South American Soundscapes: An Interview With Ecuadorian Folk Electronica Artist Nicola Cruz

Nicola Cruz’s debut album Prender El Alma was released last month on ZZK Records. The Buenos Aires-based label is the perfect fit for Cruz, as since 2008 they have made the combination of digital beats and folk samples their signature sound. ZZK has been dubbed “a laboratory of dance”, and you don’t have to spend long on their Soundcloud to see why. Bolivian Quechua vocals float over UK bass- influenced remixes and Argentine ballads break bread with digital cumbia. It’s a fresh take on electronic dance music, where sadly these days sophisticated tracks are often let down by melodies you could play on the keyboard with one finger.

Cruz’s album, by contrast, is built around Andean acoustic instrumentation and indigenous Ecuadorian poetry, and sounds equal parts harvest festival, mythology, and lounge. It will find a welcoming audience among fans of down-tempo electronica and chill-out, with only the title track, “Prender El Alma” [Ignite the Soul], as well as perhaps the stand-out track, “La Cosecha” [The Harvest], pushing into the territory of deep house.

We caught up with Nicola from his home in Quito, Ecuador, to speak about his productions. For fans this interview is an unmissable window into the world of one of ZZK Records’ and Latin America’s most original artists.

How have things been since the album was released? Prender El Alma album cover

“I have been touring Europe for the past month, which has been a bit crazy, but my life has continued the same, in the sense that music is what I breathe 24 hours a day. Everything that I do from when I wake up until I go to bed is something related to music.

“Obviously though, as far as doing live shows goes, it has changed a lot. Beforehand I had regular local nights, and then here and there some shows in other parts of América, but Europe was something new. So this aspect of doing so many shows in so many different parts of Europe in just a month – I believe that would change anyone’s life.”

You were known beforehand too, particularly through your collaboration with Nicolas Jaar. I was surprised to find that you have actually produced quite a lot of house music, not so much techno, but it is club music. Were you always inspired by what you’re doing now, or did you make a conscious decision to make something truly Ecuadorian?

“I started making electronic music in 2006 or 2007. So I think that for all of us who are part of electronic music, house, and techno are an influence, no? They are the origins, right? The fundamentals of electronic music. So for me, no doubt, they are my background, 100 percent. I love house and techno.

“So before I made more of this music. Now, like you say, I’ve taken a path more toward…I don’t know, as a producer. I feel eclectic. I like to experiment and not be located in the same place. So that is what I am doing now – experimenting with folklore and electronic music.

“Who knows? Maybe in some moment I’ll return to making house and techno. I don’t rule it out. For the moment, I feel, like the world; that I’m saturated with so much house and techno everywhere. I still appreciate it and everything, but my path is a different one.”

And did you grow up with this Ecuadorian music that clearly now influences you a lot?

“In Ecuador, this music is played a lot: it’s on the radio and wherever you go you are exposed to Ecuadorian folk music. So it’s very normal and natural for me, this result, the music that I make. I’m inspired by music from here.

“There is no ‘because’ to this project. It’s my nature. I never sat down and said, ‘This is something new, so I’m going to sell it.’ It’s simply a result of who I am and where I come from.”

I imagine that even though it seems very new from the outside, there must be a whole scene of people involved in similar stuff?

“Yes, in fact. I love seeing when other people have this same curiosity of working with folklore, a more ancient sound from Ecuador.”

Do you find yourself collaborating more with colleagues there in Quito, or with the artists from ZZK Records?

“Definitely more with people from Quito. There are tons of really good musicians here whom I admire a lot. I like this idea of driving each other forward, and of presenting the work that they do, because it’s very coherent with what I do. They’re from here too. They understand.

“At the same time, I am currently curating an album of remixes from ‘Prender El Alma’, and those are more international collaborations.”

I think one of the most interesting aspects of finding a new album is that it becomes a window into a scene, and you can find out about so much more music than just the first album you come across. What do you listen to when you’re not working?

“Well, from Ecuador I’d like to mention a group called ‘EVHA‘. They produce folk electronica as well, and they do it in a very interesting way. I also love a Franco-Cuban group, ‘Ibeyí’. They make music connected with folklore from Cuba and Aruba, and it’s very beautiful. What else? To be honest, I love music from all over the world. I’m just looking over my iTunes now. I’ve been listening to a group from Kinshasa called ‘Mbongwana Star‘. These are a few things. I listen to new things all the time, a little bit of everything.”

