“I want to blend sounds”:
Leonardo Priéto, Son De Aquí and the quest for something new
2020 was a rocky year for musicians all over, many of whom saw their ambitions slashed by a worldwide pandemic which left the music industry in shambles. But Rotterdam-based Leonardo Prieto still managed to come out of it with two new records – one with his band Son De Aquí and the other for his own solo project. We ringed him to discuss everything from lockdown recording, musical identity and how to welcome Metallica, Mozart and Buena Vista Social Club into the same vision board.
The history of Mexico is made up of encounters – some more unlikely than others. The most brutal, perhaps, took place in the fifteenth century, when the Spanish Empire’s fleet first docked at its shores. According to all historical accounts, this was not one of the most pleasant ones, to say the least; the vicious conquerors destroyed one of the most culturally rich civilizations that had existed to date, the Aztec Empire, through the means of bloodshed, famine and sickness. But Mexico’s affairs did not end there – and, fortunately, most of them do not lead to such gruesome outcomes.
There was the secretive, swift and saucy romance that grew in Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo’s cactus gardens between the latter and the disgraced Marxist intellectual Leon Trotsky. The meeting between water and chocolate on Laura Esquivel’s best-selling 1989 novel of the same name. And, perhaps most notably, this proclivity for fusing different worlds together is apparent in one of its richest literary traditions. It’s been feeding the ink of a-many authors across Latin America over almost a hundred years: it’s called magical realism.
Leonardo Prieto was born and raised in Mexico City. He’s been living in Rotterdam since 2016, first studying, now teaching at the city’s esteemed Conservatory – but always playing. In fact, he’s been making music since the age most of us are still learning to string two sentences together; he was five years old when he began taking drum lessons. From the drums he leaped to the guitar, to the piano and a myriad of other musical instruments, including typical characters of traditional Latin American music such as the gaita columbiana and the marinbol. Aged ten, Leonardo was composing his own songs; at twenty, playing in his own band, Son De Aquí. Twenty more years later, the group is gearing up to release their third studio album, the first in five years, “Del Otro Lado Del Mar”; on his own, Leonardo is preparing to venture into solo territory, with “Sombrando” . Both records are due for release sometime in 2021, “maybe in the spring”, he says, wishfully, when we speak to him over the phone. Prieto is writing another chapter in the country’s long history of mixing things up – America and Europe, old and new, traditional and modern, classical and popular. In his own words: “I want to blend sounds, and compose to be somewhere between”.
“Normally, we would get together and everyone would bring their own ideas”
The multi-instrumentalist sounds confident, keen and eager to tell us all about the projects he has lined up for next year with Son De Aquí and under his own name; at least as confident as a musician emerging from a world pandemic which all but killed the live music sector can sound. According to the World Economic Forum, the general six month lockdown prompted by the COVID-19 outbreak has already cost the industry a loss of 10 billion dollars.
Worse is coming, says writer Stephan Hall; but musicians like Leonardo Prieto, while not shying away from expressing how detrimental this unprecedented event was to their plans, are sticking to their guns (and this case, their sheets, guitars and pianos) and placing their bets on the forthcoming year.
For Leonardo, a stickler for deadlines, the uncertainty concerning the highly anticipated return of live music made it impossible for him to tell us when either of the records is coming for sure. However, Son De Aquí has already given listeners a hint of what this new album will sound like. Just this month, they’ve released two singles – the hip-hop infused “Deja El Celular” and the sunny cumbia “Ella Me Encerró”. Come next year, there will be a third single – and then, finally, a third album from the group, which is nowadays split between Mexico, the Netherlands, Germany and Spain.
[LINK: ELLA ME ENCERRÓ – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RsM9oUZDxVo]
Given the international nature of Son De Aquí’s fabric, Leonardo is more than used to recording in the social distant way more and more musicians are being forced to adapt to. In a way, he’s ahead of the curve. Does he think that recording from afar – making a record spread across different studios, cities, countries – will become the norm? “I hope not”, he laughs. Even if communication between the thirteen, fourteen members of the group (depending on the song, as they host several guests throughout the record, like Spanish guitarist Fernan Mejuro on “Ella Me Encerró”) requires the aid of the internet, in a pre-pandemic era getting together to rehearse would be a priority – given the possibility, of course. “Before, I would compose the music, I would send it to them, but then we would get together and everyone would bring their own ideas” explains Leonardo.
But recording separately is fine. Even without a pandemic, that would be the case, since the band wanted to collaborate with its Mexican counterpart and have the record produced there. For Leonardo, the biggest challenge is not playing live. With the full lockdown the Dutch currently face set to expire in the middle of January, and with a vaccine underway, perhaps both “Del Otro Lado Del Mar” and “Sembrando” will have a chance of being introduced to the public in a live setting. At least, that’s what Leonardo hopes for.
