Santiago Vázquez: Rhythm, Language, and Social Engagement in Buenos Aires

By - 23 July, 2012

Meet Santiago Vázquez, arguably one of the most innovative musical figures in Argentina today. If you’ve visited Buenos Aires in the last several years, there’s a good chance that you’ve experienced the rhythmically spiritual Monday night phenomenon thrown by one of his three main groups, La Bomba de Tiempo. And if you find yourself in Buenos Aires and you haven’t experienced this explosive percussive dance party… well, you probably should.

As incredible as these weeknights at the Konex Cultural Center are though, there is much more behind the group’s founder than just La Bomba. His two other groups, Puente Celeste and La Grande, each possess their own unique sound that is built upon an intricate and distinct blend of genres from various corners of the globe. What’s most compelling about Santiago Vázquez’s groups is that each of them seems to emit its own ‘sound-scape,’ its own energy that fluctuates, grows and transforms over time. This might have a lot to do with the system through which two of his groups use to create music: ‘directed improvisation’ through a language of hand gestures and signs. Oh, and I should mention: he created this system. (We’ll get to that later.)

With a remarkably diverse scope of musical influences that range from Argentine folklore, tango, chacarera and classical to jazz, electronic, drum & bass, and Afro beat, it’s often difficult to confidently classify Vázquez’ music. In some form or another, he has studied musical styles from Brazil, Morocco, India, Bulgaria, and Zimbabwe, as well as gamelan from Java and Bali. The geographical array of his musical elements can be seen easily through the extensive quantity of percussive instruments he often uses during performances.

As the winner of the Clarín award in 1998 for the album Santiago Vázquez & Puente Celeste, the Konex award in 2005 and another Clarín award in 2009 for Puente Celeste’s fourth album Canciones, he has gained (and continues to do so) high levels of respect for the work he’s done in his country. He has not only proven himself as a masterful percussion player, but also as an inventive composer. However it’s not purely the musical products that make Santiago Vázquez such an important figure in Argentina. It’s what he does on a social level, producing new spaces for creative expression while also generating fresh forms of musical communication through which this creative expression can be shared.

In 1972, Santiago Vázquez was born in the city of Buenos Aires. His father, Marcelino Cacho Vázquez, was a tango, film, and theatre aficionado, as well as a political activist on the left, thus leading the family to flee the country for Spain in 1976 to escape the violent and oppressive military dictatorship of the National Reorganization Process. While in Spain, a young 10 year-old Santiago began studying and experimenting with music, and upon his return to his home city in 1985 (just barely a teenager at the time), he got gigs working as a professional drummer.

Throughout the next several years, Vázquez started a couple of small groups and developed a more experimental relationship with rhythm, learning about the carimba, mbira, berimbau and tabla, amongst other instruments. It was in 1996 when California Institute of the Arts gave him a scholarship to study composition and “world music”, and one year later, he formed his first long-term professional group: Santiago Vázquez & Puente Celeste.

Combining traditional Argentine folk music with more than a tinge of experimentation, Puente Celeste put out their debut album in 1998 to local critical acclaim. This led to the release of subsequent albums in 2002, 2004 and 2009, all of which are worthy of both time and attention. A collection of exceptionally talented musicians — all virtuosic in their own right — the group develops melodic richness and rhythmic complexity into a sound that seems to almost float in its lightness.

During the early years of Puente Celeste’s development, Butch Morris, a free jazz musician from the United States, visited Buenos Aires and asked Vázquez to play a gig with him. Vázquez declined due to a scheduling conflict, however decided anyway to sit in on a rehearsal. After witnessing Morris use hand signals to direct dynamics and movement, Vázquez came up with the idea to create his own language that went beyond Morris’; he envisioned an intricate, evolving rhythmic language that also dealt with notes and scales to orchestrate and guide improvisation. He first used this system with a sort of chamber ensemble called Colectivo Esterofónico, however he would eventually develop and modify it many years later for his next group, La Bomba de Tiempo.

La Bomba del Tiempo might be Vázquez’ most well known group amongst foreigners. As a 17-piece percussive collective, the group began practicing in early 2006, and on one Monday night in early May at an old cooking oil factory called Konex Cultural Center, what would soon be known as one of the most exciting and unique musical experiences to witness throughout all of Buenos Aires, began. There were about 350 people present that night. Now about 3,000 percussion-lovers flock to Konex every Monday for the rhythmically-induced orgasm. Drawing from world beats from all around South and Central America as well as Africa, La Bomba, in bright red uniforms, give life to an ever-changing, dynamic, fluctuating percussive web that knows no limits. With the presence of djembes, congas, maracas, cowbells, and shakers (not to mention a special musical guest every week), the evening grows into a sort of communal ritual, a state of trance that both absorbs and produces vibration, rhythm, and uncontrolled movement. La Bomba de Tiempo has been successful due to both its ability to toy with rhythm and its power to transmit energy, with every performance particularly different each time. (It’s been so successful, though, that more recently there has been a rise in the tourist-to-local ratio due to the increase in ticket prices — something to be aware of.)

