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Mystical Shit: An Interview With Nico Saba of Kanaku y El Tigre

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Nico Saba and Bruno Bellatín are Kanaku y El Tigre, a Lima-based indie-folk duo about to put out their first album for international release (on Strut and Tiger’s Milk, available June 15). In comparison to their folksy, Lima-rooted debut, Quema Quema Quema takes a turn to the psychedelic, as they explore more internal scenery. Nico Saba spoke to Afropop writer Katherine Cohen on instrument hoarding, kids on skateboards, and living life to the maximum.

Katherine Cohen: So I’ve read that you and Bruno were in a punk band as teenagers. Did that start you on, I guess, a musical journey?

Nico Saba: A musical journey–yeah, it is kind of a journey, I guess. Well, the thing is that Bruno is kind of like a–I will go ahead and say it: I think he’s kind of like a prodigy. He’s two years younger than me and, I remember,  he used to play jazz guitar when he was 13, like really well. But I had no real musical talent so I convinced him to make a punk band. So then we started a punk band when we were 15 and then we started playing that type of music.

It’s weird, you know, a lot of people start playing punk because it’s easier, it’s accessible, it’s do-it-yourself. And that do-it-yourself thing stuck with us until today. Because even if we are not doing punk, the DIY spirit still remains.

Yeah, I guess it’s more of an attitude than a genre. So in your current band, so how does your musical partnership work? How do you make decisions together?

I don’t know. I don’t know how we’re going to do it on the third album but on this second album, it was super difficult. The first album, we just got together and if flowed. It just came together super naturally. I wouldn’t say it was easy to make, but the creative process was just very fluid. And the second album had this problem that it was planned. Like the first album was just like, “Hey, maybe we should get together and do an album.” The expectations were really low–there were no expectations, actually, because we didn’t know we were going to release it physically. So to get back to that spirit was really hard. At some point, Bruno wanted to do something similar to what we were doing already and I didn’t feel like doing that same type of music.

We were not really agreeing on anything except that we both liked this one album of Paul Simon, Graceland. So it was like, “OK, so if this is the only thing that we both like, let’s start referencing this album in the beginning and then kind of start the process from there.” I think that that was the first step to kind of recognizing where we wanted to go with this album, and then a lot of doors started opening. I realized that Bruno was really into Ali Farka Touré, and then I started listening to Ali Farka, and then just a bunch of stuff, not just African music. And then he started listening to a lot of music from the Andes, like hyano from the radio, and listening to a lot of hip-hop. So we flew far from that point. Our album and Graceland, they are not similar albums.

So you touched on this when you talked about the different expectations for your two albums, but I was wondering if the awareness that this one was going to be released internationally changed the way you thought about the kind of music you were making.

Oh, for sure it did. Because I guess a lot of things change when you are in Peru. It’s completely different to have a band in Peru than to have a band in the States. Completely different realities. So when you think about an international release and you’re in Peru, that’s a big influence in your decision-making. But it’s honest, because that’s what we were going through.

It also had an influence on the difficulty of making these decisions. A lot of people were asking us to do the same thing that we did in the first album because it worked, but I think that if you release the same album twice, people are not gonna like it as much as the first time.

Fair enough. So you can get some sense of what the songs are about from just the feel of them, and the mood, but what are people who don’t speak Spanish missing out on, lyrically? What are the themes that you’re talking about there?

There’s different themes. But I think that all of them are treated very intensely. All the songs are super intense. There’s one called “Pulpos” which is like, you don’t even know if you’re dancing or crying, or emotionally stressed or super liberated. It’s somehow an intense feeling on all directions, opposing directions, you know? Melancholy, and also dancing.

Yeah, that makes sense, listening to the album. That intensity of emotion runs through the whole thing.

Yeah, so the lyrics are all somehow secondary to that feeling. They just kind of complement, it in a way. The lyrics in the first album were very descriptive. They talked about characters in Lima, they talked about streets in Lima, they talked about Lima a lot. They were all set in these areas of Lima. And on this second album, the scenery is more internal, lyrically. It’s more about losing yourself in insanity, for example. There’s a second song on this album that’s called “Nunca Me Perdi,” and it says “I was never lost because there’s really nothing to lose ever, because nothing exists.” And the evolution of the lyric is kind of like that. It’s like losing yourself in whatever it is that you’re going through, you know? So I think the lyrics do that throughout the album.

Like there’s a song “Si Te Mueres Mañana,” with the video with the skateboarders, is a reminiscence of adolescent anxiety and that feeling of fucking just doing whatever it is you want to do at that moment, because that is the most important thing that you want to do. Whether it’s just jumping off the hill from a skateboard, or moving to a different country, or coming out of the closet, or going out of a bad relationship, out of, you know, whatever, man. Because everything that you really want, that you desire, everything you really you long for, is something that is difficult to get. Because if it wasn’t then you would have it. So that longing is also an element in this melancholy trip.

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There’s a Brian Wilson quote where he describes the Beach Boys’ music as having this yearning quality, and that was something I felt could apply to this album also.

Actually, there’s a couple of little homages to the Beach Boys in the album.

Oh, really?

Just little Beach Boy-ie moments, perhaps with the choruses, just little things. Because we really love the Beach Boys. But yeah, the lyrics of every song talk about something different, but they all have that same approach. The approach of embracing your current situation. Even if you are sad, embrace your sadness, embrace your depression. Embrace just whatever it is. It’s not always about just having fun and good times, it’s about life itself, which has both. And you know, at least at this moment, we were living them to the maximum. Maybe in two years we’re going to release an album that just says, “Take it easy!” But not now. Today, we’re saying the completely opposite: don’t take it easy. Just go and live fully.

