A contrabass guitarist originally from Columbia, Juan García-Herreros – also known as Snow Owl – tells true tales with an elegant and sensitive touch. They have a shining beauty and transport the listener, yet, sometimes to places colored with sadness. Truth is more important than comfort in storytelling.
Snow Owl has surrounded himself with a pan-national ensemble which in 2016 launched “The Blue Road.” This is the first of three CDs describing the three paths a soul can take. Rooted in spirituality, the songs on “The Blue Road” are notable for strong beats in which voices of different timbres fill all the spaces. Its wall-to-wall textures from every corner of the globe invite dance, movement, smiles, recognition and tears. Throughout the album, Snow Owl takes hold of a thought and sets it free with each strum and flourish.
What was your early musical training in guitar, and the top lessons you take with you today?
Before we start I want to thank you for taking the time to interview me and for supporting my career. I was not fortunate enough to have the financial conditions to afford a private instructor. I knew my whole life that I wanted to be a musician, even if it meant that I had to teach myself everything. If there is one lesson I carry with me always it is that of reflection, because so much can be achieved with discipline and passion.
Why the nickname “The Snow Owl”?
In reality Snow Owl is my real name (laughs). It was given to me by the leader of my tribe in the jungles of Colombia. We share strong beliefs that man and nature are inseparable and fortunately, the spirits of the elders guide us through their animal form.
How would you characterize your particular style?
It’s the responsibility of every artist to document the sound of their time. Music belongs to nobody and yet it can cross all borders. Within my compositions there are strong elements of migration celebrating adversity.
Talk about the album “The Blue Road” – its name, what you were trying to convey?
One of our indigenous beliefs shows the three paths a soul chooses when it enters this world. The blue path is the spiritual one, guiding messages from the spirit world to this one. “The Red Road,” which is the title of the next album, represents the path of the warrior, the hunter. The final album will be “The Yellow Road,” showing the balance between the two.
One of my favorite songs is definitely “Ne Togo Ye Sadjouma,” which means Snow Owl in Bambara [in Mali], the native language of Burkina Faso. This song is a collage of indigenous musical cultures. The voices and the balafon [similar to a wooden xylophone] of the Griot tribes of Burkina Faso converse with the Bulgarian Tupan and Kaval, while the ethnic rhythms of Colombian Andean traditions melt together with members of both the Vienna Philharmonic and Radio Symphony Orchestra. It’s an unforgettable celebration of the human spirit.
Why did you paint your face and hands, and does the blue rub off on the guitar?
It is a great honor for me to represent my tribal beliefs by wearing what we call “the face of the Universe.” This particular mask carries a huge cultural significance and on a deeper note its function is meant to deliver a spiritual message to each listener who is attending the performance. To be honest it hasn’t been so easy to prevent the make-up from leaking all over the place, but we found a way to keep it under control.
The “United Nations” of personnel – truly a representation from many corners of the globe. How does that give the music depth?
Each musician whom I selected to be a part of “The Blue Road” brings his or her spirit and the traditions of their countries. We have such an amazing planet full of musical history. Thanks to technological advancements, projects such as this can finally be realized. The musical journey requires a global sound.
You talk about musical “refugees” in Vienna – is there a huge contingent of jazz artists there from around the world?
Absolutely, I am speechless when I think of how many different musical nations I have collaborated with alone in the city of Vienna. Looking back, I realize that it is more nationalities than I even encountered in my time in NYC.
What is the jazz scene like in Vienna?
It’s very diverse and very alive. We are blessed to have one of the top jazz clubs in the world, Porgy & Bess, which offers listeners amazing artists who are passing through. The venues vary from historical sites through modern architectural wonders. There is much inspiration for a musician here to experience.
Your favorite venue in Vienna?
Way too many to just pick one. Culture is a part of life in Austria. The stages are so versatile and unique that it makes it difficult to pick.
What does it mean to you to win three gold medals at The Global Music Awards?
It’s an unbelievable achievement which I am very proud of. We were able to show the world a musical conversation between 16 different nations at a time when the world is under the impression that all of these nations are in conflict with each other. The music represents the one and only universal truth. With love, patience and understanding we all harmonize endlessly.
What is the difference in audiences globally when it comes to appreciation of Latin jazz?
I feel blessed to be a part of a tradition which is globally accepted. Afro-Caribbean rhythms always manage to make people move and smile. I consider myself to be a rhythm exporter and importer.
Talk about why you play the 6-string rather than 4-string?
My obsession for melodic development, rhythmic interaction and harmonics requires an instrument with a broad tonal range. Thanks to Anthony Jackson’s invention I am able to feed my musical addictions!
What does it mean that you are the music ambassador of integration?
It means that Europe and Austria have been aware of the importance of presenting success stories to those who have fled their war-torn countries in search of a better life. Being an integration ambassador allows me to set a good example of what can be achieved if you approach the difficulties with an open heart. It is extremely important to respect the language and traditions of the country which you are living in. After fully integrating yourself within the social mentality of that country you can then contribute your experiences and your traditions. Respect first, observe second and third, evolve mutually.
Talk about how you became involved in Unity Through Arts?
The life that I have is a privilege and it cannot be just kept for myself. We are living in hard times and symbols of light are necessary. My foundation focuses on education, arts, integration and anti-discrimination. I strongly believe that you have to be the change that you want to see in the world.
Plans to grow your career in 2018?
We are focusing on the second CD production of the trilogy which will be titled “The Red Road.”
I am very happy and proud to be the label director of Inner Circle Music Europe and I am looking forward to developing its presence worldwide with musical productions of all genres.
I am extremely excited that H’Art Distribution in Germany is representing my entire catalogue, which also involves my first-ever music video release of the single “She Became A Thousand Birds.” This single remembers the tragedy of the Colombian region of Armero and the passing of the young angel, Omayra Sánchez.
For more information, visit www.the-snow-owl.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Snow Owl and Monica Muller: Public Relations.
(c) Debbie Burke 2017