Heritage, music, and creative freedom
Here follows an interview with Alejandro Fernandez, an Aymara descendant and contributor to the Alternative Worlds Andean collection. Alejandro creates improvised and progressive psychedelic folk music and is a second generation refugee of the Chilean Pinochet dictatorship.
What inspired you to become a musician? What inspired you to become a part of AltSalt and submit?
I think partly my musical inspiration I know now, came from my father, who when a university student went on a tour playing guitar across the north of chile in a little bus in the 60s — and he just dabbled in guitar and could play a bit like Victor Jara, or Peña de los Parra — guitar based singer songwriting, mostly recuperating traditional tunes. I think it was this experience which made our house musical, and made my parents jump at the opportunity to have myself and my older brother join a children's Chilean exile music group, when we lived as exiles in 1970s Glasgow within a tiny Chilean minority. We played on the radio, for Amnesty International, at the city council halls, and were a regular act at Chilean solidarity events. My parents always encouraged that creative side, spending a lot of extra money on piano, guitar, musical theory lessons until I graduated from high school and studies took over.
When I saw the call to submit to AltSalt I felt right at home and had no idea what to submit but I really am grateful for you wanting to dedicate a blog to my musical work!
Track: Arpeggio, Then Rock
How does your relationship to the Andes figure into your work?
I always knew I was Aymara, that we were not just Chilean but had another thing, that was our grandma's — and that one side of the family had come down from the Chilean precordillera, from towns and villages at 3 or 4 thousand metres high, and before maybe we had come from the mines near Oruro.
I always treasured that aspect but thought it something almost lost, and only recently looked again for that Aymara identity as others rediscovered it, surprised by seeing so many Mapuche and Aymara flags at the chilean Estallido protests, and even more worldwide when after George Floyd's death there was such an awakening of decolonial thought, and I started seeing young people doing Zoom talks, or with social network presences telling about how they had gone back to their villages, and got their grandmas to teach them their language and culture again, in some cases then resulting in whole families regaining their lost language, which people like my Dad still wish he and his generation had never abandoned due to bullying and racism from "Chilenisation".
But it was only recently that I heard a recording of my other granddad, from the more Spanish, Catholic side of the family that is based around Santiago. That side of my family had been broken by various feuds between uncles and cousins, and I wanted to share something with the cousins I was still in touch with, and so I asked my parents for recordings of him. In the cassette recording from the early 90s he mentions the Camanchaca, the fog that crosses the north, and talks of having always been from La Serena.
I asked my parents about it, and my dad sent back a family tree done by a distant relative on myheritage.org which traces that line all the way back to the conquistador Francisco de Aguirre, exterminator of the Diaguita tribe. Not only did he wage war on people both sides of the Andes, but he also fathered huge amounts of children by raping indigenous women, for which he was taken to trial by the spanish virreinato. He even took part in the siege and looting of Rome and the vatican before taking off down south. My dream is to go back to Chile and travel north from Santiago to uncover more of those secrets that for many are no secret: https://www.amren.com/news/2019/11/conquistadors-tumble-as-indigenous-chileans-tear-down-statues/
We've read your belief about music wanting to be free, and are struck by the range of expression in your music — from classical quartet music to more experimental electronic, glitchy music with poetry on top. Can you tell us more about your creative process?
About musical freedom, I feel my journey has been similar to the decolonial one. I started out playing in rock bands led by a teacher or band leader, or where a composer wrote all the parts, sometimes in a positive way because there was a lot to learn, but also I felt that musical creation had to be colletively based, and loved the concept of art collectives and of creating work without some boss or replicating these top down structures where even the piece of paper is the winner. This led to musical improvisation, experimental improv and psychedelic music as a way to say no to all that, and explore instead the beauty of spontaneous creation, and of musical events where there is no centre or stage, where everyone can be both listener and creator.
I've always struggled to access good recording kit and avoided closed source proprietary software for making music, so I used Audacity, featurephone midi tracker apps, old tape based 4 track mixers, minidiscs, and nowadays bandlab - which is like an all in one version of all those other things, with a microphone and link audio mini bought from bandlab itself that plugs into my tablet and gives good enough recording quality to multitrack. Bandlab really helped me through quarantine as I couldn't meet and play with other people but now I'm hoping to start a band or group of some kind and play together again with others.
Also I wanted to add that although "music wants to be free" is a quote from a futurist — maybe Luigi Russolo about industrial noise and experimental music vs written/composed — that Andean music, when played in the Andes, usually is very strictly matched to the season and time of day, similarly to how Indian classical ragas also are written for specific seasons or settings, but in the Andes they also reflect shared work.
So although it should be free from prescribed order or a single master, it can be also be something done collectively by all and as an offering or part of shared work, an exchange or reciprocity with the season and the communal work required for that time. So maybe on my journey I broke free from music composed by a "leader" to be executed in some kind of hierarchy, to complete freedom of improvised experimental sound, then got more into the rules of traditional forms of melodic improvisation — like Indian or Scottish folk music but now I feel it would be so good for it to be an offering to accompany communal work as we did and some still do in the times of Ayni and Minga, maybe the kind of work we have to do in renewing and regenerating the earth after these times of colonisation and the dominance of extractive systems.
Why do you think it's important for everyone to realize they are musicians or artists and to create?
I think social networks, and some music apps and software always present this image of perfection, and are kind of too efficient at the wrong things, creating this idea that you have to be somehow different from or above the rest in order to make music. I think music can be used in many ways, to show grandiosity and how to stick to rules, but also like an expression of madness, of strangeness, like when everyone "dances as if no-one is looking", just expressing their own selves. I think it's therapeutic to let yourself go sometimes and express these things, and I would love to help people reach that inner decolonised person they have inside, that doesn't stick always to rules, but is a little bit wild and free.
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