By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Perhaps because I’ve been doing this music-writing shit for a little too long, I suddenly feel that I‘m in the presence of a Rock & Roll Moment -- that red light that goes on. And so red-hot is the light at this very moment that I feel close to blowing up . . . I realize Rock & Roll Moments are manufactured on a daily basis in order to impress innocent journalists, but I swear, this one is as real as it gets.
Anyway, the song ends, Garcia exhales its last breath, then there’s this Movie Moment, the “it is accomplished” sort of thing where she looks around her, at me and Kerpel and Santaolalla, and smiles mischievously.
I tap her on the shoulder.
“Who did you write this for?”
She smiles nervously. “Well, you know . . .”
Santaolalla says sternly, “You don‘t have to answer.”
“Why are you getting involved in this?” I bark back at him. “I’m asking her, not you.”
For a brief moment, there‘s an expression of utter disbelief on the man’s face.
“What do you mean, why am I getting involved?” he says, heatedly. “She‘s my artist!”
“They always ask me that,” says Erica, in a futile, conciliatory digression. “They want to know how, where and when I write my songs. They ask me these real specific things.”
“Of course we do,” I say. “We want to see Picasso at work. We want to study Einstein’s brain.”
“I don‘t believe this!” screams Santaolalla. “We get together. We take all of our clothes off. We get butt-naked just for you. And as if that wasn’t enough, now you wanna stick your finger up our asses!”
Loud laughter ensues.
I discovered Gustavo Santaolalla sometime in the early to mid-‘90s, when I first started to write about Latin American music. The majority of rock en espaĆ±ol releases that had come out up to that date had convinced me that the entire genre was utterly worthless. Most of the Latin rockers from the ’60s to the ‘80s had done nothing but shamelessly rip off the ever-pervasive Anglo rock and pop.
By 1997, however, I was acquainted with Tacuba. I was listening to Molotov, a raucous, hip-hop-influenced quartet with a lethal sense of humor. And to “Rara,” an eerie, emotionally charged song by an Argentine singersongwriter named Juana Molina. Strangely enough, these disparate records sounded alike in a weird sort of way. While the stylistic directions they followed were in sharp contrast, there was something about the spatial relationships of the elements within the music, a three-dimensional feeling about the productions, that made you understand that this was the work of a producer of the caliber of a Phil Spector, perhaps a Daniel Lanois.
I realized then that there was magic in Santaolalla, for every artist he laid his hands on emerged a better musician. He’d been instrumental in the development of Latin rock not as a performer, but as a facilitator, a liberator, a discoverer of potential. He was the man who allowed Tacuba and Venegas and Molotov and Bersuit Vergarabat to transcend their stereotyped roles and become something far more interesting than a bunch of Latin American rockeros.
Santaolalla‘s artistry is best experienced on two very dissimilar albums. The first is Ronroco (Nonesuch, 1998), Santaolalla’s latest solo work, and one that has nothing whatsoever in common with rock en espaĆ±ol. A collection of 12 delicate, impressionistic vignettes, it relies mostly on South American string instruments such as the charango and the ronroco. Half the tunes are completely abstract, creating evocative washes of sound that rely solely on mood. The other half consists of gorgeous melodies, lullabies for the soul, mesmerizing in their construction and perfection.
Ronroco is a very short album, and it introduces the rock listener to the bridge that exists between Santaolalla the rocker and the folklore of his native Argentina, which explains why, in his role as a producer, he has encouraged his artists to heed the musical roots of their respective countries; Santaolalla‘s productions exploit the electrifying dynamics of rock, but are suffused with the comforting presence of a past well lived.
In Santaolalla’s case, this past involves superstardom at a young age. During the early ‘70s, he was the leader of the pioneering folk en espaĆ±ol group Arco Iris, which became a sensation in Argentina. But the political climate of his country didn’t sit well with Santaolalla. He moved to Los Angeles in the early ‘80s, formed a new-wave group called Wet Picnic, met up with Kerpel (also a presence on the Argentine rock scene of the ’70s) and began producing records.
The other model of essential Santaolalla is RevesYosoy (Warner Bros.), the 1999 release by the Mexican group Cafe Tacuba, and the unequivocal masterpiece of the entire Latin-rock genre. The double-disc RevesYosoy is the fourth album by the Tacuba foursome, and the fourth for which they recruited the services of Santaolalla as producer and spiritual guide. One disc is made up of smart, intense, poetic songs; the other is entirely instrumental -- dissonant, subversive and lovingly psychedelic. Many of us expected RevesYosoy to be the one record that would catapult the rock en espaĆ±ol cult genre into the mainstream. It was easy to imagine Tacuba on MTV, Tacuba on the cover of Spin, Tacuba the big winner at the Grammy Awards. As it turns out, the album got the band an opening spot on a Beck tour and not much more. It was Latin rock‘s crowning achievement, and its best chance for a “crossover” into the American collective subconscious.