Almost 15 years on from the first experiments with digital cumbia, the genre's architect reflects on the past, present and future of electrified folklore in Latin America.
That record, which earned a 4.5/5 from then-editor-in-chief Todd L. Burns, established Canale's transcendent, even mystical, approach to electronic cumbia. It borrows dub's spacious minimalism and new age music's sense of awe at the natural world. Canale wasn't the first producer to dabble in these kinds of hybrid experiments, but the clarity of his vision made him stand out from his contemporaries. His music became the gold standard by which the rest of the artists in the scene were judged.
In 2018, a new generation of producers has taken up his blueprint, with the movement expanding to include bustling scenes across Latin America and beyond. Canale released his fourth album this year, Bienaventuranza, which sees the project expand from a computer-based solo act to a live trio that pairs acoustic instruments like the charango (a small Andean lute) with delicate electronic production. On Bienaventuranza, Canale takes his musicianship to the next level by moving away from a loop-based method and toward full-fledged songwriting. With the help of his bandmates Heidi Lewandowski and Federico Estevez (and a strong cast of singers and MCs), he adjusts the group's electro-acoustic balance to achieve the ideal mix of modern and traditional.
Canale is currently on his most ambitious world tour to date. RA staff writer Max Pearl caught him in between gigs in New York City, where they had an in-depth, career-spanning talk that looks back on nearly 15 years of electronic roots music.
Back in 2006, you were the guy working the merch table at the Zizek parties in Buenos Aires. That's how you got started, right?
The Zizek parties started up right around the time that I started feeling the urge to work more with Latin American music. I had another project, called Universildo, which was my first alias as a producer. I used a software called FruityLoops at the time, and what I was trying to do was downtempo music influenced by Massive Attack, Tricky, Björk, Portishead. That was also in the era of IDM, of Aphex Twin and that whole world of producers.
But then I started going on these backpacking trips around the northern part of Argentina, near the border with Bolivia. That first trip in 2005 was when I encountered cumbia and I remember thinking, "Wow this is incredible," hearing the music that people were listening to at parties in the pueblos.
You didn't hear that kind of music growing up in Buenos Aires?
Yeah, of course, but it was something that, as an adolescent rocker, I thought, "Man this is garbage." I was a Nirvana fan, and generally it was something you hated if you were into that kind of music. I say generally because many of us came to appreciate this music many years later. So I should say that on those first few trips I rediscovered the music, not really discovered, because it's not as if I'd never heard it, but this time I realized how incredible it was. I was like, "How did I not listen to this stuff before?" Later on in my next few backpacking trips I was able to cross to Bolivia, to Peru, and my head just kept exploding.
When I returned from my first trip I started working on the first-ever experiments with electronic cumbia. The Zizek party appeared right at the same time, and since my older brother was one of the founders, along with Grant C. Dull—alias El G—and Villa Diamante, I asked if I could work at the party. He said, "You want to be in charge of the guestlist?" So I ended up at the door crossing names off the guestlist. I must have been 25, give or take.
The DJs they invited to play would often bring their CDs, and they asked if I didn't mind selling them at the same table where I was doing the guestlist. So we started accumulating maybe two or three, which is when we had the idea to put out a stand just for selling CDs, kind of like a record of what was happening at the time, because in that moment it was really fresh—there was nothing else like this sound. So then we had this stand with the music from all of our colleagues and the people who were investigating cumbia, tropical music and folklore in general. It ended up being a great job because I got to know in great detail what was happening in the scene and meet all of these musicians face-to-face. Then I made my first EP, which was this little mini-CD with the first five Chancha Vía Circuito songs ever, and I sold a ton of them!
Where did you find your samples?
I sampled folkloric music, like Quilapayun, a group from Chile. Or I would use loops from Argentinian cumbia villera—I would steal the sound of the güiro. That chun-chaca-chun-chaca rhythm. Because at that time I didn't have the means to record my own instruments so, of course, I used a lot of samples.
Was Zizek the first club night where you could hear these kinds of experiments?
There was also Festicumex—the Festival Of Experimental Cumbia—which was its predecessor. That was organized by Dick El Demasiado, who was one of the first musicians to experiment with cumbia in this way, together with Marcelo Fabian and Sonido Martines. Festicumex was key too, they really helped to shift the paradigm. Then Zizek showed up.
