An exorcism every time I sing it – Sofia Rei talks Violeta Parra and recording her tribute album, El Gavilan

 

Sofia 2

Photo credit: Pablo Astudillo

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.

Sofia 1

Photo credit: Pablo Astudillo

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.

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El Gavilan by Sofia Rei featuring Marc Ribot – a rare, unsettling and fascinating accomplishment (advance review)

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A little over a week ago, during a flight to Berlin, I re-read an old National Geographic article called The Real Price of Gold. In this cover story from January 2009, author Brook Larmer describes the harsh working and living conditions of the modern-day miner, focusing on the town of La Rinconada in Peru, the highest permanent settlement in the world.

When, just a few days later, I heard the words “mejor habita en su concha el caracol” (a snail lives better inside its shell), I was immediately reminded of the article and its vivid description of labor under the cachorreo system (which entails working thirty days without payment for the chance to claim as much ore as you can carry on day thirty-one – a questionable arrangement resulting in a dangerous lottery). The coincidence of this recurring theme was as profound as it was uncanny, not just because I’d randomly picked out the old magazine from my collection or because the song’s lyrics closely reflected the article’s content, but mostly because “Arriba Quemando El Sol” was written more than half a century ago.

This acute reminder of an unchanging reality was indeed sobering, but it was just one of many things I found fascinating about this latest record I’d received for review – El Gavilan, by Sofia Rei and guest artist Marc Ribot, scheduled for release on April 25th.

If you’re familiar with The Music and Myth, you probably know how I feel about these two musicians. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I consider Sofia Rei the most exciting vocalist in the world at the present moment. The reasons for this are manifold: from her powerful, educated voice, exhaustive in its expression of the human experience, to the daring playfulness with which she combines modern arrangement techniques with age-old South American themes, to the captivating manner in which her natural charisma brings those timeworn stories to life.

But the most important quality that makes Sofia such an interesting musician to follow is simply the profound dedication with which she researches her subject matter. In many ways, listening to a Sofia Rei song is akin to reading a National Geographic article in that it manages to condense an impressive catalog of information into the limitations of its concise form. One need only revisit La Gallera for a convincing demonstration of her evocative talent. When I found out this self-described “song researcher” had recorded a tribute album to legendary Chilean artist and tragic figure, Violeta Parra, I was already interested.

If you’re searching for proof of Sofia’s ability to produce a memorable tribute, look no further than her superior take on La Llorona, arguably the most imaginative modern version of the song currently in existence. My excitement only increased when I found out she had invited one of the most intense and eclectic guitar players of this generation to be a guest artist.

The idea of this record became as mysterious as the concept was promising. How did Marc Ribot fit into the vocalist’s vision? It wasn’t hard to imagine that John Zorn’s go-to guitarist and one of the key-figures in Tom Waits’ abrupt, mid-eighties shift to the experimental side would make his presence felt, but what shape would the sound of this shape-shifting musician take? And how would the dynamic, colorful vocalist tackle Parra’s distinctively despondent poetry?

I have to be honest: it’s the first time in a while that I wasn’t sure what to expect from an album. On the one hand, this was a dream-collaboration, featuring my favorite vocalist and my all-time favorite guitarist, a pairing that had contributed to some of the most beautiful vocal songs of the last few years as well as the Music and Myth’s best vocal record of 2014.

On the other hand, I’m a documented fan of Sofia’s previous record, De Tierra y Oro, and I wasn’t sure how that would influence my experience with the bold musician’s first solo release in five years.

El Gavilan starts with “Casamiento de Negros”, in hindsight, the right choice for an opening track, though I was initially ambivalent about its placement since it’s immediately followed by one of the most powerful compositions in the set. All of the chosen songs are time-tested, so the record’s primary challenge was to bring them back to the forefront in a form that would make its existence musically relevant (the lyrics, as I’ve mentioned before, are still frightfully relevant today).

An enormous part of an album’s appeal, at least for me, is what I call its narrative coherence. Ironically, this appeal seems to increase in importance during a time when only the most ardent music enthusiasts listen to records as complete, cohesive bodies of work instead of just random piles of songs in a playlist. For that reason, I feel “Casamiento” was ultimately the right pick to start the journey, purely because of its straightforward introduction to the album’s stylistic direction – minimalist, experimental, centered around the multi-faceted use of vocals in creating atmosphere. Marc’s presence is beautifully understated throughout, his subtle but targeted contributions doing a perfect job of enhancing the effect of Sofia’s unearthly voice.

The song’s subject matter – a tragic recount of a “black” wedding and a destiny of inescapable poverty – clashes with the upbeat rhythm and melody, creating a certain discrepancy that brings to mind Parra’s original version. Here, it’s greatly enhanced by Sofia’s layered vocals and Marc’s unprecedented use of pedal steel to create a sort of sepia-toned, historical reverberation. Disturbingly, the listener discovers that the music is a lie, as the words reveal the burdensome truth: marriage, sickness and untimely death under the sign of abject poverty.

