Interview with Edwin Sanz on his new album "San Agustin"
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translated by Pablo Herrera
1 - Why is the album called "San Agustín?
Well, the album is called San Agustín because I want to pay tribute to the neighbourhood where I grew up. San Agustín is very cultural and popular neighbourhood of Caracas. Many great Venezuelan musicians come from there. This album pays tribute to all those musicians and to San Agustín’s culture of dancing. Somewhere in the album there’s a phrase that goes: To the good ones of my neighbourhood.
2 - Does naming the album after you neighbourhood have a special meaning for you?
San Agustín is a special name to me because it is synonymous with my first love, my first girlfriend, my childhood friends. It represents the first time I danced, the first time I played the drums. It is synonymous with everything I left in Venezuela. It is synonymous with my family.
3 - Starting with an initial idea in February, you are releasing the album in June - a huge achievement! It sounds like a fever – did you and Alex eat or sleep? What drove you? Has the process changed you or helped you develop personally?
I lost weight from not eating through those two months. I lost my appetite. It was a situation different to that of playing as guest percussionist. What drove us was our desire to do something which we could still love ten years from now. What changed was that the entire organisation of the album was on my shoulders. Although historically, I’ve been able to do my cameos on other projects in one take, in this particular album, because it was my own, the smallest details made me ask the engineer to start over all the time. All my perfectionism came from wanting to create that “Wow” effect on people. It’s an achievement that we’ve finished the album so quickly. I think we beat the record (chuckles). It usually takes much longer.
4 - Tell us about your creative collaboration. Who did you work with? What was the division of labour, making the album? What was it like working together?
The core team was Alex Wilson as arranger; Rodrigo Rodriguez creating all the choruses; Rafael Quintero as lyricist; and me conducting the general concept of the album. The basic layout of the tracks has Alex on piano, Wurlitzer, Hammond, and doing all the programming. Dimitris Christopoulos playing Baby and electric bass. Oscar Cordero on trumpet and leading the horns section. Johan Escalante on trombone and Mauricio Salamanca on baritone saxophone. Robert Marcano did backing vocals. Rodrigo Rodriguez also recorded backing vocals; and rapped alongside Jayel and MC Magic on San Agustín. Tristan Banks played the drums on San Agustín. Danny “Labana” played the electric guitar in San Agustín and Eso tierno. Dave Pattman played the Bata drums on Con todos los tambores. Carlos Irarragorri played tres on Arriba en la cima and Son montuno Pa'l bailador. Cesar Correa, played piano on Cesar y Alex. José Luís Cuentas Selaya " DJ Pepe" did backing vocals on Cesar y Alex. The timbales solo on Arriba en la cima is by Luisito Quintero.
We managed to get a pretty positive result out of working together. Making this album has made me grow and understand the value of time. Everyone’s time is valuable. I would like to send a message of gratitude to all the musicians who worked on this album with me. I felt how they invested their hearts in the work they did. I lived a great experience.
5 - What is on the album? It's obviously a journey through an array of different Latin rhythms and styles - very danceable too - (for example salsa dura, salsa moderna, bachata, son-montuno, salsa soul, salsa hip hop/rock). Why was it important to you to include these in your album of many colours?
We’ve put together nine songs that I in my opinion reflect the different concepts used in salsa today. Each song has its own specific character. I felt it was important to include all of those styles because I have played them all professionally with their best representatives; and because I love each salsa one of those salsa combinations. The journey you may feel in the music is there because in music we are always students. All those colours are a summation of everything I've heard since my childhood, and a reflection of everything I have studied. When I say salsa I mean Cuban son. We wanted to reflect the colours of modern son. There are many influences in my work, and there were many things that came to my mind when I was recording. So, I’m very happy that I managed to focus on creating music for the dancers
6 - And why a salsa album? You could have easily produced a jazz album, for instance.
