The new CD from composer Alejandro Kanek Ballesteros Coria with sax musician Luis Tena presents eleven tracks that show how a variety of influences (Latin, Afro-Cuban and techno) combine to create sounds that are full of life and deserving of exploration. “El Murciélago” is named after the famous Mexican wrestler and TV star Jesus Velazquez Quintero, whose nickname means “The Bat.”
While the title track stirs up a frenzy north and south on the keyboard (the piano slices the air with tight twists and turns), the Latin flair and heavy drums on “Malanga Mechanica” leaves the listener breathless in its wake. The dark opening statement of “Jardin Azteca” repeats throughout in inverted variations, creating a series of puzzle pieces that fit into a melodic mural.
The album is a high-octane vision whipping up a tangle of flavors with an emphasis on keeping the heart rate above 100bpm.
What kind of music did you grow up on, and which songs/genres were you attracted to?
I grew up listening to all kinds of music. In my childhood I listened to 80s pop music in English and Spanish. In my teens mostly rock and Cuban music since my father imported Cuban vinyl records as part of a cultural exchange between Mexico and Cuba. In my twenties, electronic music and alternative rock. And for the last four years I have been very interested in the world of Jazz.
What instrument do you play and where did you receive your training?
I play the electric bass and keyboards in a lyrical and basic manner. I have not received any kind of formal musical education. In fact, I actually have a bachelor’s degree in Graphic Design. My knowledge in music only comes from books and the internet in the last two years when I decided to study traditional jazz in my free time.
Talk about how you came to form the Serpiente Negra Ensamble?
My given name is Alejandro Kanek, the first part of which is a well-known name, while the second comes from a word of Mayan origin that means Black Serpent in English, so Serpiente Negra is basically my Mayan name “Kanek” in Spanish. I added the ensemble thing in honor of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and to describe more or less what the project is all about.
At present, this is basically a solo project. The music was composed and arranged digitally for the most part in a DAW. Since I don’t know how to play many of the instruments used in this project, I use my knowledge in electronic music to create this genre of music. Additionally, the skills of the multi-instrumentalist Luis Tena were incorporated to the sound palette, though he is a live performer who wonderfully plays the guitar and other instruments such as banjo, bass and saxophone, among others.
Why did you name the new CD “El Murciélago”?
It is the main theme that gives the album its title. It is inspired by the Mexican professional wrestler, actor and screenwriter of the 1940s known as “El Murciélago Velázquez” (1910 – 1972). This track seeks to create a “narrative line” inspired by the Mexican wrestler adventure films from the “Golden Age” of Mexican cinema. In general, the purpose is to create a retro atmosphere in terms of music and timbre.
How would you characterize this CD?
I think it could be tagged as Mexican Jazz Fusion, but this album has a little from everywhere, just like we Mexicans are, in a way, a mix of Euro-Arabic with Mesoamerican and Afro-American cultures. Although this album is based in the basic jazz ensemble trio plus percussion, keyboards and other instruments, it also combines Afro-Cuban music with Mexican Folklore and World Music.
How long to write these songs and overall how would you describe them?
This compendium of songs was written during the pandemic time we are still living, from February to December of last year (2020), a consequence of jazz music theory studies of the previous months. I think the sound of this project is one of an energetic freedom of experimentation with jazz, sauced with Mexican sounds with a vintage vibe.
What was your favorite track to produce and why?
All the songs required a different process and I don’t recall having a more pleasant experience with any of them. I think the variety of approaches to create this album was the true enjoyable experience, since this is my first creation in this genre.
When you compose, do you have a melody in mind first or are you building around a rhythm?
All the songs were composed based on II-V-I major and minor chord progressions. These chords stated the melody and rhythm of each song. In the case of the melody, tonal and scale modulations were used to create musical contrast. The bass and the drums came later to complete the overall feeling of each song, as the chord progression already implied the rhythm and mood. The purpose of this project was to create a compendium of jazzy songs, but every single time something Mexican or Latin-flavored came out from my memory.
How did you release this and when clubs open up, do you have performances planned for this year?
“El Murciélago” was released on December 31, 2020, on the Bandcamp. This material can be streamed for free or purchased for download at the following URL: https://serpientenegra.bandcamp.com/album/el-murci-lago
The plans for the future are narrow. Since Mexico is one of the most strongly hit countries by the pandemic there are no public gatherings and therefore no concerts or any kind of public performances. So until the government says otherwise there will not be any gigs in the short term.
In Mexico there has been historically an influence from jazz and a huge impact of Cuban music like bolero, mambo, chachachá, etc. So the Afro-Cuban music is part of our identity as Mexicans. This influence came more prominently in the middle of the 20th century, so as the discovery of many pre-Hispanic monuments that reinforced the Mexican identity in art and music was taking place, that same period of time is considered the golden age of jazz. That said, “El Murciélago” was made as a nostalgic revision of this fascinating era.
For more information visit https://serpientenegra.bandcamp.com/album/el-murci-lago.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.
(c) Debbie Burke 2021