Once a musician develops a unique concept, they become responsible for the growth and survival of their artistic vision. An audience always exists for new musical ideas, but a musician needs to find those listeners. They need to take their musical ideas to as many people as possible through live performance, recordings, and online distribution. Once they connect with an audience, they need to keep them listening – a task that sounds a lot easier than it actually is. An artist needs to find a personal attachment to their audience that will last longer than one night. They need to remind the audience about their musical passion and show them why they should share that passion. With a large group of strong believers, their audience will only multiply; word of mouth becomes the most powerful support system available. As the musician finds their fan base growing rapidly, they need to create new experiences to interest these listeners. New recordings help focus an audience’s attention, but thinking outside the box leads to more interesting and memorable ideas. It’s an ongoing process that demands a musician to be a vigilant advocate for their artistic ideas, but it’s the only way to guarantee the growth of any musical approach.
As trumpet player Gabriel Alegria delved deeper into the mixture between jazz and Afro-Peruvian rhythms, he found a deep desire to push the music even further. The core of his group came together early in the new millennium, giving the trumpet player an outlet for his artistic explorations. Through regular touring and the recording of a CD, the group solidified the concept and developed a common understanding of their musical approach. In 2007, Alegria and his Afro-Peruvian Sextet released Nuevo Mundo, an outstanding representation of their work that turned heads across the jazz world. As the band toured across the States, they found enthusiastic audiences enthralled by Afro-Peruvian rhythms and captivated by the jazz foundation. Alegria strived to keep a connection between the audience, the band, and the group’s Peruvian roots, creating the Tour Peru project. This unique concept took fans along with the Sextet on a tour across Peru, giving them a real taste of the culture. This novel experience inspired two participants so much that they sought to bring a piece of Peru back to the States. As a result, Tutuma Social Club opened in New York, providing a steady stage for Afro-Peruvian Jazz. Alegria’s Sextet became Tutuma’s house band and interest around Afro-Peruvian Jazz grew substantially. With momentum behind them, Alegria and the Sextet recorded their second album, Pucusana, and looked towards the fans for support. Their Kickstarter campaign shows the potential for a grassroots spread of Afro-Peruvian Jazz around the world – a major step forward for Alegria and this branch of the Latin Jazz world.
With the avid support of his growing fan base and the respect of the music world, Alegria stands poised to take Afro-Peruvian Jazz onto a world stage. This musical inertia comes from years of hard work – a fact that you can see in all three parts of our interview with Alegria. In the first piece of our conversation, we looked at Alegria’s musical development, his first jazz experiences, and the essence of Afro-Peruvian Jazz. In the second part of our discussion, we dug deeper into the nuts and bolts of Afro-Peruvian Jazz, examined its place in the Latin Jazz world, and talked about jazz in Peru. In the last segment of this feature, we go over the recording of Nuevo Mundo, the creation of Tutuma, and the future of Alegria’s music.
LATIN JAZZ CORNER: The thing that I found really interesting when I first heard Nuevo Mundo was that it was such a defined concept. At that point, what were you trying to accomplish and did you have a specific vision?
GABRIEL ALEGRIA: We’d been touring for a couple of years with that music, so Nuevo Mundo had that advantage. We’d been writing that music way ahead of that actual recording. We did the recording in one day, it was crazy. We had no money, so it was like, “O.K., we’ve got one day.” Bobby Shew was kind enough to produce the album; he also arranged for discounts at the studio and was there the whole time. He was really excited about the concept that he had heard – he had been my mentor, so it was great. He sort of set-up the session. But it was just one day, literally. We just played all the tunes and that was it. That was possible because we’d been touring the material and just working on it. Then it starts to get a kind of a shape. I wouldn’t say that you set out with an artistic vision or something. Usually somebody else tells you that you have one, and then you’re like, “Oh yea, I meant it all along!”
I think our goal as a band has always been to make people feel some stuff – make them experience something and bring them in. We put the energy out to the audience and we try to make sure that they’re involved. That’s always been our thing, because Afro-Peruvian music is like that. That’s its energy – it’s involving everybody. It’s a community. I think the thing that we work hard on is to make sure that when we’re playing these jazz tunes – and some are complicated in terms of harmony and all this other stuff – we try to project the good energy of Afro-Peruvian music and make sure that people are brought into what we’re doing. So whatever – five year-olds, ten year-olds, one hundred year-olds – whatever, we try to make sure that they’re brought in. We’ve always made that a big priority for the band. So I think now that we have this vision of what Afro-Peruvian music is, I think it’s still that thing, but I think that it’s clearer to us how to put these elements together.
With this new album, we were album to do the same kind of things in terms of getting the style, but we got it much more quickly and fluently. Now we know what works, what doesn’t work, and where to make things go in different directions. So the discourse is much easier. Within the band, it’s very, very easy now to get a new piece of music on the roster. Now they all know what I want when I hand them a sheet. There’s no discussion now, it’s more like, “Oh, O.K., this is what he wants, because he wanted that last time, and so he probably wants this other thing.” Then new ideas come up and different ways to play with the rhythm and new melodies of course. On this album, Laurandrea’s music is featured, and that’s going to be a huge thing. Her music is going over really, really well with our audiences, so we’re going to definitely keep using her stuff. I think that’s going to be a big deal in the future, to have more of her material on there.
