Musician Gustavo Santaololla: Exceptional Yet Incredibly Varied

Host Rachel Martin talks with Felix Contreras and Jasmine Garsd of NPR's Alt.Latino about the rich career of Gustavo Santaololla.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. It takes a special kind of person to blaze a trail. A bit later this hour, we'll hear from actress Rita Moreno about her amazing life from her childhood in Puerto Rico to the harrowing boat trip that brought her to New York City to becoming an acclaimed actress, singer and dancer and a mainstay of American stage and screen. But now...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: ...it's time again for another visit with the folks from Alt.Latino, NPR's online show about Latin alternative music. Good morning to Felix Contreras and Jasmine Garsd. They are the show's hosts. And they normally bring in a stack of CDs to talk about, but today, guys, I understand you're coming in with just one name? What's going on?

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Well, occasionally, we have guest DJs. This time, we got a pretty huge name in the music business: music producer Gustavo Santaololla.

MARTIN: This is the guy. This is the father of Latin alternative music. This is a big deal for you guys, right?

GARSD: Oh, absolutely.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Very big deal. I mean, for me as a music freak, producers like Ahmet Ertegun from Atlantic Records from that classic soul sound, every Alfred Lyons from Blue Note, he's in that category. He's also in a category of somebody like Quincy Jones, who goes from Frank Sinatra to Michael Jackson's "Thriller." I mean, he's got that kind of range. And we're going to illustrate that point today by playing one of his early productions from about 1991 from the band called Maldita Vecindad. And this is a song called "Pachuco" from the album "Circo."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PACHUCO")

MALDITA VECINDAD: (Singing in foreign language)

MARTIN: Wow.

CONTRERAS: You know...

MARTIN: A lot going on in there.

CONTRERAS: ...this track always just really illustrates that transition from the old to the new with a reverence to tradition but still a whole new vibe, a whole new feeling.

GARSD: And it's starting off with that traditional El Grito, that the Mexican - how do you translate El Grito?

CONTRERAS: Grito's like a shout. It's like...

GARSD: The Mexican shout and then it goes into this very ska, new-wave rhythm.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PACHUCO")

VECINDAD: (Singing in foreign language)

GARSD: The lyrics are saying, hey, dad, you've criticized me but you are a pachuco, which is - Felix, what was a pachuco?

CONTRERAS: Pachuco was a phrase from, like, the '40s when Mexican-American young men, they dressed in what were called zoot suits, correct. And they were sort of like the cool guys. They weren't really gangsters in the criminal sense but they were definitely OG. You know, they had attitude. So, that's what the whole thing is about, pachuco.

(LAUGHTER)

GARSD: So, the guy in the song is saying, like, hey, dad, you're a pachuco.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PACHUCO")

MARTIN: So, you're saying that he is this kind of bridge between old and the new. He has done that in his career I understand as well, right?

GARSD: Oh, absolutely. I mean, Gustavo Santaololla, I mean, my mom used to listen to him back in the '70s during the Argentine dictatorship. He was arrested so many times and harassed so many times by the authorities 'cause rock music was frowned upon. But he actually went into exile. But he also maintained this love and this link for Latin American music. Not just Latin rock, he explored all types of folk and indigenous music.

CONTRERAS: And he added that to his bag of tricks, so to speak, when he started doing film work in the early '90s. He did a very pivotal film called "Amores Perros" from Mexico. Yeah, it was...

MARTIN: I loved that movie.

CONTRERAS: ...which was a big deal for indie film. And if you fast-forward five years, director Ang Lee asked him to do the soundtrack for a film about these two cowboys who fell in love. And the movie was called "Brokeback Mountain." And he won an Oscar for his soundtrack for this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: I mean, that demonstrates his range, right? That sounds completely different from that first song.

GARSD: Yes. It's amazing how he incorporated this very southwestern twangy sound. He's like a neighborhood kid from Argentina.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONTRERAS: You know, and that soundtrack to "Brokeback Mountain" was reflective of an album he did in, like, I think it was 1995. It was called "Ronroco." That album was an album that he made with an instrument called the ronroco.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONTRERAS: A lot of people just really fell in love with that record. And what he brought to the show was a very nice, exclusive track of him playing the ronroco recently with the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas at a concert in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: That's beautiful.

CONTRERAS: He really is a fascinating musician.

MARTIN: I mean, producing, winning Oscars, multiple Grammys. And he's also in a band that has a new album out, right?

GARSD: Right. The band is Bajofondo. It's, you know, from the river player. It's Uruguayan musicians and Argentine musicians. And what's they've done is really fused tango with electronica and other styles of music. And their new album is called "Presente."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARSD: It's amazing because it sounds completely different.

MARTIN: Is there one kind of sound that he is most closely associated with?

GARSD: I guess it depends on which Gustavo Santaololla you know. Because if you're my mom and my mom's generation - my mom is from Argentina - they think of Argentine rock. You know, this very '70s Argentine rock. To me, I associate him with the ronroco and that melancholy echoing, vast guitar and string work.

MARTIN: So, how fun was it for you to talk with him and have to fit a lot into your show?

GARSD: Can I tell you, we've been trying to get him on the show. We teased him a little, because we were like, you know, we've been trying to get you on the show pretty much since we've started.

CONTRERAS: So, it was a big deal. It was a lot of fun. And he's the nicest guy. And he's just a fountain of music and we hope to go back to him again.

MARTIN: Well, you can hear that interview on the latest Alt.Latino podcast, which is available for download at npr.org/AltLatino. Felix Contreras, Jasmine Garsd - they are the hosts of Alt.Latino, NPR's online show about Latin alternative music. Thanks, as always, guys.

GARSD: Oh. Always so much fun to be here.

CONTRERAS: Thank you so much, Rachel.

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