– The best way to communicate some kind of art in this world built on global invasion is to keep the local and make it global – instead of taking global things and making them local – speak columbian duo Chúpame el Dedo.
Translation: Aleksandra Szkudłapska
Talking about the contemporary music scene of Colombia or even South America in general, there are two names that cannot be missed: Eblis Álvarez and Pedro Ojeda have known each other since they were both teenagers, but made their mark on the independent – and partly also traditional – Colombian scene over the last dozen or so years. Both develop their compositional ideas based on traditional Colombian music. Alvarez is active in the brilliant Meridian Brothers, who thanks to the German label Staubgold and their 2013 album Devoción (Works 2005-2011) made it to a broader audience, which resulted in reeditions of their earlier records and acclaimed new ones, to name, for instance, the amazing Salvadora Robot. I’ve already had the opportunity to talk to him for Popupmusic.pl in 2014. Pedro Ojeda, on the other hand, is mostly associated with his peculiar project Romperayo, where he explores traditional Colombian music from the 1960s, 70s and 80s, but also with Ondatropica, another project focused on the musical legacy of this country. In addition, both musicians are active in other ensembles, such as Frente Cumbiero, Los Pirañas or Ensamble Polifónico Vallenato, where, in various constellations, they look at the musical tradition of their homeland, finding a new language to creatively talk about it. Importantly, they do it in a way that’s also attractive to listeners from outside who may often labour under false ideas about Colombian music.
Finally, Ojeda and Alvarez play in the original duo Chúpame el Dedo, which grew from a project commissioned by a Berlin festival into a regular, touring band. Their 2014 album was all about showing metal and grindcore through a tropical filter. On their sophomore record released just a couple of weeks ago, No te metas con Satán, they go a step further, combating the clichés surrounding not just traditional Colombian music, but also metal. They demonstrate that metal can be a danceable and entertaining genre, by building an absorbing narrative around their two stage personas fascinated by metal and Satanism. Chupame El Dedo do not tour too frequently, but it’s really worth catching them live – as they say themselves, this project is strongly rooted in live performances and has a semi-theatrical character. After seeing them at Tremor festival on the Azores in April, I can only confirm the above. Chupame El Dedo is an erudite duo of two amazing showmen, able to enrich their music even further live and create a memorable and spirited performance. Listen to their record and try to see them live – in either of the aforementioned musical projects. Before you do it, though, have a look at our conversation about Satan, travels, clichés, traditional Colombian music and why it’s worth continuously reminding about it.
Jakub Knera: How did Chúpame el Dedo start?
Eblis Álvarez: This project was first commissioned by Detlef Diederichsen, head of the music department at the “House of World Cultures” in Berlin. He used to put on thematic festivals and choose different topics – one such project was the Festival “Evil Music” in October 2013. He invited different artists from different countries and wanted me to do something with it. He did that because he knows that at one point, I was a really huge metal fan. I took all these metal influences from my teenage years and added the tropical essence with which I was working for a decade. I asked Pedro to join me because we’ve known each other for a very long time and we played together in different bands.
Pedro Ojeda: We’ve been playing together with Eblis and Mario Galeano and some other friends from school for many years. We’ve had a lot of projects. We started working on it, composing the music and ended up releasing the project in Berlin. In Discrepant where we’ve released few albums, they asked us to do an album together. After that we’ve started playing at parties and events. It was very organic, not so much intended, everything was a going-with-the-flow kind of thing. So far, so good.
Eblis: We went there, played some songs, decided to record it and offered it to Gonçalo from Discrepant. He put it on a cassette, it was sold out, so he decided to make a vinyl record. We started playing concerts, but we didn’t have enough material – and every time we wanted to finish it, when we were hired for another concert, we would end up playing it again. Last year we almost wanted to quit the band because we see that people who listen to it do it because they know what we are doing. But we’ve decided to make second record instead.
Can you tell me a bit more how you got to know each other? You are both interested in combining tropical and modern sounds.
Eblis: We’ve known each other since teenage years, since we were thirteen years old. We meet in high school and we’ve been playing together for twenty-five years: rock, punk, we develop our music. Even when we left Colombia, we always found a meeting point in time to be together again and play. Ove the last years we’ve been working a lot with different projects: Los Pirañas, Frente Cumbiero, I produced some Romperayo records, we put out Chúpame el Dedo…
You said you were a metal fan. Can you tell me more about it?
