshops that turn into this motivational situation where you have a group of forty singers and they are all trying so eager for information. I really like and appreciate that.
I was wondering about the whole teaching aspect because I talked to Terri Lyne Carrington recently, she’s also at Berklee…
…and she talked to me about being a mentor. I also spoke to Jazzmeia Horn, a young vocalist from New York, who told me that there aren’t enough mentors for young musicians while Terri said that the young musicians aren’t as eager to learn from their elders as they should be.
That’s true. It’s kind of strange. The whole student thing turned into “clients”, you know what I mean? It has to do with how the universities do their business, of course. If you turn everything into a business, then education becomes a side aspect of what you do. Then you have clients, you don’t have students anymore. Then the students feel entitled. I had parents of eighteen year old kids who would come to me and say, “But we paid for the semester, so my daughter has to pass the exam!”
“But she didn’t come to any lesson and she doesn’t know two songs by the end of the semester. Maybe she’s not going to pass because she’s just not doing anything for it.”
“But we paid the tuition.”
So there is this whole dynamic to it.
Well, you can pay for a Ferrari and then crash it into the first tree.
Right, you might not know how to drive it. The motivation of a lot of students is: “I made it into such and such school.” It’s like winning a contest, like being on American Idol. This line I got many times:
I’m like, “So, what brought you to such and such school, why are you here? What do you like?”
“So… I was discovered by, like, the grandmother of so and so…”
Are you kidding me? Really? Discovered by who? From very early on there is this focus on the business side of it and not necessarily on developing in your instrument some kind of personal voice. I found pretty shocking that a lot of students were not even thinking about that, which for me was a key thing. I didn’t want to copy – I’m sure I ended up copying a lot of stuff that I didn’t want to, because I was listening to singers that I really liked – but originality was a point. It was something that I had in the back of my brain all the time.
You want to be able to express yourself in your own way as an artist, right?
I found that in younger generations – not everybody of course – but it’s more of a rule that they’re not interested or not questioning that, you know? The whole individuality, finding a specific or a unique voice. I often hear from students about the fear of school ruining their “personal style”. With these particular students I’d say, “Sing something for me,” and they would always sound like ten thousand other people on the radio. “Ok, you’re not going to have that problem honey, don’t worry!” (laughs) “School’s not going to spoil it for you, don’t worry, don’t worry. Tell me the next thing I have to worry about.”
But it’s been a really great experience. You are sometimes very disconnected from what the newer generation is listening to and it’s great to put that back on the table. I think it really helped me understand a lot of things. Because technology and the way people interact with each other is so different right now from ten to fifteen years ago. And I have some amazing students… amazing, amazing, amazing. I’m always trying to connect with them and to help them. They’re moving to New York and are like “Oh, what to do, I don’t know…”, I’m like, “Come, get a coffee at home, talk about it. We’ll figure it out.”
But it’s also tough. I think a lot of people get this dream that they are here already and they made it because they got admitted and they are the “next big thing”. All of a sudden they look around and there are six thousand of the next big thing in the classroom, and then other ones all around the country and then other ones all around the world. Because when this becomes a professional thing, there is this entitlement, “I’m getting a degree, so that means I’ll be working as a singer or as a piano player.” That’s really not true. Nobody can guarantee you absolutely anything. You might walk out and… good luck, have a good life! Maybe you’ll just never have a career with it.
As a teacher, I think you have to feed the good part of it, which is the creative part. Pave the way for them to understand a lot of things that they might not have yet, in their bodies and instrument-wise. It’s very challenging.
Let’s talk about your records. I’d like to start with The Song Project, since that was my introduction to your music.
Everything starts with Zorn (laughs).
I call him the “mad genius of jazz”.
He’s a genius, for sure. Basically, what happened was… Everything starts with NEC also, this music school where I met many people that I’m still collaborating with and that later on I kind of reconnected with. One of these people is Ayelet Rose Gottlieb. She’s a great singer from Israel. We studied together and connected, we became really good friends. Then she moved to New York and we didn’t see each other for a while – I moved to New York later. She came to my house one day and told me about this project she started with another singer. They had a rhythm section at the time and they were doing a vocal Masada project for Zorn. At the same time, they were asking for singers to do this project at Carnegie Hall with Bobby McFerrin, an improvised opera about the Babel tower with singers from all around the world who could improvise but who also had some kind of background in roots music.
I applied and so did she. We both got it. We sang with Bobby at Carnegie Hall and it was super great. I met a lot of people that I kept working with over the years, other singers. So, anyhow… Ayelet basically got me into it.