LJC: One of the things that really different about your band in the modern jazz scene is that you guys play together all the time, due to your regular gig at Tutuma. How did Tutuma come into being and what has that done for Afro-Peruvian Jazz in New York City?
GA: Tutuma is one of the main reasons that we decided to launch Kickstarter. The club was opened by two fans of the band. They came to Peru on that first Tour Peru project that we did. The whole idea that we can do Kickstarter is inspired by Tutuma because when we did the first Tour Peru project in 2008 and we invited all the fans to come with us, we didn’t know who would come. There was a group of forty people – it was a little crazy, but it was really fun. One night at a restaurant we were eating with all the fans and this couple said to us, “You know, we should totally have something like this in New York.” They meant the peña – the type of Afro-Peruvian club that we were sitting in. This is where Afro-Peruvian music is preserved and practiced in Peru. These places are called peñas – they’re very humble, and they’re almost like people’s homes. They’re not fancy, they’re not decorated in any particular way, and they’re just very basic little places. But the music is incredible. There’s always nice food, people come and go, and it’s just a total hang. They said to us, “There’s nothing like this in New York City. New York has everything, but it doesn’t have this.” Her family was a restaurateur family; she’d been in this business, and she said, “Wouldn’t it be great to have this club?” And of course we said, “Yes! It would be great! Count us in!” People always give you a zillion ideas, so we were like, “Of course, yea, count on us!”
Next thing I know, she calls me up, and she’s like, “Hey, I’ve got a space that I want you to look at.” I was like, “What?!?” At that point, I said, “Wow, you’re really serious.” And she said, “Oh yea, we can use this space.” It’s a tiny little space – it seats like forty people, it’s tiny. And she was like, “Yea, this is one of the spaces that we have that we’ve been trying to rent out, but my Dad’s going to rent it to me instead. So we can do it here.” She asked me to advise on the artistic thing and try to develop a plan for the music and all that. But her deal was that the Sextet had to play, because that’s what is going to bring people in. Meanwhile, they followed us around to a gig in New Orleans and Pittsburgh, and all these different places – they would just appear there! Fortunately, all those shows were great! They were sell-outs, people were screaming and yelling, so they were like, “All right, we’re going to do this, and the Sextet has to play!” I was a little shy about it, because it’s like, booking your own band so much and all this. But she was very adamant about it. She was like, “We at least have to have you guys play three or four nights a week.” It’s sort of been working itself out and now we’re there three nights a week and sure enough, people do come around. It’s always packed with people. It’s a small space, so it’s not that difficult to fill it up. Filling it up every week in New York though, I think is an achievement. So we’re very proud of that.
Just seeing how involved our fans have gotten with the band inspired us – I mean, these people opened up a club so we could play in it! So when we heard about the Kickstarter thing, we were like, “You know what, we should just forego all this record label stuff.” We were having all these discussions with record labels, but it’s very convoluted. They want to do this, they want to do that, and they’ll fund this and not that . . . the way of the record label at the moment is just dark. Their future is not very certain, so they’re not really able to convince you that they’re going to really be able to do something for you. We heard about Kickstarter, I talked to a couple of friends that actually did it, and I thought, “Well, you know, we should just launch something and see.” So I talked to publicists and a couple of radio people to see how much it would all cost if we acted like we had a label, but didn’t actually have one . . . and that’s what we’re going to do. It’s thanks in a large part to Tutuma and the owners there.
LJC: Tutuma always has a steady flow of musicians doing Afro-Peruvian music. Is that scene large in New York or is just small enough to fuel the club?
GA: It’s not huge, and the bands that you see at Tutuma are pretty much the bands that there are. What’s really interesting is that the concept is something that other people start to like. So, for example, singers come through that say, “You know, I’ve always wanted to sing Afro-Peruvian music, can I do something like that?” We’ve actually had people learn the style and start to get into it for the first time at Tutuma. So I think it’s going to be a place that ultimately is going to strictly have Afro-Peruvian Jazz music seven nights a week with some traditional Afro-Peruvian music thrown in to keep that kind of balance and vibe. But I do think that’s the way it’s going to go. Here at NYU where I teach, there are two Afro-Peruvian ensembles. These students have traveled to Peru, they’ve performed there, and they’re learning about the stuff. They’re taking small steps. Some of them become really curious about it; they’re not ready to say this is what I want to do yet, because it’s a whole new concept. But it’s interesting that they get into it and they perform. We’ve had them at the club as well. So I do think that the scene is going to develop that way and that there will be just a flow of nothing but Afro-Peruvian Jazz. Right now we have other things as well that we program, other Latin American styles. But I think with the strength of the concept in place, that it is going to evolve that way.
