Colombian Elvis

What rock and roll owes the blues, Carlos Vives owes vallenato

"Totó has this radical view," Vives responds, with the air of having answered this question many times before. "In a country founded on diversity, that view seems to me exclusionary." Pacing across the balcony, he ticks off the complaints: "If I'm white, if I'm a telenovela galan, I don't have the same right to sing cumbia as Totó." He laughs. "Sometimes the intellectuals of my country tire me out. They are always excluding the middle class, the burgos, as they call me." Then he sits down and stares intently at the interviewer. "Just because I'm not black or Indian, it can't mean that I can't make the music of my country."

This fall Vives has been accused of cultural rip-off in an even more literal sense. On Tuesday, December 18 (the day this paper goes to press), a Colombian court will decide whether Vives plagiarized the title song from his 1995 La Tierra del Olvido. (In Colombia the legal concept of "moral rights" gives artists much broader protection than does U.S. law.) A second "moral rights" claim was leveled against Vives last week, disputing twelve bars of "Décimas," a song on Dejame Entrar that weds a traditional ten-line poem structure to a punk sensibility.

Whatever the judge ultimately decides, the suit begs the question: When does Vives borrow from traditional culture and when does he transform it into something else, something equally vital?

Vives's most original experiment to date, Dejame Entrar attempts to preserve the feeling of folklore within the broader structures of rock. "We were looking for new concepts," explains Vives. "Folklore is in the soul. It doesn't have a fixed structure."

As in his earlier work, Vives relies heavily on the contributions of the folklore musicians in his band, La Provincia: Egidio Cuadrado on accordion, Alfredo "El Negro" Rosado on caja, Eder Polo on guacharaca, and Mayté Montero on the gaita, or Andean flute. Those contributions are balanced by the rock sensibilities of Luis Angel "El Papa" Pastor on bass and of Andres Castro on guitar. Castro, who also does duty as arranger and composer, worked on the concept of the album with Vives for six months before production began. He sees the innovations on Dejame Entrar as organic. "More than fusion, it's like a discovery," he says. "We try to discover the rock that is already part of folklore."

To aid in that discovery, Vives chose a producer not steeped in tradition. For Sebastian Krys, an Argentine raised in Miami, lack of familiarity bred respect. "As a producer you become a student," says the 31-year-old. "These guys are not session musicians. Your job becomes making this person comfortable instead of trying to dictate what they're going to play. They know what they're doing as far as the folkloric stuff." And the rock? "It was funny to see these amazing musicians that couldn't land on the one [count]," laughs Krys. "Every grain in their body was screaming, but when they heard the playback, they said [it sounded] okay."

Krys preserved the folklore aspect of Dejame Entrar by re-creating a live performance. Although most major projects are recorded one element at a time and then stitched together by machine, Krys had the musicians rehearse and record as an ensemble, preserving as much of the live work as possible in the mixing process. He used six different microphones to capture the emotive quality of Vives's voice. "You see a folk band of any kind playing on the street and the sound is immense," he observes. "Then you go to the studio and people put so little money into it. We had the opportunity to really make a document."

For Vives making that document has more to do with feeling than with microphones, mixers, or racial philosophy. "It's the love for the music that must be translated," he argues, looking out over the bay. "It can't be seen as something dead. The intellectuals want to keep everything the same, but the feeling changes. You put everything into making the music live."

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