La Grande, Vázquez’s third professional group, again reflects an interesting mix of genres, however in an exceptionally different way than the mixing that goes on in either Puente Celeste or La Bomba. Combining elements of funk, jazz, electronic, Afro beat, and who knows what else, La Grande’s sound (relying on percussion, guitar, bass, and wind instruments) seems to be more about creating a fluid texture, fostering malleable grooves while at the same time launching splashes of flare and colour. It is clearly experimental, and the sound changes drastically from show to show, an intended outcome nurtured by Vázquez’s original directing technique.

This technique, often referred to as ‘directed improvisation,’ but what he now calls percussión con señas (percussion with signs), relies on a language that co-ordinates, arranges, and organises improvised creation through a system of over 100 hand signs and signals. The various rhythmic and harmonic signs function to signal time changes, rhythmic patterns, and metric modulation, amongst other actions. When watching Bomba or La Grande, there seems to be a highly complex interaction going on between Santiago and the other musicians. You almost have to be there to really hear and see what’s going on, and even then, its complexity is too thick to really deconstruct.

When watching Vázquez at work, there’s a sense that his genius mind is orchestrating the entire sound, however the improvisational process and the language that it uses allow room for the musicians to develop and share their own ideas, ideas that then spark Santiago’s thoughts and vision for where the music should go next. In other words, there is an intricate musical conversation going on at each moment between the musicians, one of which plays the conductor role.

These types of conversations aren’t just happening on stage, either. In 2007 he founded CERBA, which is now CERPS, the Centro Educativo de Ritmo y Percussión con Señas, a place where anyone interested could come in and learn the system through classes taught by Vázquez himself and other musicians from La Bomba. The organisation allows people to experiment with the system, make their own musical decisions, and produce their own aesthetic and sound with the idea that more and more people can use the language to communicate with one another musically and collaborate creatively.

Vázquez is an important figure not only in the Argentine music scene, but also for music in general. Quite simply, he produces music that changes. It mutates, transforms, and develops, just like people do. He has not only produced music to consume and experience passively, but he has provided a language and a space through which people can actively manifest their own creativity. He is creating exuberant spaces through which people can participate collectively with his art. Vázquez has developed a successfully evolving medium of creative communication that challenges the conventional producer-consumer relationship between artist/musician and spectator/listener, and he has gifted young musicians with an ever-changing tool that allows for an infinite number of musical forms and expressions.

I was lucky enough to get in touch with Vázquez over the phone and ask him a few questions about his musical history, CERPS, and his hopes for the future:

When did you begin to understand yourself more as a percussionist rather than just a drummer? What was going on in your life musically at the time?

I learned the drum set at a young age, played it professionally, and for many years thought of a future career as a drummer, but in reality my first interactions with music was with percussion when I was a little boy, way before I had even played a real drum set. In the house I used to play with different objects: saucepans, cassette tapes, books, and other things. And I sometimes made miniature sets with these objects. I played percussion this way and sang melodies too and that’s how I started writing songs that I then sometimes recorded. So the first musical engagement I had was really with percussion, and that was because I didn’t have a drum set at the time. Later I learned the drum set, worked as a drummer for various years — a session-drummer playing rock, jazz and tango, amongst various other different styles. And at some moment I began playing with Mono Fontana, an extraordinary talent, and that was the first time I presented myself on stage as a percussionist, like when I was a child playing with objects and instruments from the house. So from then I began to feel what I was doing as a percussionist more and consequently wanted to do that on stage instead of only at home.

Every time I would take a trip and travel to a different place, I would always be interested in the different percussion instruments from that particular area. It was important to me that I took classes from teachers and learnt from the musicians of each place I went to. In Brazil I became acquainted with the berimbau and I got excited about that, so I began to study it and other percussion instruments. The carimba as well, and later the mbira. As time passed, I got to know these instruments and others more and more, and consequently spent less time with the drum set. So I guess gradually my interest expanded as I continued looking for other timbres, other sounds… and that’s how I arrived at percussion.

At the time La Bomba was beginning to develop, did you have any idea it would blow up into the huge city-wide phenomenon that it did?

The truth is that, when I invented the system of signs, I did it because I imagined a way to sort of imitate a new form of what I had seen during my trips. For example, like all of the popular celebrations in and around the plazas in Bahía, Brazil, or the percussion I saw in Montevideo, Uruguay that created groups of people around it. It was a pity that in Argentina there wasn’t an expression of percussion capable of gathering people in the streets and generating such an interesting social event. In reality the signs were a way that I could manifest this desire, to generate something like that in Buenos Aires. In Argentina we don’t have a very rooted percussion tradition like they have in Brazil or Uruguay. And because there wasn’t such a tradition, I believed that the way to generate the type of social event I imagined was with the energy of improvisation, but with a system of signs that could give order to the improvisation so that the improvisation appears almost like a folklore music.