Zorn decided to reconvert this project into a female vocal a cappella quartet, so we sent him some suggestions. He heard my music and he really liked it and I became part of the band. Then I brought in Malika Zarra who is an amazing Moroccan singer. That’s how the band started. That was 2009. We recorded the first Mycale record and then we just toured. We did a lot of big concerts… marathon concerts all over the world with him.
Then he called me to do the Song Project, because he knew me already from Mycale and he wanted a lyricist. I think he probably wanted a diametrically opposed vocalist. I mean, if you think of Jesse Harris and Mike Patton and myself. You know, Jesse is a great singer songwriter and Patton is…
All over the place…
…all over the place, this amazing performer and great singer and I’m like… completely… we’re three different animals, you know? So, the cool thing was that we literally put it together the day before the Moers concert. We never met before to rehearse. We met in Germany. And we wrote the lyrics to the songs. I actually never sent anything to [Zorn], I guess he just trusted whatever I was doing with it. Later on, I found out that there were some demos involved, but I just never sent anything.
Did you get to pick the songs?
He left it open for me to decide, but he suggested five or six songs. We ended up doing four of those, I think. They all have different titles now but it was: “Besos de Sangre”, “La Flor del Barrio”, “Tears of Morning”. Then I did “The Book of Shadows”, the one with Jesse…
That one was left out of the record.
It wasn’t on the record because it wasn’t in that concert where the album was recorded. There are some videos of it. So, that’s how the whole thing started. It was a great experience because we were always on tour. I had met Mike and Marc Ribot and Joey [Barron] and Trevor [Dunn] and everybody, but it was the first time I was actually singing with them and also working with John as a conductor on stage. Because in Mycale he was there, but he wouldn’t be conducting. So that was really cool.
What’s the dynamic of such a project, with all these musicians on stage at the same time? I call it a powerband or a superband…
It’s quite a superband.
When you just look at the band, you have Marc Ribot and Joey, who I’m a huge fan of, and John Medeski… it’s just a huge band with different personalities. What’s the dynamic like, as opposed to performing with your regular band?
It’s great. In a way they’re all jazz superstars, but at the same time they are the most down to earth people ever. You’d never hear any bullshit from any of these musicians… ever. They are super nice and really down to earth. They are really focused on the music. All of them. So that’s really great. You see that and that’s a good energy for the concert and for the project.
I think the coolest thing about this project is when you’re singing “La Flor del Barrio” and Mike Patton is doing background vocals, and he’s so gentle about it.
It was really funny because I didn’t even think about it. Zorn asked us to have background vocals so I’m like, “Sure”. So I got all the songs that they were doing and I sort of organized my own backup vocals because we’re not going to rehearse so … I met with Jesse, because Jesse lived ten blocks away from me, so that was easy. With Mike I never met. And then I’m like, “Oh, it would be really cool if you could do this line.” I asked John before and he’s like, “Sure thing, I’m sure he’d be down for it!” and I asked Mike and he’s like “Of course, that would be great.’” And then a lot of people are like, “You got Mike Patton to sing backup vocals for you!” (laughs)
I never thought of it that way. And he was so cool. He’s like, “Is my Spanish good? I don’t want to fuck it up.” I said: “It’s perfect!” (laughs)
It was cool to see Mike, who is usually screaming and howling… and then there he is so laid back and subtle…
I think one of the most incredible things about him is that he can fit into any role. If you see the stuff he does with Mondo Cane or…
Yeah, he’s a cool guy.
He is an incredible musician, an incredible singer.
He’s got an impressive range.
Yeah, if you hear some stuff that he does… I think he can really sing and then he can go and do all this crazy stuff. I remember, at the beginning of some of the concerts, I would be warming up and he’s like, “I don’t really do that” and then he’ll be cracking his neck like… (makes cracking noises). Then he’s like, “This is my warm up!” (laughs) I think I’d be mute for half a day if I did that.
It was a really cool environment for the three of us to be working together. I love working with singers, I completely love it. I have Mycale and The Song Project is also with other singers and I have a lot of projects with singers. I love it! And singing backup vocals, I love that too. When we were in that project… doing backup vocals for Jesse or Mike… it was super fun, I loved it.
Is there any plan for Zorn to go forward with The Song Project or was it just a one-year deal?
