The place is important, but the people are what matters the most
Mountains, dictature, travels, underground and the road to jazz — a conversation with a percussionist from Chile Miguel Giraldi
Tell me about how you began doing music?
I had contact with music since I was very little, actually. We had a bar in the mountains and my father used to play music there, not as a DJ, but he used to have a lot of vinyls. We lived in the regime of dictature then and a lot of music was forbidden, you couldn’t get some recordings, but we had a lot of music from Mexico, most of it was political, how the Americans stole Mexican land, revolutions and so on. Also my mom used to sing all day long, not professionally, but still.
I grew up in a place that was full of nature, close to the river, our nature is more noisy than yours, you know? My father loved birds, he knew how they sang in the mornings, when they wanted «to have a woman», when they «talked» with their «kids», so my father passed this passion on to me as well, this passion for the bird song. Let me tell you this — birds sing amazingly, they have tonality, scales, rhythmical forms, everything! My father has Indian blood in him, and the Indians believe that the nature is creating all the harmonies you need. Jazz belongs to the city.
In Chile, while in dictature, it was so hard to find a classical instrument. We had no access to pianos, violins, to classical music, jazz, nothing. It’s different now, but at that time… The only way to do music was to have folk instruments, so the first instrument I got was a flute my father gave me when I was 15. It was made from bamboo and it was already broken (quena) and I started learning how to play. In the beginning it was completely intuitive, I knew the major scale, but that was it, I didn’t even know how to hold it. But my brother (I have four of them), he was older than me and wiser, he showed me how, so I started with the music of my home, the Andes.
That music normally consisted of flutes and simple rhythms like 3/4 or 4/4. The melodies are very similar to Japanese, mostly pentatonic. So I started playing some melodies, but my neighbors used to throw stones at me! The flute I played was not an easy instrument, you had to place it in your mouth in a specific way, it was hard to blow air through it correctly, so the sound was horrible! My brother was extremely annoyed, but my mom was amazing, gentle, she sent me playing on the streets to gain some peace in the house but at the same time not to discourage me. But the neighbor was less patient than my mother, so he threw stones at me (laughs).
Music was very important to my people, we used folk music to gain independence, so as soon as I could play something decent, I started playing in the busses with my brother and another dude. We played every day for many hours in a row, people gave us money for it and we started to improve.
Music in the Andes is like cooking, you have to know all the ingredients to prepare a dish, so you have to play all instruments, know the basics of this and that. When I was 17 I started learning to play Charango (a small string instrument of the Lute family). We formed a band with flutes, Charango and percussions, and in one song I had to jump from flute to percussion, and I couldn’t keep the rhythm, my brother was angry with me and said I’d never become a percussionist. And that stayed in my mind, you know?
So that’s why you started playing percussions?
Actually my brother helped me a lot in music, he also was the first from the family, who sought formal music education, went to the university, he shared a lot of knowledge with me. Since I grew up in a very oppressive environment, with all the dictature, I had the need to say something with the music. Our folk music is closely connected to Hip Hop, because it’s music for the poor people, and we were poor so our Chilean folk is also hip hop. Anyway, this is how I started to explore music and the world.
I moved to Peru to study Anthropology, but at that time there were a lot of terrorist attacks and a very difficult political situation and it wasn’t allowed for foreign students to work. I thought — man, how am I going to survive? So I started to learn juggling, with fire as well. I met another guy with whom we made a duo and started selling the act. Somewhere on the way I fell in love with Afro Peruvian music. They have beautiful rhythms, and the mentality concerning the poor people, it corresponded to mine, I started going to parties where the music was live, it’s a different sensation — simple place, not a special venue, you see people, hear people, feel their energy, not the same as watching on youtube.
Then I moved to Brazil and started learning percussions. It was a long time ago, in 97… I stayed there for 4 years. It’s a place where you can stay forever. I thought recently, that all my life I was disturbing my neighbours! I got into Brazilian rhythms, not samba though. I do play samba as well, but there are other rhythms in Brazil except for samba! Not long after I joined some projects, started playing underground music, because of the message, you know? I used to be very into political things. That’s how I got closer to music, that was a way for me to tell people what I feel, I couldn’t do it so well with rhythms and the melody, but somehow I found my way through words.
The lyrics are very important in every song. There are a lot of bands that I would have loved if it weren’t for the lyrics, they just suck… As artists, I believe, we have the power to give people some spiritual food through lyrics, to give them hope and strength to stand up and keep going when everything around sucks.
I moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I worked in some arts company with musicians, I have spent 7 years in Buenos Aires and I played a lot with a band there. If compared, the market here in general is very little and even more little for underground music.