LJC: So tell me a little bit more about the new album, Pucusana.
GA: You’re going to see a similar combination of tunes, where we have some music that’s based on traditional folk music from Peru that we’ve arranged. Then of course we’re going to have some original music. That includes the title track of the album, a couple of Laurandrea’s pieces that are on there, and a piece about a nineteenth floor overlook that was very dangerous . . . you know, different stuff always inspired on these locations, spaces, and things like that. And then there will of course be the cover tune – we’ve chosen “My Favorite Things.” We do that in a festejo rhythm; kind of a tribute to Coltrane, but Peru style. So that’s more or less the overview of the album. I just think it’s different, it’s the same, and it’s a great next step for us. So we’re hoping that with the Kickstarter thing to get it out there in a way that we weren’t able to do with Nuevo Mundo.
LJC: You had a lot of guest artists on Nuevo Mundo. Do you have anyone playing with you on this one, or is this just the Sextet?
GA: It’s the Sextet, but we’ve invited Russell Ferrante back. He’s on it again. We also have Arturo O’Farrill on it this time. He’s a great friend, and he himself just won the Latin Jazz Grammy. We’ve played with him a bunch of times here in New York on different projects, so he’s on there as well. Those are the two guests. And there are two bass players actually – we were in bass player transition. Ramon (de Bruyn) was leaving the band and John (Benitez) was coming into the band, so they’re both on the album, which is really cool.
LJC: I’m really looking forward to hearing John Benitez. I’ve heard him doing mostly Afro-Cuban oriented things . . .
GA: Right, he’s amazing. He’s just dived in and started learning all the stylistic things. I think that you’re really going to enjoy what he does on the album.
LJC: You’ve mentioned Kickstarter, can you outline what the goal is and how people can do to support the band.
GA: Kickstarter is a platform that allows artists to independently fund their projects. People can go to this website and they can make a pledge. It’s much like a pledge for a public radio station, but you would be pledging to the Afro-Peruvian Sextet. The website outlines exactly where pledge money goes and what the gifts are, because people get gifts depending on the amount of their pledge. So it’s a very interesting way to get all of the fans involved very directly. We think of them as investors in our project – We’re going to reach out to all the people that invest, we’re going to keep in touch with them, and we’ll bring them into the family. Our concept for this is that right now we’re a family of six and we really want to be a family of six thousand. We want to reach out and get everybody involved. Even if it’s just a kid with ten dollars, we want them in the family and we want to check in with them. We want to say, “Hey, here’s something that we’re working on for the next album, what do you think? Do you like this tune better than this tune?” We really want to involve all these people with our creative process. We’re going to send out the links and so forth to our mailing list, and if they so choose, they can participate by making a pledge on the Kickstarter website. It’s a very, very cool way to participate and help get this album out there in a way that we’ve never been able to do before with some publicity, play, and all that.
LJC: How do you see this pushing the album and reputation of the band out further?
GA: I think our goal is to get on the radar screen of Grammy Awards and people who can make difference in terms of the Afro-Peruvian Jazz concept getting out there for people to hear about. The more notoriety that we can get the album, the more press, the more publicity, the better. The more it’s out there for everyone to enjoy, I think it’s more likely for more people to participate. So that’s the goal – getting it out there to more people. It’s really a numbers game in terms of how much publicity you can do and how much muscle you can put in behind promotion. That’s where old record labels used to function. They had a lot of money that they would sink into a project like that; they don’t have that money anymore. So we’re thinking that we’re just going to circumvent that and just go straight to the fan base.
LJC: Afro-Peruvian Jazz is still very young as a style, what do you see as the future of the music?
GA: We’d like the future to hold is many, many people listening to it and enjoying it and many, many people performing it. That’s what we’re shooting for.
Support The Release Of Pucusana!
Gabriel Alegria And The Afro-Peruvian Sextet will be releasing their latest recording, Pucusana in August of 2010, but they need your support to send this album out into the world in a big way. The group will be utilizing a fantastic fundraising site, Kickstarter, to build support for the promotion, release, and distribution of the recording. The process works much like a public radio fund drive – the group has 90 days to raise their goal of $9,000 and they need your support. Along the way, there’s some great rewards for donating and a chance to become part of the Afro-Peruvian Sextet’s family. This is a great way to help push Afro-Peruvian Jazz out into the public eye, so head on over to the group’s Kickstarter site, get the full details, and donate today!
Make sure that you read Part One of our conversation with Afro-Peruvian Jazz pioneer Gabriel Alegria. We talk to Alegria about his early musical development, his first steps into jazz, and the essence of Afro-Peruvian Jazz. Check it out HERE.
Don’t miss Part Two of our conversation with Afro-Peruvian Jazz trumpet player Gabriel Alegria. We dig deeper into the nuts and bolts of Afro-Peruvian Jazz, talk about its place in the Latin Jazz world, and discuss jazz in Peru. It’s a fascinating conversation; check it out HERE.
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