There’s a world of world music inside the new album by composer and guitarist Alvaro Rojas. “Gran Kasa.” His style is infectious and bold, with tracks like “Everybody Wins” that crackles with energy, challenging the listener with an intense rainbow of polyrhythms and experimental sound. The sinister weight of “Harmonium” comes with a foreboding buzz, uneven string attacks and unpredictable percussion that break out into a heavy metal vibe; and the brighter, more traditionally organized “Hum Hum” drives home a melody that includes us in the journey to an abrupt conclusion. “Gran Kasa” is the passport to Rojas’s world at large through a panoply of effects, rhythms and instrumentations.
Featured personnel: Susana Baca (vocals), Chris Gestrin (piano), Meredith Bates (violin).
Why did you first pick up the guitar, and why did you stay with it?
I always enjoyed listening to music when I was very young and was always searching for new things to listen to. I grew up during peak grunge, so guitar music was everywhere. I had a great teacher when I started playing guitar….I would show up to my lessons wearing a different band t-shirt each week, and he would show me a tune from them. I thought that was amazing! I was pretty much hooked from the start, and have just been going deeper into the rabbit hole of music ever since.
Why does Afro-Peruvian music resonate with you?
My parents played this music around the house growing up, so it’s a part of my musical subconscious. I find the different rhythmic forms and instruments really interesting. I’m no expert, but I haven’t really heard any other music that sounds quite like it. Without getting too technical, there is a particular way that the music is phrased, in between feeling the music in “3” or in “4,” that is central to Afro-Peruvian music. There’s a lot of very nuanced things about it that can’t really be written down, that give it a really unique sound.
What inspired the songs of “Gran Kasa” and what is the overall vibe?
It’s like a 70’s prog band, a salsa band and a string quartet going on a road trip together. Or maybe like an alternate universe Mahavishnu Orchestra that got into Latin rather than Indian music.
Are the tracks meant to work together?
There are certain elements that I wanted to use on multiple songs to give the album a distinct sound, but the individual tracks weren’t composed to complement each other specifically. Working with live musicians with so much personality in their playing kind of makes the songs complement each other!
What was the best part of producing this album?
I enjoyed every step of the process: researching and composing, rehearsing with the band, the recording session itself, and mixing and adding all the final details and finishing touches. Having the opportunity to make original music with such amazing collaborators is seriously a blessing. Also, collaborating with Susana Baca was a real dream come true. My least favorite part is making final decisions on everything!
How did you meet the members of your ensemble and what do they bring to this project?
They are all established members of the Vancouver music community, and everyone plays in a variety of different scenes and contexts. I’ve played with most of them for years, and the others I’ve wanted to play with for years, and took this opportunity to bring them into my world. They each bring a tremendous amount of attitude and character to every written part they get, and are also amazing improvisors who elevate the music with their spontaneous creative ideas that get thrown into the music.
Why does the idea of fusing many musical ideas together appeal to you?
It’s just the way I think…my musical interests are pretty diverse. I couldn’t imagine doing something completely “straight.” There has to be some kind of twist to it, even if subtle.
Where is your head when you are composing and when you are performing?
In both cases, I’m always searching for the ‘flow’ where one can be inside the music more, and not intellectualizing and overthinking it. Generally trying to find something that’s interesting, honest, and that I haven’t heard myself write/play before.
Your ensemble is very diverse, many different cultural backgrounds. How does this enhance the music?
Vancouver is a very culturally diverse city, so diverse ensembles are sort of the norm! I guess the more stylistic and cultural influences you have bumping into each other, the better chances you have of creating something new.
Why are you proud of this album and how has the process helped you to develop as a musician?
The album brings together a bunch of different areas of my musical activity into one project (writing for improvisors, writing for strings, prog rock stuff, chamber music stuff). I’ve been thinking of making something like this since I was a teenager.
Also, making the collaboration with Susana Baca happen, whose music was a major influence on this record, was a huge accomplishment for me.
Next steps as we come out of quarantine: where will you perform and when?
Good question. I wish I knew! The first step is finding some way to have a proper album release celebration (ours was scheduled during the Vancouver Jazz Fest and was of course, cancelled due to COVID). Some venues are opening up, but it doesn’t feel like a party to me unless people are packed together. Maybe that will have to change. Along with every other artist/performer, I’m exploring some live streaming options, but those will most likely be solo performances.
For more information visit www.alvarorojas.ca
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist. Top photo (c) Tyler Wilson.
(c) 2020 Debbie Burke