Rafael, 'Pelao', La Chiva Gantiva's debut album has just been released and judging from the end result, apart from your music, you guys also seem to have put a lot of time and effort in the look and design of the album.
Rafael Espinel (vocals & percussion): "Absolutely, yes, but before anything else we went in search of the right producer. We didn't want to work with someone who'd perhaps try to steer us in a different direction. Eventually we opted for Richard Blair; he's well-known from his project, Sidestepper, but has also done quite a lot of production work in the past (Real World, Peter Gabriel, red.). Where the design of the album and the illustrations are concerned, I did most of the work. I'm an illustrator myself and I'm in the habit of doing little sketches all the time whenever something inspires me. For the album I really focused on trying to create another universe."
Album sales being what they are, is it still worth investing a lot of time and effort into doing an album?
Rafael Espinel: "Well, I do think a nicely done design still adds a certain value to an object that otherwise would be rather simple and plain. It's like with books; a nicely illustrated edition is often far more inviting. A CD has to be more than just a music disc. At the end of the day you can download the tracks if you want, but an album like ours is an object that you can treasure."
The title of the album, 'Pelao', translates as "baby" or "penniless/skinned". Why this choice for an album title?
Rafael Espinel: "Above all else we wanted to illustrate we were presenting something new and pure; as if we were introducing our newborn baby to the world. For the album we almost didn't do any overdubs; a lot of the tracks were recorded in just one take. We also wanted to underline the fact that it's an album without the least bit of pretence. The EP we released before 'Pelao' was called 'Apretao' ("borrowed", red.), so this way the two titles were also related in some way."
In the promo text from Crammed Discs, I found the following sentence that begs further explanation: "La Chiva Gantiva is a band who in their lyrics seek to deconstruct the clichés that circulate about Latin-American cultures.".
Rafael Espinel: "To understand that sentence you should listen to a song like 'Pa Q' Ça', which reads as: "Il n'y a pas que ça" ("this isn't all there is", red.). The song talks about the persisting image of South-American nations that exists here in Europe; an image that's often filled with clichés. Because we're a Colombian band, people often automatically assume we play cumbia and salsa, but La Chiva Gantiva wants to be more than just another band doing cover versions of old classics; we don't play music for the hell of it. People love to categorize things, but find it difficult to do so with the kind of music we play. It's not because we're a band playing Latin-American rhythms, that we can't do a song in French or English. If possible, we'd rather avoid being classified all together!"
Nonetheless, there's a tendency to put you guys in the world music corner. Frustrating?
Rafael Espinel: "Let's take Esperanzah, where we played this summer, as an example; that festival is known as a world music event, but artists like Java or Sharon Jones can hardly be classified as being world music acts, can they? Nonetheless, they were playing there just the same. If people want to label us as being "world music", it's probably because in our music we use a lot of rhythms that are well-known to fans of that genre of music. Of course playing a world music festival doesn't bother us, on the contrary even, because it was on events like these that a lot of people first got acquainted with our music. At the same time, however, I do believe we're suited to play a rock festival just as well."
A lot of the rhythms you guys use - champeta, chirimia and mapalé to name but a few - won't ring a bell with most people. Could you tell us a bit about their providence?
Rafael Espinel: "Colombia has two separate coastlines; on one side of the country you can find the Atlantic Ocean and on the other the Pacific. Something typically Colombian is the fact that most people speak the same language, Spanish, but cultural differences may occur from one village to the next. The Caribbean coastline is home to genres like cumbia and champeta criolla. Mapalé evolved from the influences the black slaves brought with them. When they arrived in Latin-America they tried to reproduce the instruments they knew back in their homelands, using materials they could find locally. Over time their history got entwined with that of a number of Native American tribes in the area. The history of the African descendants living on the Pacific coastline is very different and that reflects in their music, which is more resembling of maloya from Reunion or some Malagasy rhythms. It's in this part of the country you will find genres like chirimia or currulao. In the band we also use the tiple, a small guitar-like instrument with four tripled sets of strings. This instrument is used in the Altiplano Cundiboyacense (a branch of the Andes running through Colombia, red.). It's a colder region of the country where people use a lot of stringed instruments; apart from the before mentioned tiple there's also the bandola (pear shaped string instrument related to the mandolin, red.). Colombia is one big melting pot of different cultures and being Colombian, one has to be aware of that fact. To me, mixing different styles and rhythms is almost an inborn thing."
Summarizing your story, your biography talks about a group of Colombian percussionists who ran into one another in Brussels. Could you tell us the story in a bit more detail?
Rafael Espinel: "Personally speaking, I've got a background in rock and metal. When I was still living in Colombia, I played in a band called Aquelarre. The name referred to the places where witches hold their sabbath. Felipe Deckers has been playing the guitar ever since he was still a kid, but at one point he travelled to Colombia where he took part in a percussion course. It must have been an inspiring experience, because when he returned to Belgium he absolutely wanted to take it further. Strangely enough, when I first arrived in Europe I got involved in Brazilian samba and batucada; so much so even that after a while people started taking me for a Brazilian. It made me wonder why I was putting so much energy in these Brazilian rhythms whilst at the same time ignoring my Colombian heritage. At that time, the Colombian music scene was seeing a resurgence of Afro-Colombian rhythms, so I decided to introduce that music in Europe. At first we just played cover versions of songs by artists like Toto La Momposina, Lod Gaiteros de San Jacinto and Petrona Martinez, but when after a while Felipe indicated he wanted to return to his old love, the guitar - because he was starting to feel the physical strain of playing percussion - we gradually started to introduce other instruments and influences into our repertoire. I guess you could say our style developed more or less organically."
Let's end the interview by discussing the La Chiva Gantiva band name. I don't know if you guys are aware of this, but in Belgium a lot of people think Gantiva refers to the fact you're a band from Ghent (cfr. the French "Gand", red.), while in fact it's nothing more than Natalia's (percussion, red.) last name.
Rafael Espinel: "(laughs) That's funny, I guess an explanation would be in order here. Chiva refers to the brightly yellow, blue and red coloured buses in Colombia, which are the ideal means of transport for reaching the smaller villages in remote areas. To us, these buses were a symbol of communication, travel, and in a way also of folklore. The Gantiva part was really the result of a bit of a joke; because Natalia was the only girl in the band we started saying: "We are la chiva de Gantiva; Natalia's band!", but the name sounded good and it even rhymed so eventually it stuck. In a way it's also an ode to THE woman. In Colombian music, women have always represented the vocal side; traditional superstition dictated playing an instrument might be harmful for an unborn child, so women were forbidden to use one. With Natalia as one of the main percussionists in the band, La Chiva Gantiva has turned that tradition upside down!"