Tempo Rubato: An Interview With Documentarian Noelia Santos About Samuel Torres & Colombia

by chip on October 2, 2013

When music is composed from a personal vantage point, it speaks volumes about the human condition and the society that frames any one person’s experience.  Sometimes these elements are painstakingly obvious, showing us clear rhythmic, harmonic, or melodic references based upon cultural traditions.  At other times, distinct pieces of culture are embedded within the context of different artistic aesthetics, but the way that they change the music makes a huge impact upon the final product.  Whatever the case, one thing is inevitable – when compositions are constructed outside the predetermined realms of popular music, they reflect directly back upon the composer, giving us a potent view of their cultural foundation.

The important ties between music, art, and cultural tradition became apparent to percussionist Samuel Torres as he dug deeply into the composition of his latest piece “Forced Displacement,” which was funded by a grant from Chamber Music America. Inspired to integrate traditional Colombian music on a more meaningful level, Torres traveled back to his home country for a study of traditional bullerengue.  Filmmaker Noelia Santos accompanied Torres, intent on capturing the process for a documentary about Torres’s new piece.  The story that emerged was much more powerful than a look at a series of private lessons though – this became a look at the heart and soul of Colombia.  While Torres’ connected with important musicians, academic experts, and community members, Santos saw a country making huge strides to move past a history of violence and oppression.  The experience provided important inspiration for both musician and filmmaker to reflect upon their art and deliver something meaningful.

While Samuel found the musical direction to complete and premiere “Forced Displacement,” Santos found herself with some potent footage of Colombian music and culture.  This footage became the cornerstone of a new film Tempo Rubato, which promises to be a powerful combination of Latin Jazz and Colombian culture.  Santos is currently running a KickStarter campaign to get funding for a return to trip to Colombia where Torres will debut “Forced Displacement” in Bogota.  It’s an inspiring story that deserves to be finished, so I had to hear more; fortunately, Santos was happy to answer my questions about the film. 

I’m excited to see tempo Rubato, and after reading our interview with Santos I think you’ll agree – you can help make that happen by contributing to the KickStarter campaign HERE.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: The idea behind the documentary seems like something that would have evolved organically – what was the initial inspiration behind the Tempo Rubato project?

NOELIA SANTOS: I had always been interested in so-called ‘artist process’ films and the idea of doing a documentary about a new creative work coming into being was very appealing to me. In particular, the process of writing music seems inherently cinematic to me – there’s the progression of sounds that eventually coalesces into a phrasing that you can understand and when you hear it fall into place, you know it’s right instinctively. And it’s natural to make associations between sounds, notes, chords and images – so a film has a lot of leeway with presenting and interpreting (in exterior imagery) the interior creative process. So when I became acquainted with Samuel’s work and his new project, that idea fell into place: the film’s challenge would be how to depict the creation of this new musical work and all of its various inspirations and cross-references.

LJC: Samuel is definitely an accomplished percussionist and composer with a lot to offer musically, but what makes him and his perspective on music an inspiring subject for a film?

NS: Samuel’s a very focused, hard-working musician; he doesn’t bullshit around. Even though he’s not hugely popular among the general public, he’s still been very successful and is well respected and esteemed by other musicians in the jazz world and within Colombian music circles. So his music stands on its own without being overshadowed by this huge personality or ego surrounding it. So overall, I just respect his relationship to what he does. I think he has a very interesting, intellectual approach to music that is maybe not apparent to casual listeners of his music or Latin jazz in general, but that you can delve into more with a film. He is growing as a musician, pushing his own relationship with percussion in new directions – always aiming to foreground the percussion as a fully expressive musical voice. Through film you can explore where those ideas come from and how they’re given form.

LJC: It sounds like a lot of the cultural aspects of Colombia became more apparent during Samuel’s study of bullerengue – what are some of the major moment where you realized that this film was about more than just music?