We filtered the tracks so that they are not music just for musicians. I do not want San Agustín to be labelled as Latin jazz. This is dance music, music to listen to. When I think of it, I can see people listening to the album while they’re cooking something delicious.
7 - You feature 9 singers on the album - a huge pool of vocal talent - why so many? (Donaldo Flores, Cuto Olaya, Rodrigo Rodriguez, MC Mágico, JAYEL, Josbel Rodriguez, Armando Miranda, Roberto Pulido, Naomi Phillips)
San Agustín should also serve to promote the work of those amazing salsa singers and artists because they live in Europe. Each singer represents different colours and different latitudes of the map of modern salsa in Europe.
8 - Tell us about the two piano track "Cesar y Alex" - this is unusual!
Cesar y Alex brings together the universes of two different piano players: Alex’s piano technique is very Western. His piano playing is very percussive and harmonically very jazzy and soul-like. Cesar Correa is all about his knowledge of South American music. He is also very keen on classical music, and loves the work of Palmieri. It’s incredible to have them playing together on a track of this album.
9 - Tell us about the launch shows in London, Glastonbury and Bristol - what can the audience expect?
Yes, I am planning to first release the album at the concerts we will give in the UK. I thank God for these three shows. We will perform San Agustín in London, Bristol, and Glastonbury. By the end of June, we should have the CDs which we will be able to offer those attending the concerts. This will be important because people will be able to take the music home with them.
10 - Edwin, can you tell us about Alex Wilson?
Alex is that kind of person who’s able to see far into the issues of creating and recording an album. His method and organisation were crucial in achieving everything we did in such short time. So I am extremely grateful to him for all his experience. I am also very glad that he is the arranger of my first album, and to have worked with him. We’ve managed to become a great team which I think is the best thing that could have ever happened.
11 - Your biography reads like a "Who's who" (or A to Z) of the world's biggest Latin musicians and bands - from Isaac Delgado to Cheo Feliciano to Rodrigo y Gabriela. Who were the biggest influences on you and why?
Well, like I said, my influences are many but can be summarised in one person, Luisito Quintero. I have always enjoyed the way he works. I also study and follow closely the work of Roberto Vilera, Gerardo Rosales, Orlando Poleo, Roberto Quintero, Nene Quintero, Douglas Guevara, Tito de Gracia, Miguel Anga Diaz, Anthony Carrillo, Giovanny Hidalgo; among others.
12 - With this depth and breadth of experience, it seems like a natural, organic step for you to move to being a bandleader and creating your first album. Is that how you see it?
What I see is how hard it is to create and produce an album. I’ve grown intellectually, and spiritually. To organise the work and to talk to people so that everything works out in the end can be very complicated. This album has made me grow in humility and patience. I can also see that it has strengthened the discipline I need to achieve what I want.
13 - The rhythms/styles you feature on this album obviously are deeply rooted in you in terms of your own personal background. Can you talk about what it was like growing up surrounded by this music and dance? Why do you love salsa? What impels you to make this music? What is your particular take on salsa? What's new/special/unique about your interpretation of salsa on this album?
All these styles are my wealth, and they lay at the core of who I am as a musician. To have grown up within a community that took Afro-Venezuelan folklore so very seriously, made everything around me breath and perspire the culture of music and dance. For example, me and many kids of my generation started to work as members of Grupo Madera, when we were children. Music and dance are my life.
As a Latino, salsa has been part of my culture since childhood. Thanks to Cuba we have this beautiful style of music. Man, can you imagine? If Cuba hadn’t birthed son, we would be beating each other up!
I’ve always wanted to learn everything about music, it’s something that goes with my personality. I’ve always like to bring together in my practice all the concepts I’ve learned as a musician; and to respect every style of music I play. With salsa what pushes me to play is not only all the music I heard as a child, or the music I have studied; it’s also my upbringing, it’s also my neighbourhood. Salsa to me is what they call in French une raison d’etre. Salsa is a way of life.