It was a specific project also because it was part of his Zorn @ 60 big retrospective, which was amazing, clearly. The problem with continuing the project, I’m guessing, is just to find a second to get these nine people together, who are all super busy. Everybody is touring all over the world, so if you have to book even a rehearsal one year in advance. I know he doesn’t have any plans in the near future, but I am sure – and I hope too – that we will be doing something in the future again, because a lot of people really enjoyed it. I think it was something special. Also, a mini-retrospective of Zorn.
It’s crazy: the show starts and it’s “Batman” and Patton screaming and the band going crazy and then there is this pseudo-bolero going on and the whole dynamic of it is completely different. Then Jesse is doing his thing and it’s completely… it’s very schizophrenic, but in a good way. It’s fifty minutes of complete schizophrenia. That shows Zorn’s range of work, which is great. That’s the beauty of that project. The extremes, you know?
I was really happy that the Song Project Vinyl Singles Edition came out in December. I was just preparing to write my article with the Music and Myth Awards for 2014 and it would have just felt wrong not to have The Song Project in the best vocal record category, since I must have listened to the Warsaw concert hundreds of times. It was really the defining musical experience for me in 2014.
Photograph by Rafael Pineros
Let’s go on to your own work. First of all, I want to ask about the band. You seem to have roughly the same line- up for a long time, where did you guys meet?
Well, I work with a lot of different bands so often times you just meet musicians that work in different projects and you “kidnap” different people for different things you want to do. I know a lot of musicians, being in New York and working a lot. When you’re working a lot and you’re going to see music… I’m very involved in the New York scene, so I go to see music a lot. I am part of many different projects. I am the lead vocalist of a lot of different projects, so it’s kind of like… I don’t even think about it.
People call me and go, “I need a guitar player for such and such project” because I’ve got like a database of people (laughs). At this point, I really know for specific types of music what can work and what not. These are all people that have been crossing paths with me somehow in Boston or New York. I met Tupac in Boston. He also went to NEC, but we didn’t go to school together. He actually moved to my room when I moved to New York, so he lived in my ex-Boston room. We became really good friends and he started playing with me about four or five years ago.
Yayo Serka also… we started playing together when I moved to New York. And Franco, I’ve known him for fourteen years. We started playing together very recently actually, but I shared a ton of concerts with him as the drummer of other bands I sing with or listening to him with other bands.
Can you give me a rundown of the projects you’re involved in right now?
I have my trio and I have my sextet format. Those are the two main formats that I’m touring with for the music that we’re doing right now. I’m also involved in three different projects with Zorn: One would be Mycale, the other would be The Song Project and the third one will be the new Masada Book Three project that we’re doing with JC.
I’m also working with Manuel Valera, who is a Cuban piano player based in New York, who has a project of Martí poetry that he wrote music for. So we have that project and it’s all great Cuban musicians from New York involved in it. I am also working with Myra Melford in a project that’s old texts of Eduardo Galeano. I’m actually not singing in that project (laughs). I don’t sing one note all throughout the concert, which is so weird to me. I’m a bilingual narrator.
I was just going to ask if you’re the drummer.
(Laughs ) No, I’m a bilingual narrator and I have to kind of dialogue with the music. Let’s see… what else am I doing? Oh, I have my solo project too, which I have not been exploring this past year. But I’m hoping to do more of that soon.
Just my pedals and my charango and my voice. And I’m sure I’m forgetting ten thousand others but that’s pretty much it.
Talk to me about your creative process. What inspires you? Is it just music or do you find inspiration in other art forms also?
It could be really anything. I find that there is always some kind of seed that triggers the work. I record voice memos all the time, of ideas that I have. One of twenty of those ends up being developed into something. It could be… musically… it could be a baseline, it could be the lyrics to something I wrote, it could be a text I wrote. I write a lot, actually. A lot of these texts that I write don’t end up being any lyrics or anything, but they trigger ideas for lyrics sometimes.
Or I use a part of it and then from there I develop a whole song. Or it could be a rhythm. De Tierra y Oro actually has a lot off songs that were inspired by trips to specific places. I also did quite a lot of research on South American roots music. So, by listening to that style, I really have a lot of that information which can come out in the writing or in specific rhythms. But, you know, I’m converting everything into what I want to do. Literally, there are rhythms that don’t exist, or grooves or styles of music that don’t really quite exist in that record.
