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Roberto López combines Colombian rhythms and jazz into danceable music

Listening to Roberto López's Afro-Colombian Jazz Orchestra, you may experience moments of surprising unfamiliarity.

At first, this music may remind you of Afro-Cuban or Brazilian jazz: similar rhythm patterns, musical genres, and instruments – and similarly approachable and highly danceable.

Roberto Lopez (photo by Richard Deckers)But the accents will be different, the patterns subtly altered, because of where López's musical influences come from – Colombia, half-way between Cuba and Brazil.

You can hear the difference for yourself on Saturday, June 22, at 6 p.m., when López brings the orchestra to the main stage of the Ottawa Jazz Festival. It will be the first stop on a cross-Canada tour promoting the orchestra's first CD, Azul. The tour will also include a stop at the Montreal Jazz Festival on July 3.

López grew up in Bogotá, Colombia, studied jazz at Concordia University in Montreal, and has now lived and played music in Canada for almost two decades. He has combined his Colombian heritage and his jazz training to create a unique polyglot – taking Columbia traditional music and music by famous Columbian composers, and then adding his own jazz compositions inspired by this music.

His orchestra is similarly cross-cultural. It features well-known Montreal jazz musicians like saxophonist Joel Miller, bassist Fraser Hollins, and trombonist Dave Grott. But it also features many Colombian instruments: López himself on tiple, tambora, and guacharaca and two percussionists on alegre, tambora, congas, and campanas.

This cross-fertilization started soon after López first arrived in Canada. As he was absorbing jazz standards, his fellow students were asking him about Colombian music. That inspired him to learn more about the music which had surrounded him while he was growing up – for what eventually turned out to be years of research.

Jazz culture shock

López arrived in Montreal in 1994 – almost by accident – to study music at Concordia University.

His grandfather played the tiple, the Colombian traditional guitar, and performed in an amateur trio with friends playing the guitar and bandola. But no one else in his family followed the musical path.

As a teenager, López played electric guitar in rock groups. At first his influences were Rush and Led Zeppelin, but then in the early 1990s he became involved in the Rock in Español movement, where South American bands started singing rock in Spanish.

“At some point I said, 'I want to learn more about music, I want to develop my vocabulary.' I had started to listen to fusion guitar players like Pat Metheny, John Scofield. That was my entrance, my door into jazz. Sometimes when you do popular music, you'll learn a lot about the styles and the rhythms, but not necessarily about harmony and theory and all the tools you need as a composer or an arranger. That's when I ended up coming to Montreal to study music.”

Montreal had several advantages: the university tuition was much less than at Berklee in Boston, and it had the Montreal Jazz Festival. “The jazz festival, kind of lingered in the air. I knew about it. It was the only thing I knew about Montreal, and I knew it was French. Then I said well, they have the Montreal Jazz Festival, and probably culturally it's more interesting, the city that has the two languages and the two cultures.”

“I thought that would probably be interesting. Then I chose Montreal just like that. Without giving it too much thought, without looking at the temperatures of winter [laughs].”

At Concordia, he studied with Charles Ellison and Dave Turner, and with guitarists Roddy Ellias and Bill Coon.

It was a musical culture shock. “Everybody was coming from the CEGEP, and they all played jazz, and they knew about jazz. I had no idea. I mean, I knew a little bit about Miles Davis, I knew about John Coltrane, but my entrance was through fusion, through the electric guitar. For me, at the beginning it was very difficult because people were always talking about the standards, and then I had to find out, what are the standards? Who is that composer? What's that song? I had to do a lot of research, and I had to learn a lot of new tunes and vocabulary rather quickly to be able to play with other people in school.”

He learned how to arrange jazz and how to play with instruments not found in rock bands. “I had never played with an upright bass, I had never played with horns. It was all completely new for me.”

Rediscovering his own heritage

But at the same time his fellow students were curious about his musical heritage.

“A lot of my friends and people I studied with, came and asked me, 'So you come from Colombia. What's the music in Colombia? How do you play the music?' I started realizing that even though I knew about cumbia and porro and all these Colombian styles, when I was in Colombia I never really played them that much.”

“I had to rediscover my own roots away from home. Which was very interesting, because when you're surrounded by your culture, as a teenager I wanted to be against the main current, wanted to play rock rather than to play cumbia like everybody else.”

He ended up remembering more than he expected, and the styles came back very easily. “Probably because I was exposed to that music and I had listened to that music inevitably since I was a kid. I had seen concerts and shows, and even if it was not the style of music that I was doing as a teenager, it's part of the culture. It's there, you listen to it, you know who are the main artists.”