Let's hear some more Zizek memories.
Well, Dick El Demasiado would play, which was just totally bizarre and insane. Hearing him play live was sort of like psychedelic performance art. It would split your head in two. I also remember they invited this Bolivian band who played wind instruments. They were Christians and the only thing they were interested in was preaching the word of Jesus. But they performed this incredibly beautiful Andean traditional music with trombones and horns, which just enchanted me.
As an artist, your method has changed a lot since those first mini-CDs you sold at the Zizek merchandise table. You started with edits, remixes and tracks that heavily sampled folkloric music, and now it seems your interest is more in live instrumentation and composition. It's like you've become more conventional as your career has progressed.
Yeah, and that kind of happened by accident. I've always liked the collage aesthetic, and I've always liked sampling. I never saw it as something bad, especially because my samplers were often short sounds or percussion, and I think that really enriches the aesthetic, you know? But then I did the remix of "Quimey Neuquen," by the folk singer José Larralde—without permission to use it—and that was the first time I ran into problems because we were given the opportunity to use it in the TV show Breaking Bad. But we figured out that Sony Music owned the rights to the original phonogram, and because I sampled his whole vocal part, rather than just a few seconds, well, then they started threatening us with a lawsuit and I had to put down money for a lawyer—it was a huge headache. I learned my lesson there, that I couldn't keep sampling illegally. So when my 2014 album, Amansara, came out, it practically didn't have a single illegal sample.
At first I was sad because I had this huge library of loops and samples that I really loved. Then I decided I would keep working with the collage aesthetic and with the samples, but that those tracks wouldn't go on the albums—I'd just give them away. That's how it went with my 2013 EP, Semillas, which also came out on ZZK Records. It even had Michael Jackson and Joni Mitchell samples on there.
So you've traveled all over South America investigating music, which you use as material for your own albums.
Yeah, in fact I always carry my recording device, because I love getting field recordings from the jungle. In all of my albums I use bird sounds and insects. I love visiting the jungle in any country, really: Mexico, Belize, Guatemala. Guatemala and Bolivia both have a lot of indigenous traditions and customs that are very much alive in the culture. Those are my favorite places in the world, and I suppose they're also some of the most dangerous, but they have this enchantment that you'll never find in Europe.
On your travels, do you find that people are distrustful or wary of you, like, "What's up with this white guy?"
Of course, but there's always a minority who are dismissive of the white guy, or of the gringo, whether he's from Argentina or from the United States. You'll always just be a white guy or a gringo. But there's also plenty of curious people you meet who invite you to eat at their home, or their family invites you over, and they don't even know you but there you are hanging out with their children. People want to know what you're into and what you're like as a person, especially if your appearance is physically distinct from them. It's a very Latin American thing that I love—a lot of heart and a willingness to open up their home.
Do you think that's why you're so comfortable with these kinds of cross-cultural collaborations?
Yes. It's an advantage too, because we're able to relate to each other with fewer presumptions or preconceptions. It's easier to find affinities between people.
How did Chancha Via Circuito go from a solo project with you in front of a computer to a live band with instruments and full-on songwriting?
First it was Federico Estevez, the percussionist, who joined on. He heard my second album, Rio Arriba, and he loved it, then he contacted me saying he played percussion and would love to work with me. After that we got together with Miriam Garcia, who is a teacher of the Andean canto con caja [a style of indigenous singing accompanied by an animal skin drum], and she taught me a whole repertoire of traditional and ancestral songs from the north of Argentina. Later we added Heidi—Kaleema—who's also my girlfriend. She plays violin, flute and sings on some of the songs, and when Miriam got too busy with her own album, then it was just Heidi, Federico and me. Now we travel and tour as a trio, and we have so much fun playing together.
Earlier you were telling me it's hard to go back to a live solo computer set after getting used to being onstage with two other people and a bunch of instruments.
Yeah, and it's also tiring to keep playing the same songs you produced yourself. So the idea of just manipulating the audio with a controller and Ableton Live isn't much fun for me anymore. That's why I prefer DJing. It's a lot fresher. Also with a live group there's a lot more adrenaline, because when you're playing instruments there's more room for mistakes. Singing is really beautiful too.
