Perhaps the best thing about the annual WOMEX conference is that it's like going to a delicious buffet where you can fill your ears with samples of musical cuisines from around the globe. If you're a person who has a taste for music outside of the Western mainstream, thanks to programs like Afropop Worldwide, and the Internet, you can be in Boston and listen to Burundian beats or in Bangladesh and get your fix of Brazilian samba. And as we find ourselves living in a world with all these delicacies, the dishes begin to get reinvented, recombined and musicians seek inventive ways – grabbing ingredients from here and there – to express themselves.
The group I was perhaps most excited to see this year does just that. While we have explored on the Afropop radio program the African roots of jazz, and the African roots of hip-hop, today it is also generally acknowledged that hip-hop has its roots in jazz. And from its earliest days hip-hop has sampled jazz recordings, and artists of both genre have recorded together. Some of the most interesting early meetings of these genres were the Jazzmatazz series of albums that began in 1993. Hip-hop producer Guru brought in jazz artists including Donald Byrd, Branford Marsalis and Erykah Badu to create recordings with hip-hop artists like Kool Keith, The Roots, and Gang Starr.
La Brigida Orquesta follows in that tradition... and more. It's what happens if you take a group of kids from some of the poorest neighborhoods of Santiago, Chile, toss them into a after school educational music workshop and teach them to not just play music, but specifically to play big band jazz in the tradition of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. The ongoing Conchalí Big Band Youth Orchestra https://www.facebook.com/conchalibigband has been doing this for over a quarter of a century now. Many of Chile's renowned musicians got their start there, and many inventive musical projects have come from their former students. One project, which we've written about previously is Newen Afrobeat https://afropop.org/articles/newen-afrobeat-a-chilean-collective-inspired-by-felas-music-and-activism which takes the tradition of Fela Kuti's music and politics and uses it to speak of oppression in Chile. La Brigida Orquesta, a project led by keyboardist Gabo Paillao and rapper Matiah Chinaski, does this as well, but with hip-hop, jazz and also then coats it with inspirations from movie soundtrack music. The two bands also share some of the same band members.
We sat down with three of the La Brigida's members: trombonist Alfredo Tauber, drummer Felipe Salas, and alto saxophonist Ed Neidhardt to discuss how they found their way to this wonderful melange of styles.
Before reading our conversation, I recommend watching the following two videos to experience what they are doing. The first features music from their 2018 album, Corte Elegante, which takes its cue from Italian film soundtracks, like those of composer Nina Rota; and the second video is from their most recent album, Antipoda, which nods at classic film noir Hollywood soundtracks.
Ron Deutsch: First things, first... Can you tell me how this all came about?
Alfredo Tauber: This project was started by Gabo Paillao who is the keyboard player and the director of this. We all met in music school when we were children, 12-13 years ago, and were playing in this sort of after school project, the Conchalí Big Band. Conchalí is the name of a poor neighborhood in Santiago. And there, we were playing this big band music, like Duke Ellington and Count Basie. So that was our background. When we left that school we had different bands that grew out of that. And then suddenly, we came up with the idea that we have to mix that jazz background with hip-hop, which is very present in the poorer neighborhoods.
Felipe Salas: [smiling] The hip-hop, not the big band music. Big band is a very isolated case. Where we were from, it was basically a place where small kids had a choice of either learning to play music, or become drug dealers, you know? You have to choose one or the other. So yes, this school was teaching us the big band. But we were also growing up listening to hip-hop and cumbia and all that.
What did you think when they said you'd be playing in Duke Ellington. Were you like “Duke who?”
Alfredo: Yeah. It was more like a way to pass the time and stay off the streets. We came from a lot of different areas. Like Gabo was from this really dangerous neighborhood in Quilicura, another part of Santiago. It was really like make music or like Felipe said....
It almost sounds like one of those movies where they get the poor kids to play some sport and it changes their lives.
Felipe: [Laughing] Exactly.
Was there a moment where it all clicked and this “strange” music suddenly made sense to you?
Felipe: Really, we didn't think about it. It was just....
Alfredo: It just happened. I came from a family where my dad was a drummer, but a punk rock drummer. So I always liked music.Then at some point I was playing Duke Ellington on trombone, but I can't tell you when it clicked.
Felipe: It was all very subliminal....
Alfredo: There was this kind of a competitive thing. It was like you arrive to school and you see all your mates, playing the shit out of their saxophone. So you think “Oh f##k, I really need to learn this song.” So it was more like that.
Felipe: It's like a different kind of drug.
Alfredo: And at one point you realize you can make a living doing that. Maybe this sounds like another kind of issue, but after the dictatorship in Chile, all of our fathers were working for minimum wage, and suddenly I was playing trombone and making money and it was like “this works." During that time, we were going to schools performing as it was part of an education thing.
But then other people in the local music scene would say like: “Here's that kid that plays trumpet really well. Let's call him to make some beats.” Most of the musicians who were in that school band are now professional players in the Santiago scene. More than anything, we realized a way of making music.
I've always thought that jazz was more than a style of music, it's a way of making music that is related to improvisation and the communication between the musicians on stage. It was the way we wanted to make music in a contemporary way of what we were listening to. So when you study jazz, you listen to Duke Ellington and Count Basie and Miles Davis, etc. You go through the history of this music and you suddenly you arrive at hip-hop – to D'Angelo, to the Roots. You arrive at Roy Hargrove. There's a direct line there you can follow. There was also this connection that made us feel empathy with the story of Black music. Like you put on the radio and hear Guns 'n' Roses and we didn't feel nothing from that. But when we connected with jazz, we knew we had something.