Great. So you mentioned the video with the skateboarders, and that is something that I think a lot of people really liked. I think it’s really lovely and it fits perfectly with the mood of that song. How did you go about making that video?

The video was shot in Alto Peru, which is an area of town in Chorillos. And there’s an organization which helps kids do skateboarding and surfing and stuff like that and there’s a director in that part of town, he’s called Victor Checa. He just has this super good way of portraying this area of town. He can really, really show you the characters and really show you this part of town better than anyone. He lives there and he really knows every single person in that town. It’s crazy.

So I took a picture of a girl, a 14 year-old. She had a lot of attitude and she did this kind of pose for the camera  and my girlfriend at the time took the picture with my phone. So I took the picture and the song and I gave it to Checa and told him, “This is the feeling that we want to capture.” These kids, I think that they are so cool. They have like, how do you say it, spunk or something.

Attitude? Something like that? Spirit?

Yeah, whatever. And I think the video is brilliant, he just exemplifies the song with something so simple, something that most people could take for granted, just going downhill on a skateboard. It could mean anything really. It could mean something huge to someone or it could be something really insignificant. But, at least the way he portrayed this in this video, for this kid in this moment, it’s the most important thing. And having that sensitivity to connect with a song like that and exemplify the song that way, he did a great job.

I agree. It’s really perfect for the song, really captures that same spirit that we were talking about earlier.

And also the whole thing that is super mind-blowing for me, is that this whole phenomenon of the skateboard in Peru is something new. You know what I mean? This whole adaptation of the American culture in these local kids, they just do whatever they want, you know? They do their skateboarding, their breakdancing thing, they like hip-hop, and that is something that is just happening right now. It’s amazing to me, because it’s how they interpret that culture, you know?

I think that’s something that we’re really interested in exploring at Afropop–the way that music and culture travel and get reinterpreted in new places, take on new meanings.

Yes, and I think that in this album and in the next one, we’re more and more conscious about how that translation of the culture is super important in what we’re doing. You know, that contrast. we’re listening to a lot of things that are happening in the world but, in a sense, by the time they get here they should be polluted with whatever’s happening here as well. And if you let that happen, it leads, I think, to a lot of wonderful things.

A lot of people, I think, they avoid it. A lot of bands and people don’t let things mix. You know some people, they decide they’re going to play like, indie rock and they really wanna go that way. And they exclude, they don’t let it be polluted, you know? I guess it’s just two ways of going about it but for me, it’s richer when it gets polluted.

The instrumentation on the album was really interesting. Can you tell me more about that?

Yeah, with the instrumentation, we’ve kind of been building our own palate. You gather; you’re a hoarder of sounds, and instruments, and equipment. The first album, it was stand-up bass all the time, and we had a different bass player. And this album, the bass is electric bass, many times with a pick. You know Blood on the Tracks? I was longing for that sound of the bass with the pick, a very specific thing. And we brought in Rafo de la Cuba, who is this really cool, genius composer/bass player, and he just has his own sound. So it’s either him or a Moog, like on “Si Te Mueres Mañana,” the bass is Moog. Going from a stand-up acoustic bass to electric bass or Moog, it really changes the personality and the sound of the album a lot.

Another thing is that we believe in a lot of mystical shit, Bruno and I. You know, luminance and…whatever, like, we have a lot of that in mind, constantly. Things that mean something that happened to you. So Bruno was in Cuzco, and he was walking around and there were this group of street musicians and one of them was playing a bombo, which wasn’t really perfectly round or anything. You would see it and you’re like, “It looks like this guy made it probably himself.” Bruno heard it and he thought it was the most fantastic bombo ever, and he’s like, “I really need that drum that you’re playing.” And the guy was like, “Oh, yeah, I can make you another one.” And Bruno’s like, “I need that one.” So he bought it and that bombo is in almost every song on the album. It gives it a lot of space. A lot of the boom. It’s kind of ethereal.

That was something I really liked on the album, the textures of the percussion.

Every instrument, or most of the things that we have–somehow they’ve come. They have somehow appeared in our lives. It’s very weird. It’s very unusual. For that to happen to you, I guess at least you have to be alert. You know, you have to go out of the house and be open to the fact that you might bump into an instrument that you really like, or a sound that you want to explore, no? So if you’re not thinking about these things, you might just pass them through. Because how many people must have passed through these street musicians with that amazing kick drum thing? But if you’re searching for it, you’re going to find shit, for sure.

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So I know you guys are going to be touring soon. Do you have any plans for a next album?

Yeah, we’re starting the touring. But I think that the next album is going to come quicker. Bruno and I have learned a lot of each other in this process. And I think that what each of us does is much more defined now than it used to be. I think that we both want the same thing this time. I have also understood that Bruno thinks in a very different way than I do. Like, when I start thinking of a song, I start thinking and walking in one direction, and for him, he just takes a different route. So you learn to trust those kind of things. You’re like, “Ah, he’ll figure it out soon enough.”

But we both know that for the next album–I don’t want to say this one is over-saturated but I think that this time, we wanted to do it with a lot of shit happening at once, and I think that, consequently, the next album will have fewer elements. There’s moments with space–not minimal, but with space. And I think that we want to explore more space next.

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  • Alcides Ferreira

    <3 love these guys!