In another interview you said it was an incredibly difficult process to write and record your newest album, Bienaventuranza.
Well, when you put so much energy into touring, it takes away from the energy you have to produce. So of course, Bienaventuranza was delayed a lot, and on top of that it was difficult because the group dynamic ended up influencing the composition a lot. What I mean is it that there wasn't much of an electronic element in it at first. And I thought, "Uh oh, what's gonna happen?" This was a big change, and I had a crisis because the sound was shifting a lot, because many of the ideas on the new album appeared in our rehearsals, when we were just improvising. It was no longer just me in the studio producing alone. I thought, "Man, this is coming out really acoustic," and I had to work on the production side a lot in order for me to feel good about it. It was a long process where I passed from hating the album, to liking it, back to hating it again—it was really a frantic series of moods.
Also, you know, you hear the voices of your friends, or of your manager for example, saying, "No, don't lose the electronic stuff, what are you fans going to say?" It's important that they keep booking us in electronic music clubs and that there's still electronic music on our records. It's hard not to think about that. Those voices, the expectations of others, always resonate in your head, bothering you.
So you had to actively maintain the balance of electronic and acoustic.
My friend Andrés Oddone, who mixes all of my albums, helped me a lot with that. He would help me get oriented by throwing out ideas, like, "Oh, here would be a good place for a kick to reinforce the drums." Or: "This song would do well with a bassline." So, that's how we ended up dressing up the songs when they felt a little bit naked.
I think your balance of electronic and acoustic is exactly why you're able to fit in a few different worlds. I mean, you just played a hippie psytrance festival in Oregon and tonight you're playing a hip-hop club in Manhattan.
It's definitely an advantage, because I can go DJ a street party in Panama, for instance, and of course I'll take the more tropical route which will work great. But if I'm booked to play a nightclub in Prague and I need something less tropical, I can do that too. Of course, in an electronic music festival, I have a more hybridized set that people love.
Tell me about the photo on the cover of your new album.
There's this artist and designer I like, her name is Candelaria Aaset, she's a friend of my girlfriend. She lives up north in Jujuy, where the photo was taken. For this album I wanted to start a new chapter, so I didn't want to keep going with the same illustrator who's done my other album covers, Paula Duró—I wanted a photo. So anyways, Candelaria calls me one day and she says, "I dreamt about your photo. I dreamt about a woman, naked—an Andean woman—mounting a beast with the face of a devil." So she called up a friend of hers, who is a teacher of Andean traditional dance, and she's the woman in the photo on the cover. She was embarrassed to be naked on the cover, but she brought this beautiful poncho that her grandmother had gifted her, really old and really traditional.
So it kind of took this idea of the devil from the Andean carnival tradition, which is really characteristic of the region. At carnival they say you bury the devil until the next year. And everybody drinks lots of alcohol, they fight, they behave badly. The image on the front of Bienaventuranza—and this only came to me afterwards—is a figure of someone who is mounting their beast, which is to say, taking the reins and getting control of the devil that we all have inside of us. When you accept your demons, that lets you get on top of all the craziness, to observe it calmly, so that it no longer dominates your life.
Your music has always had some element of magic.
The previous albums were related to a moment in my life when I was on a spiritual search, taking certain medicines, doing Ayahuasca ceremonies, Peyote ceremonies—the teacher plants. Those are very intense experiences: mobilizing, revelatory and linked to an incredibly powerful psychological imagining. Paula Duró's illustrations were the perfect visual fit for that musical spirit. They're talking about the same things. But that was a stage in my life that lasted for a few years and now my spiritual restlessness doesn't run that way. I don't feel the need to go through such powerful intoxications again.
There's one track on the new album, "Los Pastores," and I remember hearing a version of it many years ago that was an edit of another song. But for this album you went and rerecorded it, kind of like a cover.