I don't remember who said this, but something like every jazz recording is an expression of the oppression. There's no way to get around that.
Felipe: That's a good sentence.
What also interested me, watching some videos of your live shows, and certainly in the music from your first album, is that there is a circus aspect to this project.
Alfredo: In the beginning, we had more like a theatrical show where we used to use some costumes and stuff. But that was more like the concept for the first album when we had those circus visuals, which was kind of a reference to Charles Mingus and to Fellini movie music. This new album we're now playing, Antípoda, has another color to it – music from film noir movies.
Felipe: Like [Bernard Herrmann's soundtrack to] Taxi Driver.
Alfredo: It's much more cinematic. We tried to figure out what the color or aesthetics we wanted for this album.
And was it more organically discovered? Or did you actually sit down and thought: We are going to do this now?
Alfredo: I think it's a little of this and little of that. When we were composing it's more intuitive. You just write music and you feel. But then when you have like four or five or six compositions, you start to realize all these compositions are talking about the same thing. So when you can see it from some distance, you can see where you can take it and put them into a concept.
Is it a collaborative writing thing, or is it just one or two of you?
Alfredo: Mostly the music is made by Gabriel [Paillao], the keyboard player and leader. The lyrics are made by Matiah Chinaski, who's the MC. Some are written by Tomás Alud, who is the bass player. Some of the members of the band make the brass arrangements. But the compositions, at the beginning, are made more like beats, like in a hip-hop way working with loops. And then we transpose them to the orchestra.
Tell me how is this being received in Chile? Or are you getting more attention outside of Chile?
Felipe: Our concerts are getting sold out in Chile. We have a good base there.
Ed Neidhardt: There's a big hip-hop scene in Chile, but there's no one else playing it in this big, live forum. So it's getting a really good reception.
Alfredo: We just had three sold-out concerts before coming here to WOMEX, with the new album. But we can't, like, play every week because the scene is still limited.
Guessing that the audiences are mostly coming from hip-hop, do you think they see this direct line between jazz and hip-hop we discussed, or are they thinking “I don't know what this is, but I dig it?”
Ed: I think people are feeling it more than analyzing it. Maybe there are some people in the crowd who are more interested in jazz and get the reference, but some others just like what it sounds like and don't necessarily know where it comes from... but they feel it.
Alfredo: We've been playing some jazz festivals and some hip-hop festivals – and it works for both.
Have you toned down the theatrical aspect of the shows just because it's more complicated to do?
Ed: Yeah, though it partly depends on where we're playing. If we're playing in a theater, it kind of lends itself to that stuff. But if it's a small hip-hop club it's not as appropriate. So we kind of adapt the shows to where we are.
Alfredo: We still do visual projections. But it's still kind of complicated since we are so many people playing instruments.
That's one of the main reasons the original big bands died out in the 1950’s.
Alfredo: It's like every person we told we were making a new big band project were like “What are you doing? Why don't you just have a DJ and tour the world with two people?”
I don't think I'd be excited to see that.
Alfredo: [Laughing] Yeah, because it's f##kin’ boring! We wanted to do this and that's what we are doing.
There's a quote I read by [your rapper] Matiah I wonder if you'd comment on: “We are the anti-elitist music patrol. We don't like the music police, there are already many rules and we don't want more.”
Alfredo: [Laughing] I think we'd all agree with that. I think it connects with what I was saying before that we make music because we just want to. For sure, we want to succeed, but we also want a number of other things to happen. We had several tries with other projects coming out from the big band. There was a jazz/hard-bop project, then we started to connect it with hip-hop, and maybe there was like four or five projects before we came up with La Brigida Orquesta. All the time while we were trying, we were having fun with it.
Ed: I wouldn't take it literally. But I think, especially in Chile, there's a lot of expectation that jazz should be “this,” and “this” is what the jazz people do, and hip-hop does another thing which is supposed to be in this other place. We just don't pay much attention to that. But I'd say it's more an industry thing, rather than an audience thing.
Alfredo: We're playing for the big minority. If you put the radio on in Chile, you won't hear us.
O.K., but what happens if it does?
Felipe: [Laughing] Then it's time to start a new project.
Ed: [Laughing] We must have done something wrong.
Are we going to see a third album any time soon?
Alfredo: We are starting to work on the third album and the idea is to make a tour next year presenting it. But it's in the early stages.
Ed: I think the idea is to record early next year.
I know you share band members with Newen Afrobeat, but are there other projects you guys are involved with outside this currently?
Ed: Yeah, there's a lot of overlap. With Alfredo, I think we're all in about four different bands together.
Felipe: I have a band called Cómo Asesinar a Felipes or “How to Kill Felipe.” And I'm Felipe, right? We've been playing for like 15 years. It only has like five people – a DJ, sax player – it's a little bit more rock, but we are working with a label in Germany and will come back here to play later this year. It also has a lot of similarities with the cinematic vibe.
Alfredo: I also play in the band with French/Chilean singer Ana Tijoux, and I have my own projects too with my own name, and a ska group, Mercurio Paradise.
Felipe: All the members have several projects, especially Matiah.
Ed: Apart from being in bands with Alfredo and the other guys, I do more like studio-based stuff.
Well, thank you for the time and good luck with all the future projects. I'm so glad we managed to chat.
Felipe: Thanks. We had a great time.