Eblis: Metal music got very hard in Colombia and I guess in Latin America in general. I don’t know why but I think it touched some part of the soul or the collective unconsciousness of something, some kind of anger people have here. It became the flag of a lot of people. I can distinguish two groups of people who were into this kind of music: those who went into punk were more politically inclined, they were touched by the anger of punk. Metal fans were more into the spiritual and musical way. I was in the second group – I was touched by the musical and spiritual way.
What do you mean by saying “spiritual”?
Eblis: This satanism or hailing to Satan in metal music kind of replaced our old Christian background. Everyone is claiming to be atheist, but at some point, everyone belongs to some group or religion in the world. This musical and spiritual aspect of metal music, because of the virtuoso way of playing and some of the spiritual terms, influenced a lot of people, I was one of them. It was very common to be a metalhead or punky in the late 1980s and 90s, as a teenager. It wasn’t even anything special.
In a way in Chúpame el Dedo you recreate death metal or grindcore music through the perspective of tropical sound. In heavy music, drums that you are playing, Pedro, are very important.
Pedro: Actually, I was never into metal that much. I used to love progressive rock, but I was never a metalhead, I played more punk. I was influenced by bands in Medellín, which were very hardcore, rude, with a lot of anger – that’s how I started played drums. But I was never into metal or more obscure stuff. Metal wasn’t an important influence in my playing but the attitude to play in metal and punk is very similar to the attitude that you find in some traditional genres from Colombia. They have a lot of energy, high sensitivity. And I play mostly rhythms from Colombia and the Caribbean Coast with that kind of energy and punch which are very intense.
Can you compare these two kinds of energy – from metal or punk and from traditional music?
Totally, it’s very similar, kind of give-it-all-you-can kind of thing. You have to be very much into the rhythm and music – in that sense it’s very similar.
Eblis, you mentioned this anger connected with heavy music, whereas in popular culture Colombia is more associated with happy cumbia music.
Eblis: When I was young, cumbia was more present in popular music and rural environments. Those days, it was really something marginalized. If you grew up in a middle-class family in the capital and you were listening to cumbia in the 1980s and 90s, it was really bad taste. I got involved in tropical music later on in the 90s. But when I was 12 years old, I was into the modern, cool tendencies – and that was metal or punk.
How did you return to cumbia and traditional music after this decade?
Eblis: The first ingredient is that my father was from the coast – he grew up with vallenato, salsa and cumbia. He listened to it, was in a ghetto and was an active member of costeños, guys from the coast of Colombia. These people usually were very marginalized, rejected by society because of they belonged to the coast, to another culture that was considered inferior. My father really stuck [AS1] to his traditions and identity. I grew up with this odd costeños music and being in a capital city where all teenagers were listening to American and European music and nothing about our roots was a huge contrast for me.
Pedro: It started when I was very young – my dad was very much into music, especially music from the Atlantic Coast of Colombia: vallenato. He was sensitive, singing us songs he learned when he was young – he knows a lot of songs and rhythms, although he’s not a musician. This is how I first got in touch with this music. Later on, I got into rock and punk with my friends and kind of forgot these roots in my life until I was around 20 when I rediscovered that music through the records. We were listening to them and tried to play that music. The thing with these records is once you start there is no turning point: you’re constantly finding new stuff and looking for new records. At that time it was easy to find a lot of records on vinyl and not on CDs – they didn’t get into the CD era. We started collecting records and became very aware of the richness of Colombian discography.
Eblis: I had a really special friend called Javier Morales, he’s kind of a shaman. He was like “let’s listen to cumbia or vallenato” and we got in touch and started being good friends. It began this way – like kind of a funny way of going against the status quo of teenagers, which was listening to rock music, metal or grunge or even electronic music. And by chance we got into tropical music very early.
Tropical music is the common thread of your different projects, not only Chúpame el Dedo but also Los Pirañas or Meridian Brothers. But on the other hand, these are all different bands. How do you see making music and looking at the tradition through these different perspectives?