It’s funny because people who aren’t really familiar with Latin music, or Latin American music – Latin music is a horrible word to say, just because it doesn’t describe anything. It’s such a vast continent. Sometimes in the charts, music schools would – thank the good lord they don’t do it anymore – but they would put in the “style”… they’d be like: jazz, bossa nova… Latin. I was always joking about it. What the fuck is that? What the fuck is Latin? Latin could be a 6/8 groove that’s more similar to the Moroccan rhythm or it could be… it could be anything. And one thing is completely unrelated to the other. But, I guess to an untrained ear – maybe somebody who’s not familiar with Latin American music – might think that certain specific things are happening are traditional when they’re not.
I always find it funny when they’re like, “Yeah, so what is that rhythm from ‘La Gallera’?” and I go, “No, it’s not really from anywhere….” It’s just conversions. And I’m glad that I get to work with musicians who bring so much to the table. Because this record is not just me. A lot of it of course is my writing and whatever, but the people I work with have also this condensed identity, like mixed music and the concept of blurring musical styles. And nobody gives a shit. Nobody’s like, “Oh, but they’re playing a chacarera, so it should be this!” Nobody cares about that. And I love that. I don’t care, I’m not a purist.
I consider it kind of normal to be mixing things together, because that’s how we live. And we’ve lived like that for a while, so it would be kind of strange to keep some forms so specific, since that’s not really how we listen or how we live. I live in New York, I’m an Argentine.
Often times people will want to put things into a category. I understand that sometimes things have to be labeled. So let’s say it’s “world music”. World music does not define anything, of course, but the whole concept of roots music right now is quite crazy. If I went out on stage and I had my mate in my hand and my poncho maybe, hopefully ornament my hair with some feathers, then that would be very “authentic”, ok? That would be very authentic, because I’m from Argentina. And that’s what people want to see. That’s where they want to place you culturally. Yeah, the gauchos and the indians and God knows… and yeah, she sings chacareras and she’s really bringing herself into it. I would be so far away from bringing myself into a performance or anything of mine if I’m wearing a poncho. I probably wore a poncho two times in my life. I had one when I was a kid. But that’s not part of my culture, that’s not who I am. As an Argentine, that does not describe who I am and what I grew up with.
In general, when people go for that, they want to listen to something that does not exist anymore, that is not real and that does not reflect the culture in whatever country they’re fantasizing about. You go to Peru and you go to the main square and you want to see everybody playing cajón and everybody dancing festejo and its great ‘cos that’s what people do in Peru. No, it’s bullshit. If you go to Buenos Aires and you see somebody dancing tango in the street… you know that’s bullshit. People don’t fucking dance tango in the street . That’s for you, the tourist. It has been staged for you. And it’s wonderful, it can be fun, but really… for you to go home and think that you actually saw a tango performance in the streets of San Telmo…
It’s difficult because people want to catalog it. It would be better, of course, if I had three more feathers in my hair. It would be so much more what they’re expecting. There’s this whole idea that you’re from the village and where did you leave your horse? You know? Mmhmm… well, bad news for you: I actually grew up singing classical music and it’s a completely different environment than what you’re imagining, you know? And, at the same time, yes, you have all that. In my house we have folkloric music. I traveled the country a lot, so I know of that too. But to decide that the pureness of it is just keeping everything else outside and keeping it “uncontaminated”…that’s not true. That’s not our experience. It’s nobody’s experience.
In some rare cases, it is. For instance, in the pacific coast of Colombia, where they have this really fascinating music performed by afro-descendants that were kind of isolated for a long time. And they played marimbas and they have a very characteristic music that’s still alive there and that’s very close to a hundred years ago. That’s uncontaminated for real. So that’s true, that’s happening there.
But then, if you move it somewhere else and try to present it in the same way as it was there…
…something’s going to happen. It would be ridiculous, in a way, if I moved to New York and lived there for fifteen years and I’m still singing chacareras in the same way I was supposed to be singing them in the village up in the mountains somewhere…wherever they want to imagine I was born (laughs). So that’s not going to happen.
So you’re going to keep the same creative direction in the future?
Well, you’re always changing, it’s normal. I don’t have a plan, I don’t know what I’m doing next. I’m probably going to be focusing more on this Masada project of Zorn and then probably on a next thing of my own. But there is no plan and I’m an independent artist, so I don’t have a record label telling me, “Ok, it’s 2015 and you have to release something!” So whenever I feel like I have something that I like and I enjoy and that makes sense, then I’ll probably put it out. Hopefully I’ll be having more time because I’m teaching a little bit less. My touring schedule with the teaching combined was killing me. I’m still teaching and I also tutor students at my house, it’s crazy. I was too exhausted to continue. So hopefully it’s going be an opportunity to write more.