I put together a group of talented musicians that I knew could play within a fairly complex system of signs, and then I created La Bomba de Tiempo with the idea of generating what goes on today in Konex. It’s absolutely incredible that it happened the way it did, because at the same time nothing could’ve happened at all from it. But I can’t say that it surprised me because I was hoping that it would happen the way that it did.

Tell me about your vision for a communal social space in Buenos Aires. Why is this space particularly significant for Buenos Aires historically?

Yeah, that’s really interesting because what I found is that elsewhere [outside of Argentina] percussion has functioned as a gathering space between people. It has created a shared space where people enter in communion and harmony with one another… so that people can come together around percussion in plazas or for celebrations or during sacred rituals or in a variety of other contexts. But percussion always served for that reason. And today in Buenos Aires the primary way that people come together is in the clubs, listening to recorded music, not with live music. And I think that this has to do with the decline of the black population, which perhaps had a more percussive-influenced culture, in Argentina historically. Many Afro-Argentines were sent away during the Paraguayan War, so today there’s a small native black population here in Argentina… there’s a very small percussion tradition then, that here [in Buenos Aires] could have influenced the development of important communal gathering centres around percussion.

So to occupy this space, to invent something that allows people to unite amongst themselves each week around rhythm, and to feel that in the city we are all part of the same pulsación, the same heartbeat… I think this is really important for Buenos Aires and it’s incredible to be a part of something like this.

What you are doing seems to be significant not only on a musical level, but also on a social level. How would you say the spaces that La Bomba creates, as well as the growth of the language system of hand signs, have affected the ways through which young people in Buenos Aires interact with music and creativity?

Yeah I think there’s something really interesting going on with CERPS and other groups that are teaching the language, even outside of Buenos Aires. People are learning it in places like Jujuy, Mendoza, and Cordoba, and groups in other countries are also using it. So it’s something that evidently is growing. I think it’s really interesting that there exists a language of rhythmic direction that can speak and communicate in different cities, and that we can all understand each other playing together with this language.

I also think that people are starting to use this language off stage, in the arenas of education, therapy, and other types of spaces in order to meet different goals — especially in neighbourhoods where they really need avenues of expression and tools that allow people to join together, do something creative, and develop the capacities of children… things that don’t cost money. All you need is a director to teach the signs and then you can begin to make groups in different places.

So yeah, it seems that little by little there is a new fabric, a new network that is similar to that of sports where great players from different places can come together… and this creates networks and linkages that didn’t exist before. I would say that this is happening, but it’s happening very, very slowly. There’s potential however this sort of thing takes time. Hopefully it keeps developing and growing, and people keep learning percussión con señas in different places, getting together, teaching this practice, and sharing it with one another.

How have your musical aspirations changed in the last several years? What are you working on currently and what are your hopes for the near future?

In reality, as a musician I don’t feel like a specialist of anything. Sure, the rhythmic elements interest me and it’s what I’ve studied the most… but in reality what excites me the most is finding new relations between things— things that don’t seem to be related. From these relations is where I get my enthusiasm and inspiration.

La Bomba del Tiempo clearly was a result, a manifestation of a bunch of ideas that came together in my head and I could put into practice these ideas with a fantastic group, and as well there’s been a marvellous social phenomenon that came from it, which yes was the objective, but that doesn’t mean that it was at all easy. In reality, it was quite magical that something so beautiful happened in Buenos Aires.

On one end, I’m a composer and I’m going to continue to play and compose with various different instruments. I’ll continue to work with La Bomba and advance my solo career that had been sort of relegated, due to the growth of La Bomba during the past six years, but that is still a very important part of my musical life.

And on the other end I hope to continue working with CERPS, to spread the language of signs away from stages, to form new directors and percussion players in this language, and also to inform people of the language in different environments such as educational environments or other distinct social environments, like therapy, etc. Inside of CERPS I have a space to sort of research the language and develop it more, to teach, and also to learn from other colleagues, teachers, and students.

Also, in the next few months I am going to release a book, a dictionary of the language of percussión con señas. It’s a book in both Spanish and English, a bilingual book, that you’ll be able to order. The idea is to use it to teach the language of signs. With the book I think it will be a lot easier for people to continue practicing the signs and forming their own groups, using the book as a reference. So I’m thinking a lot about this and further developing seminars of percusión con señas in other countries as well.

You can find out more about Santiago Vázquez at santiagovazquez.com. Latest news and concert dates for La Bomba de Tiempo can be found at labombadetiempo.com

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