NS: At one point during our stay in San Juan de Uraba, where we met Emilsen Pacheco and his group, Emilsen came up to me and said that I was the first American to visit him, as they’d had visitors from Bogota before, others from Venezuela, and even a couple of Europeans who would pass through town now and then (often with videocameras) to learn about bullerengue. But according to him, I was the first to come from the States, and this made him feel extremely proud, I suppose because he never thought anyone from the U.S. would ever take an interest in what goes on in Uraba, considering its contentious and often extremely difficult history with American agribusiness companies. I then realized how even a relatively narrowly focused project (a music documentary) can touch on so many themes and areas of human experience – politics, history, economics, social and race relations, etc.

Another key moment was when I saw the “ants” sculpture on the façade of the national Congress building. It’s an installation by an artist named Rafael Gómezbarros with all of these giant fiberglass ants crawling over the building, which I later read he intended as representing migration and displacement. But when I first saw it I thought of how ants represent the passage of time, with so many lives lost, and read it as a comment on the ineffectualness of the government to stop the slaughter….as a shell of a structure, impotent, overrun by ants. I’m not sure if that’s a fair reading of this very complex history, but the various movements in Colombian art and culture to reconcile their history, remember and understand what happened – certainly that creates a powerful context for mine and Samuel’s project.

LJC: Samuel certainly connected with some influential figures in bullerengue, ranging from master musician Emilsen Pacheco to music academics; how did he/you connect with these people and what did they bring into the overall experience?

NS: We connected with a couple of key people from the music department at Javeriana University in Bogota (Samuel’s alma mater) based on his being an alumnus of the program – Guillermo Gaviria, his former professor, who largely built the university’s composition and music program as its former dean, and its current dean, Leonor Convers. Both were interested to hear about Samuel’s project, and their questions and conversations I think helped spur Samuel to define his project more, to sort of state his purpose in delving into the folkloric roots of Colombian music.

LJC: Did you feel like the process of researching and studying bullerengue changed Samuel both as a musician and in his connection to his cultural heritage?

NS: Yes, I would say it’s definitely impacted him and his music – although it’s hard to say to what extent (he could answer that more accurately than I could, obviously). But just from my vantage point, and talking to him throughout this process, it seems that his relationship to his home country and its musical traditions is evolving in a new direction, perhaps exerting a more direct influence on him musically. It’ll be interesting to see/hear how this experience continues to impact his writing in future projects.

LJC: You must have walked away from your time in Colombia with some thoughts about the culture and history of the country – from an outsider perspective, what were the things that you found to be the most significant cultural elements?

NS: I can’t speak with authority on this, as I still have much to learn about the country – its history and various peoples, cultural developments, etc. But one of the things I was struck by is the country’s directness when it comes to conflict, the people’s matter-of-fact viewpoint of things as they are. The people I met in Bogota and in the town of San Juan were not prone to sugar-coat things or be complimentary/positive if that’s not what they felt. It’s not that they’re combative or defensive — just pragmatic, grounded. I found this really amazing for a country now in the midst of a peace and healing process after decades of war, with hundreds of thousands killed and millions displaced. They’re really a clear-eyed people at this point, having been what they’ve been through.

LJC: You’ve got done some playing as a percussionist, what did you walk away from the filming with musically?

NS: I’d like to think that this close inspection of musical construction will impact the way the film is structured, but I’m not yet sure how that will actually unfold. Like percussion, film is a time- and rhythm-based medium, too, in that images/sounds unfold in time and the rhythm or pacing is created through editing. There are ways to cut performance footage that conform very predictably to approaches you’ve seen in concert movies or music videos or whatever. But sometimes you don’t need to cut to the soloist right away as their section begins; maybe you need to show the rhythm section playing off each other for a while until the horn gradually comes to the front of your attention and you’re compelled to cut away to show what he’s doing. Or maybe you need to cut to an audience member or detail of the building in order to let the ears focus on what you’re hearing. So I guess I’m learning to listen to music differently through film with this project.

LJC: You’ve mentioned that the film relies upon an “inverted interview format,” where the subject asks the questions – how much of the movie relies upon Samuel’s open exploration of the music versus a more plotted out journalistic interview format? How do you think this benefits the overall documentary?