“Music is always linked to cultural identity, environment, nature, animals, religion”
It is only natural that Leonardo longs for the stage; his band seems made for it. Son De Aquí’s sound puts into practice what the composer told us was his biggest wish when making music; to mesh sounds together. When their first record, “Traigo Sabor”, was released in 2004, they were more conventional. Wearing their influences on their sleeve, they began by riding the coattails of other Latin American acts, such as Buena Vista Social Club, whose popularity in the late nineties revived an interest in traditional Cuban and Latin American music worldwide. “In that first record”, recalls Leonardo, “you can listen to it and say alright, this is timba, this is son cubano. It was all very clear”.
But, according to him, it was only ten years after they began playing together that the band truly found their sound. And what sound was that? Many, in fact. “We found the best way to express our influences”, he explained. Convention was put to rest to welcome all the other styles musicians were leaving at the rehearsal door; suddenly, Son De Aquí was introducing
son cubano t o reggae, rock and classical music. He acts out on the phone the kind of conversations that could be heard in rehearsal; “if you like Metallica, let’s try to use that information. But if you’re more of a Mozart guy, let’s try and use that too”. It was this very spirit of adventure, this openness to embrace traditional and contemporary in one fell swoop, that led to 2015’s cleverly titled “De Aquí Son”.
[VIDEO: LIVE 2018 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jrQWhjF3JeY&t=1188s]
But the encounters born from Son De Aquí’s records are not only musical in nature. When hearing Leonardo speak, we quickly become aware we’re not only talking to a musician and a composer, but also an academic, who has been making a habit out of connecting everything even outside of the recording studio – as any good sociologist does; it just so happens to be one of the three Bachelor degrees he has. In 2016, already carrying a hefty number of university diplomas under his arm, he entered in the esteemed Rotterdams Conservatorium to take a double Master’s Degree in Piano and Composition. He teaches there as well nowadays.
“I think that, in a way, I’m kind of a nerd”, he laughs. But he then asserts, more seriously: “my studies are not something I did and then forgot”. Indeed, it was his Sociology degree that inspired much of his work with Son De Aquí. At some point, Leonardo had become enamoured with the concept of identity – focusing his studies on son jarocho, a regional folkloric music style originated from the Mexican state of Veracruz. “I started to see how music is always linked to cultural identity, environment, nature, animals, religion”. After that realization, it was only natural to dedicate a life to coupling different ways of playing and listening to music – in Son De Aquí and on his own project, in which he shares the stage with seven other musicians and often brings folkloric Mexican instruments into classical environments.
But musical instruments, whatever they may be, are not the only thing to be heard in Leonardo’s music, namely, in Son De Aquí’s records. The band had begun understanding just how much music is rooted in non-musical affairs and had started bringing that knowledge into their shows, upscaling them from simple concerts to full-on performances which included lights, visuals and dancers. But, even with venues shut, Leonardo and his peers still wanted to bring all of these elements into a record, because, after all, they all interlink. Dancing, for instance. “We said to ourselves, if we have tap-dancing on stage, we will have it on the record too. We will record the dance steps.” For Leonardo, it couldn’t have happened any other way. “In cumbia, for instance, when the dancers move, the drummer reacts. All these relationships between dance and song are represented in the record.”
“I like to see the technical limits of musical instruments”
2021 will not only be marked by the release of “Del Otro Lado Del Mar”, Son De Aquí’s first record in six years, but also by Leonardo’s first venture into solo territory – “Sembrando”, set to be released on his website with a visual counterpart for which he’s currently collaborating with two visual artists for. What can people expect from an album coming from a man who has seemingly spent his life playing and composing with and for other people?
“Sembrando”, the project’s title, roughly translates into the art of sowing. Just as Son De Aquí’s new album (whose name means “From The Other Side Of The Sea”), its title tells a story of how the music came to be. Just as with his previous ventures, Leonardo continues to build bridges between sounds, worlds and eras, and, in the process, discovering something new, uniquely his.
[LINK: LEONARDO PRIETO: FUE UN NU – https://youtu.be/EO4VQcqMZq8]
Just as he can’t decide between a genre, Leonardo can’t pick a favorite instrument. In his first solo album, which was recorded in three days, in Rotterdam and in between lockdowns, he constantly switches between the guitar, the piano and musical instruments seemingly belonging to another time and place – like the jarana jarocha, a guitar-shaped stringed instrument endemic to the musical tradition of Veracruz. “I like to see the technical limits of these musical instruments, which are not usually being used to play with extended techniques, or any other kind of textures” he reasons. And, by this, Leonardo doesn’t mean offering new interpretations of age-old Mexican songs; in “Sembriando”’s tracklist, there is only one cover version of someone else’s composition. The rest, even though made up of bits and pieces of different musical traditions and techniques, is one hundred percent him.
And just like that, magical realism lives on; once poured over the pages of Carlos Fuentes’ prose, or Frida Kahlo’s sad, colorful paintings, it is now brought back to life through another spellbinding affair – and a musical one, at that. With “Del Otro Lado Del Mar” and “Sembriando” both, Leonardo Prieto is ready to meld the impossible, transforming all the parts of his musical education on the streets and on the college halls into something new. 2020 might have been a hard year for musicians all around the world; but, thanks to Leonardo and his peers, 2021 will certainly be easy on the ears.