I had originally done an edit of "Los Pastores," which is a composition by William Centellas, a Bolivian master of the charango. In fact I couldn't use the edit on the album because of the rights issue, so I learned how to play the charango and I recorded it myself. It's a melody that's always in my head. One of the few songs I never get tired of. In fact it's one of the songs I heard on that first backpacking trip in the north of Argentina. It was coming from the street fair in the plaza in Tilcara, and I remember thinking: what is this? I went running towards the plaza and there was a DJ playing, and I had to beg him, to pray for him to sell me that CD. "I want that song, please! Sell it to me!" I said. "No, I don't have another one like it," he said. I knew that if I didn't get it then and there I'd never find it again, because it was on one of these obscure bootleg compilations, and William Centellas isn't very well known even in Bolivia. But I convinced him, and he sold it to me at a mark-up because it was clear I was prepared to pay anything for it.
How would you characterize the state of the post-Zizek scene, in terms of what's going on with these folkloric-electronic hybrids?
The whole "folk-tronica" movement is huge in Latin America now, and there's a new generation of young producers who have really proved themselves. People like Barda, SidiRum, Nicola Cruz, Mateo Kingman, Kaleema, Barrio Lindo, Dat Garcia and EHVA.
It's beautiful that there are all these places now where you can hear this kind of music. Before that there was basically only one, and it was the Zizek party. In the last ten years or so, the network has also started to grow more and more to encompass scenes in Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Panama. This music is really starting to gain ground in Latin America, with a lot of great producers finally getting some of the recognition they deserve.
We were talking earlier about how a lot of this traditional or folkloric music has a kind of classist, racist stigma attached to it. But now, in this electronic context, it's crossed over to a middle class audience that might not have given it the time of day 15 years ago.
I think that shows that, in the end, music is the most powerful universal language, because that's where people of all classes encounter each other, no? I mean it seems obvious to me that no one social class should be the owner of any musical style. It's ridiculous. It makes no sense. In the same way that house and techno shouldn't only be for the most affluent classes, because the poorest neighbors also listen to electronic music. It's interesting to see how music modifies people's thinking, culturally, and the way in which it breaks down prejudices between people.
How has the reception been for the new album here in the US?
Beautiful. Way better than previous albums. My manager and I were checking the statistics on Spotify and the US is actually the first country on the list in terms of number of people who listen to Chancha Via Circuito. Then after that it's Mexico and Argentina. It seems like there are more and more North Americans in general who are interested in this music. That speaks to a cultural shift, like a new awakening of this curiosity for music from other latitudes within the North American youth.
How about touring in the US?
One thing I realized about touring here is that, not only is the situation politically complicated, but there's so little support for culture that it's practically impossible for most foreign musicians to tour in North America. Really, really difficult. We paid an insane price for the artist visa: $5,000, which is supposed to give us a year of touring, but we only got six months. And it's not like we're gonna be working for six months straight and coming home with a ton of money. The tour is less than a month and it's really difficult to get paid properly. A lot of clubs don't want to take the risk, so they don't offer a good fee because they don't know how many people are going to show up. In Europe they pay us way better, sometimes double or triple what we make here. In Europe, for example, we can think about bringing our own sound guy on tour with us. Here, impossible.
For me it's always good to have different kinds of cultural information circulating, wherever it may come from, you know? So, the fact of how difficult it is to move around as an artist is not good for culture.
Do you see yourself touring like this for the rest of your life?
No. Heidi and I are thinking maybe we'll do one more low-key tour next year, then move onto focusing on producing other artists, and being more behind-the-scenes. For instance, I can talk to singers like Lido Pimienta and tell them, listen, I'll produce your next record for you. I can make money off royalties without needing to go on tour. Eventually, maybe we can go do one month per year on tour, but not like it is now. We're also really into producing music for films. I did my first film score last year, and I loved it. It was called Los Últimos, by Nicolás Puenzo, and it's so exciting to see a movie with the music you composed in a big sold-out cinema. When I get back to Buenos Aires I'm going to do music for a new documentary, too.
The touring life can be tough.
I've always been more of a daytime than a nocturnal person. That's why touring is so hard. Honestly I like to be in bed by midnight at the latest, and that's impossible when you're touring. I prefer being at home with my girlfriend, with our dog and our garden where we grow our own fruits and vegetables. When we go on tour, the garden basically dies while we're gone, even though we try to get friends to come by and water it. We have to replant everything after the winter season anyways.