Are you committed to the independent scene or would you sign with a big record label?
I think the whole record label thing is a tool. It’s not your role. What I hope for is to keep my independence in the sense of my artistic creativity and my artistic output. If I can decide on whatever content I create, whatever content I put out…when I do it, how I do it, then ok… great. If a major record label wants to work with me and wants to put that out and maybe they offer something that I can’t achieve on my own, I might think, “Why not?” Again, as long as they would not impose on these other aspects, why not? As an independent artist it’s always a big struggle. The part that I don’t appreciate is all the time you have to put into organizing and dealing with logistics, spending time doing all this work, time that could be spent creating.
I like that I have full control of what I do. I’m a little bit of a control freak. In a way, it works for me to do it how I want and to establish my own pace and rules and everything but, you know… I’m not against [signing with a big label], I’m not looking for it either. Little by little I created something that works for me without much of a plan, simply by doing it. To be able to tour and have my band and work with the musicians that I want and to be in New York working only in the projects that I really want to do that’s an achievement. I have that choice. And I think that’s the beauty of it.
If you could travel back in time to when you were nine years old and had your start in music, what would you tell yourself? What advice would you give little Sofia?
(She leans towards the recorder and rhythmically smashes her fist against the table) Go and study fucking piano as you were told by every-bo-dy!!! That’s what I would tell to little Sofia. You little, stupid little kid, go and practice ten hours a day of your stupid piano, what were you thinking? That’s what I would say (laughs).
With that being said, I turn off the recorder and thank her for the interview. I can see that she’s exhausted, the grueling schedule of the tour (with a concert in a different city almost every day) having left her tired, but no less amiable. She answered my questions with complete honesty and admirable patience and I let her retire to her room, but not without telling her first how much I look forward to the show then next day.
“You guys should come find me backstage after the show,” she says, giving us both big hugs. “We’ll hang out!”
Chapter 3: Earth and Gold – one of the world’s most passionate vocalists at the zenith of her creative and expressive potential (The Concert)
The concert starts with the sinuous, hypnotic echoes of “Coplera”, the opening track from Sofia’s sophomore record Sube Azul , before changing pace with “La Gallera”, a lively recount of a cockfight in Cartagena. The latter was the winner of the 2013 Independent Music Award for best song, and for good reason. Performed live, the track is always an intense ride. This time is no different, as Sofia combines speed and melodiousness to a delightfully intoxicating result.
The playlist consists mostly of songs from De Tierra Y Oro but also some surprises, like the two John Zorn pieces from the upcoming Masada Book Three project on which Sofia and JC will be collaborating with the legendary composer. In the tradition of “Besos de Sangre” and “La Flor del Barrio”, the mystical sound of Zorn’s compositions brings out the most haunting manifestation of Sofia’s voice, while JC has a chance to show off his skill and impressive versatility in two songs that predict another fantastic record.
Another “bonus” is the inclusion of perennial crowd-pleaser “El Pirata”, where Sofia’s lively vocals and Tupac’s entertaining antics with body percussion complement and enhance each other in a showcase of formidable timing. In a heartwarming moment, the two musicians share a big hug after what was surely an exhausting interpretation.
Throughout the show, the band shows good chemistry, a testament to their experience of playing together. JC capably shadows Sofia with his guitar, his saz bass and backup vocals while Tupac’s energetic percussion and entertaining antics serve their purpose of showmanship and getting the audience physically involved (and I have to admit the Austrians really held their own when Tupac challenged them to mimic his body percussion).
Guest musicians Eric Kurimski and Raynald Colom are a delightful addition, with crisp and polished contributions. I especially loved Raynald’s trumpet on “De Tiera y Oro” one of the tracks I was eagerly awaiting the entire evening. Speaking of songs I was eagerly awaiting, my wife and I both had goose bumps when JC started playing the first notes of “La Llorona”, a traditional recount of the myth of weeping woman who drowned her children out of love for a man and whose ghost haunts the landscape of Latin American folklore. The song has become a bit of a calling card for Sofia and there is no single song in her repertoire that feels more raw and emotional. The singer once again embodies her musical character with bone-chilling devotion. Her passionate delivery, with otherworldly shrieks and wails, becomes a testament to her own comment on the schizophrenia of performing.
