Latin Alternative's Big Cheese: Gustavo Santaolalla One of the biggest names in Latin music is not some hot young pop star, but a bearded 54-year-old producer. Gustavo Santaolalla has a reputation for guiding and producing some of the most adventurous names in Latin Alternative, and also won an Oscar this year for his Brokeback Mountain score.

Latin Alternative's Big Cheese: Gustavo Santaolalla

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

One of the biggest names in Latin music is not some hot, young pop star, but a bearded 54-year old producer. This week, Gustavo Santaolalla won an Oscar for the soundtrack he composed for BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN.

(Soundbite of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN score)

NORRIS: Santaolalla has also built a reputation for guiding and producing some of the most adventurous bands in the genre of music called Latin Alternative. In the third part of our series, NPR's Mandalit del Barco visited with the man some call the guru of Latin Alternative.


Gustavo Santaolalla sits behind the console in the studio at his home in the Echo Park Hills of LA. He his mixing down a new recording by the (unintelligible) Tango Club, an Argentine group that fuses tango riffs with electronica beats. Santaolalla and his producing partner Anabel Carpel(ph) go over every detail of the sound.

Mr. GUSTAVA SANTAOLALLA (Musician and producer): (Foreign language spoken)

DEL BARCO: I'm watching you in the studio and you are acting as a musician. You're moving along to the beats and you're singing along to the chords as you're manipulating the keyboard.

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: Well, yes, I mean, that's, I am a musician, I am a songwriter, I sing. And the way I approach everything I'm doing has that component all the time.

DEL BARCO: And Gustavo Santaolalla has been involved with music a long time. He began playing guitar at age five, and by ten he was composing, though he admits he still can't read music.

When he was 16, he made his first record with his rock band (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of Latin rock music)

DEL BARCO: But a rock band in Buenos Aires in the 1970's was considered subversive by Argentina's military government.

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: Just for having long hair and maybe thinking about Eastern philosophy, you will be considered a dissident and an element of subversion. I've been in jail since I was 15 until I left so many times I don't even remember. And like almost any Argentineans, we have friends that have disappeared. So it was a horrific time in Argentina. I was blacklisted so my music couldn't get any airplay. So in '78, I decided to move to the United States.

DEL BARCO: After arriving in Los Angeles, Santaolalla soon formed a new wave band and a lifelong friendship with another Argentine expatriate, Anabel Carpel, and as they still do today, they began producing other musicians.

In search of new sounds, Santaolalla traveled to Mexico City in the early 1980's where he discovered Maldita Vecindad y Los Hijos del Quinto Patio.

(Soundbite of Maldita Vecindad y Los Hijos del Quinto Patio)

Maldita's lead singer, Rocco (ph) says Santaolalla helped shape the band's twisted mix of Latin rhythms with punk, ska, funk and rap.

ROCCO: For us, working with Gustavo Santaolalla was to work really with absolute friend that was open to experiment, a partner in crime in the mission to find the Mexican rock sound in the albums, to invent that sound.

DEL BARCO: Rocco remembers how Santaolalla hung out with the band in Cantinas, in ballrooms and nightclubs, as they immersed themselves in popular Mexican music. Rocco says Santaolalla encouraged him to experiment.

ROCCO: For example, we went to the streets. I record all of the street sellers in Mexico, the way that people talk in the streets, and Gustavo, yeah, man, that's a good idea. Okay, let's make it this way.

So many people think that we are crazy or we are out of our minds to put all of that, and he really all the time find a way to make it possible.

(Soundbite of Maldita Vecindad y Los Hijos del Quinto Patio)

DEL BARCO: Maldita Vecindad's music was a departure from other bands playing what was then called Rocking Espanol, mostly American or British style rock sung in Spanish. Santaolalla says that's part of what made Maldita and the other bands he worked with alternative.

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: I always thought that at least what we were trying to do was a little bit beyond Rocking Espanol. So it's more like an off center, left field type of music.

DEL BARCO: Like the bilingual Mexican metal hip-hop group (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of Latin Alternative music)

DEL BARCO: This song calls on people to take power back from the Mexican government. The band's explicit political messages and irreverent sense of humor led Santaolalla to make them the first group he signed to his own label. Lead singer Paco Ayalla says the producer's collaboration with the band was crucial to (unintelligible) success.

Mr. PACO AYALLA (Singer): (Foreign language spoken)

DEL BARCO: Ayalla marvels at the energy Gustavo Santaolalla throws into his productions, playing guitar and singing as needed, suggesting changes in song structure and lyrics, literally becoming part of the band. In fact, Santaolalla is often referred to as the fifth member of another seminal Latin alternative band, (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of Latin Alternative)

Unidentified Man: First of all, we're friends, of course, and it is very funny to work with him, which is great, because when you can laugh a lot, everything is easier.

DEL BARCO: (unintelligible) keyboard player, Manuel del (unintelligible), credit Santaolalla with launching and nurturing the band's career and functioning at something more than a producer.

Unidentified Man: Sometimes you go to him as a father. I learn a lot from this guy, and we've been sharing feelings and ideas, and I respect him a lot.

DEL BARCO: The feeling is mutual. Gustavo Santaolalla says the trick to being a good producer is to get inside the musicians' heads.

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: The psychology of a band, you know, is so important, I mean, you know, their sense of humor, their icons, their understanding of the universe.

DEL BARCO: And Santaolalla has a knack for understanding what will work in the studio.

Mr. ERNESTO LECHTNER (Music journalist): It's just incredible to see him at work. He's like an alchemist. He really is like a magician, a sonic magician.

DEL BARCO: Music journalist Ernesto Lechtner has just written a book on Latin Alternative. He says Santaolalla's contribution to the genre is unsurpassed.

Mr. LECHTNER: What's fascinating about Gustavo is that he has been instrumental in most of the important recordings in the entire genre. Everything he does has passion, it has warmth, it's extremely sophisticated, but it's never cold.

DEL BARCO: While Gustavo Santaolalla's most recent successes have been composing film scores, he continues to search for alternative musicians.

Mr. SANTAOLALLA: I'm always kind of like looking for something that surprises me, that brings something different, something new. Which, you know, when you have heard so much music, it gets harder. But still it's amazing. Still, there's new stuff and new things that always excite me.

DEL BARCO: Tomorrow, a visit to a city filled with new sounds, a place some have called Latin Alternative's Seattle, Monterrey, Mexico.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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