Se ha formado un casamiento

todo cubierto de negro,

negros novios y padrinos

negros cuñados y suegros,

y el cura que los casó

era de los mismos negros.

Cuando empezaron la fiesta

pusieron un mantel negro

luego llegaron al postre

se sirvieron higos secos

y se fueron a acostar

debajo de un cielo negro.

(A wedding has taken place

All covered in black

Black were the groom and the bride

Black were the in-laws

Black also was

the priest who married them

When the party started

They placed a black tablecloth

When they got the desserts

Black figs were served

And they went to bed

Under a black sky)

Spearheaded by Sofia’s use of the caja vidalera (an Argentinian drum) and the guitarist’s electric, confrontational approach, “Arriba Quemando El Sol” plays like a call to war, quickly becoming the record’s unofficial anthem. Summoning the ghost of Violeta Parra, the vocalist manifests her voice in its rawest, most single-hearted form to lament the historically unchanging fate of the miners.

Cuando vi de los mineros

dentro de su habitación

me dije: mejor habita

en su concha el caracol,

o a la sombra de las leyes

el refinado ladrón

Y arriba quemando el sol

(When I saw the miners

Inside their rooms

I said: a snail lives better

inside its shell,

Or under the shadow of law

the refined thief

and above the sun is burning)

The final line of each stanza – repeated for emphasis – is delivered with complete abandon, breaking off into a banshee’s shriek to create a fitting impression of perpetuity.

“Una Copla Me Ha Cantado” is a mournful ballad where Sofia draws from her work with John Zorn’s Mycale to tackle another important theme in Parra’s work: the agony of lost love. Reminiscent of the most delicate moments in Frantz Casseus and Silent Movies, Marc’s guitar seems to haunt Sofia’s voice. Meanwhile,  the singer delivers this splendid ballad with an almost reverent restraint.

In “Maldigo Del Alto Cielo”, the only track that features only the vocalist, Sofia makes the most pronounced use of her layering techniques (to an almost distracting extent) in order to symbolize the character’s infinitely echoing curse. The song gets off to a bit of a rough start as the combination of vocal percussion and piercing charango makes it difficult to warm up to, but the course is quickly restored by the inspired use of tempo and echo to create the illusion of space-time dilation. Ultimately, it becomes one of the most interesting songs on the album.

“La Lavandera” is as simple and straightforward as a ballad can get. A traditional duet that sees vocalist and guitarist on equal footing, this gorgeous piece relies entirely on instinctive force and calculated frailty. Here more than anywhere else, the two musicians seem to have an almost otherworldly understanding of each other’s strengths. Parra’s incisive poetry serves to emphasize the raw, romantic interplay, making for another one of the album’s highlights.

Reminiscent of “Arriba Quemando El Sol”, the aggressive and visceral “Corazon Maldito” again shows Sofia unhinged, banging on her caja from amid a veritable wilfdfire of guitar effects. With unparalleled vigor and more than a hint of madness, the vocalist cries:

Corazón maldito

sin miramiento, sí,

sin miramiento,

ciego, sordo y mudo

de nacimiento, sí,

de nacimiento.

Me das torment

(Wicked heart,

You have no mercy,

You have no mercy on me,

Blind, deaf and mute

from birth

from birth

You torment me)

This introspective hymn increases in intensity, building up towards the record’s uncontested thematic centerpiece.

At almost fifteen minutes long, “El Gavilan” merits perhaps its own, separate review. Essentially documenting a person’s psychological breakdown, this story of love and betrayal is constructed almost like a play. With a method actor’s dedication, the vocalist brings to life a tortured character, running the gamut of emotion, from anxiety to sorrow, rage and, ultimately, delirium. This bipolar frenzy is aided by Marc’s dual use of his instrument. Its ominous, acoustic form builds up tension while the faded, electric effects allude to the character’s perceptible aura of madness.

This is a truly colossal work, a veritable study in storytelling and emotional expression by two of the best in the industry today. It’s a rare, unsettling and fascinating accomplishment that would have completely carried the record even on its own. As it stands, it’s a climactic conclusion to an unbelievable stellar recording.

The final track, a beautiful, pensive version of “Run Run se fue pa’l Norte” features Angel Parra on guitar. Sofia’s arrangement feels ethereal, ending a bleak story on an almost encouraging note. The words “y cuenta una aventura que paso a deletrear” (and speaks of an adventure that I now begin to spell out) signal the end of Violeta’s life and the beginning of her legend.

Often times, the enormous difference between Violeta’s organic, unrefined delivery and Sofia’s faultless, all-encompassing vocals leads to a sort of transcendent interpretation of the songs. By the very nature of her voice and the energy of her delivery, the vocalist has, in a way, liberated these songs from the bondage of their intrinsic emotional weight, preserving them in a timeless and boundless form.

Through this carefully crafted tribute, Sofia Rei manages to outdo herself, paying homage to her influences as she claims new territory. El Gavilan continues to add depth to one of the most interesting musical résumés of the last decade.