I have stated before that Sofia’s major strength as a vocalist is an uncanny ability of conveying emotion, a quality the Viennese crowd seems to greatly appreciate, as they always wait for every song to play out to its very last nanosecond before erupting in enthusiastic applause. Those who are unfamiliar with Sofia Rei’s work and have just come to the show out of curiosity are just finding out what those familiar with her talent already know: that they are witnessing one of the world’s most passionate vocalists at the zenith of her creative and expressive potential.
The band closes the evening with “El Tamalito” and Sofia’s animated cries of “tamales calientes”, and I am certain the venerable concert hall has rarely hosted more powerful and dedicated performers. After the show, as Sofia is getting ready to receive praise and sign autographs, my wife and I are preparing to meet her back stage for some photos and conversation.
Photograph by Aivars Slisans
Chapter 4: Que paso con tu Schnitzel? (The after-show hang)
I’m in a corner talking to Raynald, thanking him for doing justice to my favorite song, as Sofia and her other band mates are signing autographs. I also get a chance to pick up JC’s record Carnal Carnival, released by his project Grand Baton, which the guitarist warns me is “loud. It’s not like what I’m playing with Sofia.” You’ll be able to read a review of it on The Music and Myth sometime next week.
When the last members of the audience have left, Sofia seeks out the event organizer. “Is it all right if I bring some friends?” she asks, before she graciously invites my wife and myself to join her and the band for dinner. Not many people get an opportunity to spend time with their favorite musician. As simply a fan it was great to be in Sofia’s company, but as a writer it was even more important since my goal was to connect with her and get a good sense of who she is as a person and an artist, so I can write my feature.
We go to a nearby restaurant called Gmoakeller, where Sofia is greeted with a round of applause from some of the patrons who had just seen her impressive performance.
“I’m not sure they can fit us all,” a hungry Sofia worries, as the waitress seems a bit taken aback by the number of people and the volume of luggage. “They’re right across the street from the concert hall. I think they’re used to big groups of people carrying instruments,” I assure her and she laughs.
We finally get a table and have a seat. I’m enjoying just being in the company of such talented musicians as we talk about the music industry and my pet peeve, the Grammy Awards, specifically how they seem to be restricted to a small perceived elite while other artists are constantly overlooked.
“We should have our own awards,” Raynald concludes. Sofia points at me saying, “This is what he is trying to do,” to which Raynald just respectfully shakes my hand. Being able to write about music that inspires me is it’s own reward but getting the recognition of musicians I respect and admire is the undisputed highlight of putting in countless hours with The Music and Myth.
I ask Sofia about her European tour, telling her that I wish she would come to Europe more often and play more cities.
“You know, Andrei, it’s not that easy,” she says. “It’s quite difficult to set up a tour like this and find venues. Often times, people are afraid to take a chance on musicians they don’t know.” I understand where’s she’s coming from, though the only thing going through my mind at the moment is the memory of the exhilarating performance Sofia and her band put on. If talent and commitment were the only deciding factors, Sofia Rei and her band, along with others like them, would be selling out stadiums worldwide.
But the conversation doesn’t stay on the serious side for long. In a social situation, just like on stage, Sofia is the glue that holds everything together. Being with her in a friendly, relaxed environment, helps me understand as much about the artist as her music does.
I watch her paying attention to what everyone around her is saying, making sure to keep the dialogue flowing between her friends like a conversation conductor. At the same time, she is focusing on her own conversations with a fierce intensity, sometimes dotting down whatever information she finds interesting in a little notebook. I hear her talking to the waitress in a surprisingly melodious German (Ja, ja… danke schön, sehr gut… bitte, bitte). I laugh as she constantly makes jokes and is always ready to reward everyone else’s humor with her adorable, distinctive chuckle. When she turns to Tupac, who hasn’t finished his meal, and asks him, „Que paso con tu Schnitzel?“ it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard uttered in two languages. Slowly, more like a resolution than a revelation, the answer to my question is shaping up inside my mind.
What makes me think of Sofia Rei as the world’s greatest vocalist is more than her admirable songwriting ability, her powerful and trained mezzo-soprano voice or even the passion with which she spins her musical yarns. She is more than the sum of her parts. To me, what makes her the greatest is the fact that she approaches music the same way she does life: without holding anything back.
The interview, the concert and the lovely dinner all revealed a musician whose character is defined by an inexhaustible energy and razor-sharp wit, a fascination with the world around her and an authenticity that stems from a deep understanding of who she is as a human being. But above all else, Sofia Rei is defined by her willingness to share this understanding with the world.
by Andrei Cherascu
Photo by Ioana Cherascu