After graduation, he formed the Roberto López Project, which released two albums, one of which was nominated for a Juno in the world music category in 2011, and for a Canadian Folk Music Award in 2010. Its music combined Afro-Colombian and Afro-Cuban music with urban Hip-hop, Boogaloo, Jazz and Electronica.

“The music with the Roberto López Project was more a mixed bag of things. I said, 'Well, what's my experience as a Latin American? Not a Colombian necessarily, but as a Latin American, in Canada. How can I take all the influences that I have, all the rock side, the jazz side, all the salsa and Latin American influences, and just put them together and explore how to mix that?'”

Unlike the Jazz Orchestra, the project's music was primarily song-based and featured vocals. “I was always questioning myself. 'Do I want to do a project that is vocally oriented, or do I want to do one that is instrumental?' I always had those two things in my head, and in both albums of the Roberto López Project, I always had one instrumental tune in each of those albums. Even though it was vocally oriented.”

Introducing musical friends to Colombian music

The orchestra, on the other hand, is strictly instrumental. It involves many musicians whom López has known for years: for example, Fraser Hollins, who was finishing his last year at Concordia when López was in his first year, and Joel Miller, with whom he has played off and on for about 15 years.

“When I decided to put the band together, I said, 'Hmm, who are my favorite musicians with whom I would like to do this project?' One of the things behind the project was going back to when I was school, and people asking me, 'How do you play Colombian music?' Most jazz musicians know about Cuban music, know a little bit about Brazilian music as well, but they don't know much about Colombian music. About the phrasing, the styles, the composers. I thought this would be a great opportunity to introduce them as well to Colombian music.”

Getting the rhythms right

Columbian music differs from other Latin music, he said, in “the patterns in the drumming and the percussion, how you play the drums, the patterns in the melodic phrasing as well. Inevitably all this music is heavily influenced by African music, but at some point the rhythms, you say, oh, there's certain common ground. As a musician you say, 'Oh, this kind of sounds similar to this other rhythm in Cuban music or in Brazilian music,' just that the accents fall in a different place.

Roberto Lopez (photo by Felix Renaud)“It's not that far, but it is very different the way you perform it, and the way you call the rhythms.”

And the percussion is essential, which meant that López had to spend extra time coaching orchestra percussionist Kuilak Viger-Rojas in Colombian rhythms.

“It's all based on the percussion. The patterns on the hand drums and the percussions dictate the rhythm that you're performing. And the way you play those patterns: it's different in Colombian music than in Cuban music. One of the main differences is the way the drums are constructed. The traditional Colombian drum, which is called the alegre, it's something in between a djembe and a conga. It has a lot of African influence, but it's not exactly the same development that happened in Cuba for example with the conga, or the djembe in Africa.”

“'Alegre,' it means 'happy,' and it's because that drum is the one that does all the variance of the rhythms and the soloing. It's the happy drum, that's how they call it.”

Viger-Rojas is from Peru, and knew some Colombian music, but not all the rhythms, López said. Both Peruvian and Columbian music share 6/8 rhythms, and “once you know how the 6/8 works and the different styles of rhythms in 6/8, it's not that far away. I had to spend some time with Kuilak, and I had the chance to go back to Colombia and do research and study with percussionists there, just to know exactly how to play the patterns properly. I wrote them down. I shared all the information I had with Kuilak so he could get the pattern as close as possible.”

López's objective was “if a Colombian sits down and plays that record, he's not going to notice that the percussionist is not Colombian. And it did pass very, very well. I did the test, when I went back to Colombia [in September 2012], I got invited to Colombia's national radio. I went there, did an interview, they played the record, and they were all really amazed. They were like, 'You're telling me these are all Canadian musicians who had never played Colombian music? There's no way,' that's what they said. They were very impressed.”

In the orchestra, López plays both guitar and various Colombian instruments, most prominently the tiple. It's a stringed instrument, about three-quarters the size of a regular guitar, with 12 strings grouped together by triplets (four groups of three strings). “When you play a note, you're hitting three strings at the same time.” In the traditional Colombian trio, the guitar does the bass and the harmony, the bandola does the melody, and the tiple does the counter melody.

López said the tiple has a very rich, mellow tone, but one that works well in the orchestra. “It uses, contrary to classical guitar, steel strings. It cuts very, very easily when you have other instrumentation around, like I use it with percussion and the brass and the drums. If I was going to play classical guitar, because of the sound of the classical guitar, it would get muddy or buried by the other instruments.”