The mix of people who have recorded in the album is to me what makes it different. On top of that, we got Jose "Josemen" Mendoza, who has recorded Adolescente, Oscar D' Leon, Isaac Delgado, and Mercado Negro, to mix the album. It’s just very different to work here in Europe with people who understand this genre and know what they’re doing. I didn’t want San Agustín to be a hard salsa album, and it isn’t one. I wanted it to be an album for everyone. I wanted it to be music you could enjoy while you’re cooking. A congas solo over here, a bit of rapping there; then a guitar solo; later the vibe of a Rhodes accompanying a contagious salsita rhythm. (Edwin simulates the melody and the rhythm of the song with his mouth). Then you’ll hear a chachacha played as traditionally as we could; and then a few more surprises. The strength of this album is in its diversity.
14 - Were there special highlights/ low points/ challenges that stand out for you while you were making the album?
Wow, the highlight, definitely, was to receive the track Arriba en la cima with Luisito Quintero’s timbales solo recorded on it. I didn’t sleep that day. The lowest moment was when I asked to myself why had I gotten myself into all that trouble (chuckles). I remember that I started to panic when I was thought we weren’t going to get done all the work that we set ourselves to do, and by the dates we had planned. That was the worst feeling.
15 - Why did you include a rock guitarist in some of the tracks? Isn't this highly unusual for salsa? (Was this a challenge, difficult, or did it open up new musical avenues for you/both?)
I had already seen an electric guitarist perform with salsa band before. I have always like that mixture. I was definitely under the influence of the music of Guaco, a band from Venezuela; and under the spell of the salsa-rock mixtures we did with Rodrigo y Gabriela. I liked that spirit. I wanted San Agustín to have that urban colour. It was great to work with Danny "Labana" Martinez. I really admire his work. Danny’s playing has much flavour. He also recorded the guitar on Eso tierno, the bachata track. You’d think it's a Dominican who is playing. He’s a great example of those great musicians who live in Europe. He adapted to the style of the songs like a chameleon.
16 - You were a professional dancer before becoming a musician. How hard was the transition? How does being that rare animal - a dancing musician - affect your music and this album in particular?
Music and dancing complement each other. In my transition from dancer to musician, I had to live with the judgement of other musicians who would mention that I had started as a dancer, or that I wasn’t yet a seasoned musician. You know, now, over the years, I’ve learned that my time as a dancer is an asset I own; and that it will continue to help me. I, obviously, don’t have the physical conditions of a dancer anymore (chuckles). However, my dancer side affects the way I hear the arrangement of a song. During the recordings, if at some point the music mademe move my shoulders, I know the song would work. The first listen snippet of the album that we uploaded to Soundcloud has been played more than one thousand times already, that tell us that people can’t wait for San Agustín to come out. My spirit as a dancer tells me this album will work. There’ll be no better reward than to see people feeling like they want to dance to what we created.
17 - Are you able to step back and enjoy the experience you're having at the moment or is it all just hard work? What's next for you in your career?
Work is nonstop. I finished working with Rodrigo y Gabriela. Four years ago I started playing with Mercado Negro; so that is still going on. A week ago I was playing with Roberto Blades. Went to Istanbul to do a gig with Isaac Delgado two weeks earlier. On Monday I’ll be rehearsing with Alex for some work that we’ll be doing with Malia. I need work to be nonstop. As a musician, the hardest thing is to find the stability that allows you to make a living out of working with music at the level I want. So, because I am financing the whole process of the album, while we were recording the tracks, and afterwards I’ve had to continue working. So, no, I can’t take a step back, I am enjoying everything along the way. To improve my skills as a drum set player; and to learn more about harmony, so that I can write more is what comes next. I want to continue working with Alex Wilson. When we’re done with this album, I would like to make work on another that’s a lot more based on Afro-Venezuelan music and Venezuelan music. It will be great to work on something of my own using those elements. You’ll never come across someone as mixed as me: My dad is black, my mom looks white but my great grandmother was black. You know, I am one of those mixtures that come out of Latin America.