Eblis: There are a lot of points of view and answers to this question. The fastest for me is to say that tropical music is a primordial material in several ways. The first is what it sounds like – this sound is the main channel to communicate a whole set of ideas. By saying ideas, I mean the ideas of an artist – when a painter wants to paint something, he must have something inside his head: a combination of emotions, images, sensations and even some rational concepts which he then transmits onto the canvas. It’s the same for me: mixing all these ideas – conceptual, musical, unconscious, emotional, I use tropical music to form the result. The other side is political thinking – I used to be a really decolonial guy, being against the oppressor (laugh). For me, the best way to communicate some kind of art in this world built on global invasion is to keep the local and make it global – instead of taking global things and making them local. This is how we poison our communities – we take the global shit and place it in the social core of communities. I prefer to take the tropical and put it in a global context. These are the two ways I use tropical music.
How do you understand tropical music? Is there any connection to tropicália?
Eblis: There’s a tendency to mix these two terms: tropicália comes from Brazil, has a very specific format, it’s a famous music genre with important artists. Tropical is a set of music that comes from a combination of afro roots in the Americas. When slave members from the diaspora came to the Americas, they established a kind of musical identity on several levels: Colombian, Colombian-Atlantic, Colombian-Pacific, Peruvian and Caribbean Islands. This music, combined with Spanish and indigenous music in different proportions, is what I call tropical.
Pedro, which aspects of traditional Colombian music were important for you?
Is traditional Colombian music generally important to people in Colombia?
Pedro: It is, but they know only one or two songs, they have a kind of imaginary of cumbia, national rhythm, the importance of the Colombian repertoire. The repertoire that people know is very limited – in Colombia there’s a lot of rhythms that were recorded on so many records, but many of them are lost. Music schools don’t care about this heritage, they are mostly focused on European and American repertoire of classical and jazz music. Whereas a lot of traditional Colombian music remains unknown.
What do you find most important in traditional music from Colombia?
Pedro: The thing is that there are so many different genres from different parts of the country. Just on the Atlantic coast there are one hundred rhythms. The same thing is on the Pacific coast – they use different rhythms, instruments, etc. It’s the same with Western part, the frontier of Venezuela. The indigenous communities have their own music too. It’s important to bring this music to cities so people can know them more.
Eblis, you left Colombia to study in Denmark. How was this journey important to maybe get a kind of distance to your own country culture?
Eblis: That was a very important thing for me. At the same time, I was looking at another culture from the outside. And I looked from the outside at my own culture, prejudices – it made a huge change, in my personality and way of thinking in general life.
Pedro, you left for Canada and Cuba – did it gave you this distance too?
Pedro: Totally! Especially when I went to Cuba. This is a country very much focused on its own culture. When I got to Havana to study music and percussion, I remember that I started talking to a taxi guy from the airport. I told him why I came here and he said, “so you know the types of claves in Cuban music?”. I didn’t know and the taxi driver, who wasn’t a musician, ended up teaching me about the claves and relations between instruments in traditional Cuban music. I was impressed – I would never expect my first teacher to be a taxi driver. But it’s like that in the whole country: everyone knows a lot about their music and culture. I studied there for one year and after that I came back to Colombia to research Colombian music. I was doing that and after one year I went to Canada. I went to a jazz school in Toronto to participate in Jazz and World music program – I got in touch with music from Africa, which to me was totally mind-blowing. I started to make connections with Colombian music and champeta, African music in Colombia. I met people from different countries and played with them – they came from Jamaica, Tahiti or Nigeria, among others. It was a very rich experience. After three years I realized I have to come back to Colombia and keep the research of my own relations with Colombian music.
How would you compare the way of making music in your other projects like Meridian Brothers, Romperayo, Los Pirañas or Frente Cumbiero with Chúpame el Dedo?
Eblis: Actually in most of projects I’m working I put a lot of effort in the studio. It’s my obsession to do very detailed and careful things there. In Chúpame el Dedo, we make things live, both composing and playing. But its origin is in performance, not like the Meridian Brothers, where I have abstract musical ideas that come to life.
Pedro: For sure all of these projects are based on the Colombian tradition and its discographic history. We always try to have very clear references in terms of records. At the same time every single project has its own identity and its own sound: Romperayo is not as heavy as Chúpame el Dedo, the compositions are different, the way I play too. Chúpame el Dedo and Los Pirañas are based more on creative projects between Eblis and me and Mario in the second one. The music is written by all of us whereas in Romperayo I am the only one who composes the music and produces all the records.