Travelling across Colombia to learn local styles

Creating the album also required considerable research over four to five years, he said, because Columbian music simply hasn't been documented in the same way as Cuban or Brazilian music.

“Folkloric music in Colombia is very, very rich. There are so many styles, so many rhythms. [But] contrary to what happens with Cuban or Brazilian music, where they have been doing research and documenting those rhythms for many, many decades now, you have access to books where people explain how to play the rhythms, what the rhythms are called, and examples and videos, in Colombian music, that is just beginning to happen. There's not much documented about Colombian music, and it's still an oral tradition.”

“When you go to one region, they'll say, 'Oh, we play the cumbia like this.' Then you drive four hours, get to another place and they say, 'Oh no, they don't play it well. It's played like this.' It's still the same patterns, it's just little different things that change from one region to the other. It takes a lot of time to research all those different ways of playing the cumbia or the porro or the mapalé, to understand and get a broader glimpse of the music and style.”

López went back to Colombia several times and studied with well-known musicians – “folkloric musicians who come from the town where they invented the porro. They say, 'Porro was born in this town,' so I studied with them to learn how to play the porro.”

Old and new compositions

The album includes pieces by well-known Colombian composers like singer Totó la Momposina and poet Pablo Flórez, and in particular bandleader Lucho Bermudez, whom López describes as “at the same time the Colombian Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington”.

Bermudez ran a huge big band – 17 to 20 musicians – and essentially popularized cumbia and other rhythms within Colombia and then internationally, López said. Bermudez brought those rhythms from the small towns of Colombia, where it was considered “lower-class music”, into the capital and into Colombian society. And then in the 1940s and 50s he got signed by RCA records and internationalized cumbia.

“Today people talk, 'Oh there's cumbia in Mexico, there's cumbia in Argentina.' Cumbia's probably the most well known and most performed style of music in all Latin America.”

The CD also includes five of López's own compositions. “When this instrumental project started, it started by me taking some traditional music and rearranging it. Through the process, I said, 'Well, I always like to mix styles of music.'”

As was done in the U.S. with salsa, he thought “it would be really cool to mix different Colombian styles that don't get mixed together ever. If you play a porro, you just play a porro. If you play champeta, it's just played champeta from the beginning to the end of one song. I started experimenting. To do that, I had to do it with my own compositions. Being able to mix different styles within one song, and go from a porro into a mapalé, which is 6/8, within one song, to do that I had to do it with my own material.”

The CD was recorded in 2011 and released in May, 2012. Yves Bernard in Le Devoir named it one of the best five world music CDs of 2012. Jazz radio host Jim Dupuis (CFBX-FM in Kamloops, BC) named it as one of his top 10 jazz instrumental picks for 2012 in his column on Earshots.

But this tour is López's first chance to promote it much outside Quebec, with appearances all the way from Victoria to Newfoundland. “I'm very, very excited. This is the first time that I'm visiting many cities in Canada that I have never been there before to perform.” It will also be his first appearance in Ottawa, although he has played Gatineau several times.

Dancing, not just listening

One thing he is hoping to do is to get the audience up dancing to the music – as well as listening.

“We'll try our best. The music is made to dance, the melodies are catchy melodies. If you just want to listen to the melodies and dance, you've got all the grooves, you've got all the percussion, you've got everything there. If you want to go in deeper and listen to what's going on, then you have all the nice arrangements and the voicings and the interactions in the colors with all the instruments.”

    – Alayne McGregor

The Roberto López Afro-Colombian Jazz Orchestra tours across Canada this summer:

  • June 22 – Ottawa Jazz Festival, Ottawa ON
  • June 25 – Kicking Horse Culture, Golden BC
  • June 27 – Wine-Oh’s (YYC Jazz presentation), Calgary AB
  • June 28 – Edmonton International Jazz Festival, Edmonton AB
  • June 29 – Victoria International Jazz Festival, Victoria BC
  • June 30 – Vancouver International Jazz Festival, Vancouver BC
  • July 3 – Festival Internationale de Jazz de Montréal, Montreal QC
  • July 5 – King’s Theatre, Annapolis Royal NS
  • July 6 – Chester Playhouse, Chester NS
  • July 7 – Stan Rogers Folk Festival, Canso NS
  • July 8 – Halifax International Jazz Festival, Halifax NS
  • July 10 – Wreckhouse Jazz and Blues Festival, St. John’s NL
  • July 19 – Série d’été, Dollard des Ormeaux QC
  • August 16-18 – Markham Jazz Festival, Markham ON
  • September 28 – Small World Music Festival, Toronto ON