NS: I’m trying to avoid the talking-head format whenever possible (though it’s still used when we need to get some facts out there). When we were in Colombia last year, I let Samuel do all the ‘interviewing’ as I felt he was the one on the journey of discovery, and so the camera was there to document his investigations. It is helpful to have your subject explain his process, his thoughts, his impressions. But ideally I’d like this to be an immersive experience. The artists’ journey through creating a new project is really the subject of the film, and I think setting up didactic “here’s what you should be taking away from this” interviews really pulls you out of that. If I’m successful as a filmmaker, the audience will pick up on Samuel’s thoughts, impressions, motivations, by seeing him in action, by being on that journey or investigation with him.

LJC: Samuel recently premiered “Forced Displacement” at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York; after having experiencing the learning curve with Samuel and seeing the cultural connections, how do you think that his composition captured that experience?

NS: Well, the music of ‘Forced Displacement’ is very different from the bullerengue music we encountered in San Juan de Uraba, so you wouldn’t necessarily put the two together in your mind if you weren’t familiar with the project. But I think his composition captures some essence of what Samuel calls the ‘lament’ embedded in the music we heard. I think in much of folkloric music around the world, the party songs and the love songs have dark undertones, as it’s not like the good times erase the bad; it’s the music of everyday people, so it’s kind of dealing with everything in life, good and bad. His composition has fast lively sections that are giddy and celebratory, but are still colored by those same chords and melodies that are very haunting and mournful in other sections. So the composition really travels through a range of sounds and textures and incorporates all those variations.

LJC: You’re currently running a KickStarter campaign to complete the film and do some additional filming in Colombia – can you let us know what the KickStarter money will fund and give us some reasons that people should donate?

NS: The Kickstarter campaign is meant to fund, first and foremost: our travel expenses, crew pay and production insurance to get us back to Colombia this November to capture Samuel’s debut performances of the work in Bogota and Medellin. This is really where the project comes full circle, so it’s a critical part of the story to capture for the film. Aside from that trip (which is almost 2/3 of the total we’re seeking in funding), there’s also the need to pay crew and producers in New York and Colombia for time they’ve been putting in – and will continue to put into – the production throughout the fall. As in most small independent productions, you start small with the filmmaker often self-funding their own efforts. (Last year I filmed in Colombia myself and edited the footage myself.) But now that I’ve pulled together this really amazing team and have people committed to move the project forward, all those people can’t work for free – and I wouldn’t want them to! So the Kickstarter goal is really going to get us through production and into the next stage.

Donors and funders would be helping to support a film that can have far-reaching impact in terms of bringing attention to Colombia’s contributions to global culture. It’s a story about culture and identity evolving across international lines, as many countries in Latin America are changing rapidly, emerging from many long, dark years of turmoil, reclaiming their heritage and cultural richness. This is also a New York or American story, in the sense that Samuel is no longer simply a Colombian – he’s an international artist who’s incorporated many influences into his work – and like many young mid-career artists, has chosen to return to his roots in order to know the way forward. Finally, the project also brings exposure to the Afro-Colombian communities that have suffered so much over the years and yet have preserved their heritage under extremely difficult conditions, continuing to inspire new generations of musicians both in Colombia and abroad. I think it’s a very exciting project for many reasons, and any support we receive will enable us to realize its potential fully.

LJC: After watching the film, what do you hope that people learn about Colombia, Samuel, and music in general?

NS: As mentioned above, the film has many layers to it and I hope it can be appreciated on all those levels – from its purely artistic/aesthetic aspects (e.g., enjoying the music) to its socio/political/cultural intersections. In the spirit of Samuel’s setting out to learn about bullerengue music first-hand, and my setting out to learn about his country and musical process, hopefully the film itself becomes a kind of vehicle for inquiry and exploration for viewers, as well. Perhaps they’ll see parallel themes in Samuel’s project with the larger processes of artistic inquiry and identity reclamation going on in Latin America and beyond.

Support Tempo Rubato on their KickStarter Page
Check out some recordings from Samuel Torres:

Skin Tones


Check Out These Related Posts:
Album Of The Week: Yaoundé, Samuel Torres
Album Of The Week: Second Chance, Hector Martignon
Album Of The Week: Camino al Barrio, Nelson Riveros
Latin Jazz Photo Album: Sofia Rei Koutsovitis


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