In one of interviews you said that Romperayo started as a laboratory in your house. What was the idea for this project?
Pedro: Exactly, it started as laboratory of samples from old Colombian records. It’s based on the history of Colombian discography. I’m trying to emulate the sound of some record labels that produced a lot of very good music in Colombia in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. That’s how it started but I still have a goal in terms of sound – I’m trying to put that repertoire into the modern way of playing. It has evolved – the last record has a lot of electronics and synthesizers.
So your purpose in making music is to bring these different genres and show them in a modern way?
Pedro: Exactly! The funny thing is that the idea people have of music from Colombia is something very old-fashioned, something from the past that should be in a museum. But in reality, the tradition has always been evolving. In the 1960s and 70s there was a lot of experimentation in Colombian music with big bands and orchestras using electric instruments, playing around with organs and synthesizers. But because most of these records were not released on CD normal people just don’t know that they happened. When we experiment with electronic music it’s not anything new at all. People did it before!
Eblis, you said that the performance aspect is important for you. After seeing you play at Tremor, I have to agree. You wear costumes, but you also have two characters – Alexandra Candelaria from one of the songs and a man with the growling-metal-voice.
Eblis: It emerged from the performances. At the beginning Chúpame el Dedo was meant to be two guttural characters of metal music: a very high pitched one and a low one, which is very common in death, gothic, symphonic metal or whatever. I decided to use the effects on the voices, but then we decided to have Pedro backings some vocals. Pedro is a very funny guy, he improvises and talks to the audience. I tried his way of talking to the audience, but it’s much funnier when you talk with these effects and I’m someone else. We began to develop a set of characters, talking to the audience at our first concert and then we decided to introduce it on our second album. So you have a kind of childish voice singing – this is the way these two characters have been transformed.
The first album was recorded with the material from the commissioned concert. What was the idea for No te metas con Satan?
Eblis: We just had this aim to make the second record mainly when we played in France. There was an important festival in Paris, so we were thinking that we need to make a whole set of new songs. Before that we used to play 20-minute shows because we didn’t have more music! So we made them and released them for the new album – it was motivated by shows in France. With the second record we’ve learned a lot from the first one. We really try to find a social symbol which is the dancefloor. We wanted to make all these songs grounded on the dancefloor.
Is this metal and grindcore music still evil music on the dancefloor? It changes the context.
Eblis: It’s changing, we want to communicate and have a really effective show. It’s not a conceptual art project anymore. It’s developed – it’s not a one-time thing, we’re touring, and when people listen it, you know it’s not a project band anymore, but a regular band.
Do you think it could change the perspectives on metal music during your shows when you take some part of it?
Eblis: A journalist from The Wire wrote that our music is missing evil. I understand that but we are extending the concept of evil music into a more superficial text. We are using Satanism but finding new ways and developing these two confusing characters, online influencers saying nothing with a lot of political bullshit and cults. It’s a reflection of modern society that is so confused about speeches and churches. Not churches in terms of religion, but churches of ideological mottos. We are just trying to assemble a whole set of nothingness (laughs) and make music with it. The idea is to have all this bullshit into us – satanism, churches, peace & love, whatever – but at the core there’s an abstract language of music, something that comes directly to the soul. The dance part is a tool to reach that spirit. Finally, it would be very abstract music surrounded by all this bullshit.
Pedro: It shows more of what we are – we really like making music for the dancefloor, partying and enjoying life. The first record was made for the Berlin gig, the second one is more us – what we wanted to do, it’s more of our own kind of voice. For me, it’s a project in which we can be much more open. It’s very theatrical and it’s a joke. You have two kids who pretend to be satanic, but they don’t even know what that is because they don’t really have a connection to death metal or even the Norwegian scene. It’s a ghetto thing in which they pretend to be Satanists, but they can’t pull it off. They just don’t know how to do it and at the same time they are innocent. They always say that they are satanic but at the same time they try to be good and do good things to people. It’s a joke to demonstrate that the evil itself doesn’t exist. What exist are humans doing things and fuckin’ up the whole world. It’s what religions do: they tell you to be afraid of hell and the devil but actually the evil – if it exists – is an innocent, playful and joyful devil, what we try to show with Chúpame el Dedo.
Chúpame El Dedo second album „No Te Metas Con Satan” is out now by Discrepant. You can buy it here.