Well your tracks ‘Eclipse’ and ‘La Cosecha’ are both very connected to the Kichwa Andean tradition. Are they contemporary artists that you’ve recorded, or are they sampled from earlier recordings?

“Yes, they’re samples from a vinyl by Enrique Males. Enrique is from the province of Imbabura, around the area of Lago San Pablo and Otavalo, and the music from this province has so much personality. It’s beautiful, as you can hear on ‘La Cosecha,’ or ‘Eclipse.’ So that’s it. I got in touch with the artist and produced a reinterpretation.”

And with awesome results. What was their reaction when you played your tracks back to them?

“Well I just got back to Quito four days ago, and the album was released while I was overseas on tour. So I’ll be visiting Enrique soon to show it to him, as a gift, I suppose, and we’ll see what he thinks of it.”

I imagine that must be a beautiful moment. When I listen to ‘Colibria’ [Hummingbird-ing], though, and in Equinoccio [Equinox] too, it sounds more inspired in Amazonia. It sounds more mythological and there are references to Ayahuasca, of being unsure what color you are seeing, and the image of a jaguar swimming through one’s body.
Are these tracks about telling your personal experience, or something that’s come out of collaboration with other artists?

“It’s a little of the two. It’s telling a personal story, but both of the tracks that you mention were produced in collaboration with Huaira, a writer and lyricist. When we work together, I let her write. So some of them come out of very profound experiences with ayahuasca, and others are stories of the Amazon, I suppose, and of travelling through Ecuador seeing new things. This is my real inspiration: travelling to new places and getting to know new things, and then translating these things into sound or soundscapes.”

Wait, so it’s also Huaira who sings on Colibria as well as Equinoccio?

“Yes. She was two or three years younger when she sang it. Perhaps that’s why it sounds a little different.”

Right. Because they are similar tracks in what they invoke. I lived in the southeast of the country, in the Shuar area. Colibria sounds like something that they would write, with the child left at the waterfall and being challenged to overcome something.

“Huaira lived in Baños, at the foot of the Tungurahua volcano, for a long time, and that was when she wrote it.”

They’re some of the most beautiful songs, I think. This image of the feathered serpent, too. It’s a shame that so many people will hear it without understanding the poetry of it.

“Perhaps, but perhaps also it will speak to them in a different way, not so much through the words as through the music.”

That’s true. So these songs, as you say, they are soundscapes in the sense of an immersive experience that you want to convey to the listener? What is the process of producing them like? You make use of the guitar and the flute a lot. Does it start with those melodies and then build around them?

“In many cases I think that it is an image that I have in my head beforehand. It’s about translating the image into a musical idea. Sometimes it is fun to arrive in the studio with a well-formed idea. Other times, it’s fun, to play around and start to feel inspired, and work out the path to a new song even though it might be like any other day.”

I wonder if you have any advice for other musicians, or if there are things that you’d have done differently now, with everything you’ve learned along the way?

“Would I have done things differently? I don’t think so, honestly. Everything that I have done has led me to this present day, and where I am now. I feel happy. I feel like…I was about to say I’ve done everything well, but then again I don’t really like the phrase, because there are always so many paths open to us. So that’s it. The fact that I’m happy now makes me content with my choices.”

Well I wish you every success in what you are doing, and I think a lot of people are going to love your work. So for all the people who won’t have the chance to say it, thank you so much and I hope you go a long way.

“Thank you, Christian. Right now I’m going to give myself some time, and further down the road work on a second body of work, and hopefully one day we will cross paths.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. The original interview recording in Spanish is available here as an artefact.

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Christian is a social anthropologist, who, while working on his honors degree, detailed practices of biopiracy: pharmaceutical firms exploiting the medicinal knowledge of indigenous tribes to claim profitable drug “innovations.” Christian moved to Ecuador in 2013 and spent months at a time among the Shuar indigenous people, the famous “headshrinkers” of Ecuador’s remote southeast, exploring the Shuar’s use of traditional medicine including exploring the Shuar’s use of psychedelics and views on the mind-body connection

Tym is also investigating the political aspects of indigenous organizations, the Shuar being one of the first tribes of the Amazon to federate, and continues to conduct research in this regard in Quito. While in the capital, Tym has become deeply immersed in the political situation. As his access to journalism has increased, Tym has been monitoring the Spanish-speaking South American press and its vociferous treatment of many ruling parties. He has travelled throughout the continent to meet with members of various leftist-indigenous groups.

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