I don’t think there is such thing as underground music here…
Probably. I don’t know if you can imagine it but in Latin America the ideology concerning music is pretty much the same as football. When you go to a game of your team, you take a flag with you, dress up in the team’s shirt, people have songs that they sing together… It’s the same with music. In 7 years we got people to follow us, come to our every concert, and I was shocked when I came to Latvia and saw that this doesn’t exist here. At all! I was completely lost. I didn’t have anywhere to play, so i started jamming in jazz.
So you weren’t so into jazz then?
Ah… Now I’m super into it! It’s the music I listen to and the music I enjoy, and how can you not? But when I came to Latvia I was searching for underground music, I even brought my own album with me, that I recorded in Argentina, but I never released it, I saw that it just wouldn’t fit. This underground music you have is so… you have so little of it and it has so little money… In Latin America underground music moves thousands!
Let’s clarify, what do you mean by underground music?
Underground music for me is the kind of music that is never in the media, but the people know it.
Then love came into my life, I came to Latvia and started everything from scratch.
I think that Latvia moves in a slower speed than I’m used to. Still I can’t sometimes understand it, and I’m here for 10 years already.
I started doing music here with Deniss (Pashkevich). He saw me on the street while I was carrying a congo and he called me to his jam session. I didn’t know English at all, I’ve learned it here. I thought — how am I going to do that? What will I play? Deniss called me three times, and after two calls I was ashamed to say no so I agreed. I came to Sound Division, very shy and intimidated, because they had a camera there. This video is even in the Youtube, still! So Deniss opened the doors for me. I started playing with him, he started giving me advices. Then I started playing with other people.
Another person who taught me a lot was Tiago Loei, he taught me to live and play with other people. That’s how I started playing here. I left my flute. Then I met Artjom Sarvi, he’s not only a colleague, but also a friend, I play with him a lot, and also with other people.
I very soon understood that Latvians don’t know how to play with percussions. They think that it’s an ornament, that it’s not very important. You could see it at the concerts, mics are placed incorrectly, bad mics… Somehow I jumped to Latin music, because I know these rhythms, it’s the beats of our hearts. Like LIGO for you (a national midsummer celebration holiday in Latvia). I started to play more, using a lot of knowledge that I never used before.
I never used to listen to music in English, it was a political thing, since I’m from a country of dictature, everything English was bad, if you listen to it, you support America, and so on. But it also robbed me of a lot of beautiful things. For example, when I came here I discovered this amazing Christmas music. Or, for example, the first time I played «Autumn Leaves» in Jurmala it was something special, I thought it was such a beautiful melody. People don’t understand, that I’m from the last country of the world, I don’t know these songs as you do. Here everyone is so into New York, knows things about it, but I knew nothing about it! They talked about Coltrane and Davis as if they knew them, and I couldn’t understand it. But I’m learning, exploring. My way in music is still a work in progress.
What about the audience? Are our people different in that sense?
The thing is that in Latvia most music is not for dancing. I’m not talking about shlager or disco. The people do not participate in music the same way as in Latin America. The people here don’t follow you. They come to your concert once, and that’s it. They say — show me something new and I’ll come. You need to give an amazing show to make them come back. In Latin America if people love your music they will come to your concert ten times in a row, they will sing with you, dance with you. People here are calm, introvertive. But I see that they do like the music, they smile and applaud. They express their likes in another way. I used to miss it, but now I got used to it. The music is food for the soul and people are hungry for it.
I’ve noticed in your concerts that you have a lot of suitcases with instruments, what’s up with that?
I’m constructing them! I have my house full of things — caps, bottles, cans, nuts… If I had more time, I could do so much… I want to pay more attention to the sound, there’s a lot of standard sound, I want something new. There is a lot of sounds that are made from everything around you, people don’t use it, but it can give you something that people won’t hear from other musicians, something unique. It brings a special emotion into the music.
You said your brother told you that you aren’t going to play percussions, like ever. Did you manage to prove him wrong?
Yeah… I remember it was painful to hear… But I know that I started playing percussions because it was close to our heartbeat, to ancient people, to how we really are. And then the flute, horns and percussions — they are present in almost all cultures. And my brother, well, the thing he said was painful, yes, but it didn’t stop me, he helped me a lot in music, I’m here now and I have this group in Facebook for students where I show them different rhythms and all, and I added my brother to this group, so he sees that I’m always growing. When we recorded a track with Artjoms he even sent me money to support my music, he’s very proud.
You don’t have formal musical education, right?
Is it important to learn music in that kind of environment?
Many times I thought about why I didn’t go to college, but the truth is that my life’s path was without a chance to do it. I admire people who have music education, but I also admire those who don’t, like Jaco Pastorius. To be a musician, for Latin Americans, is more like a spiritual thing. The most important thing for a musician is to find himself, if he can do that and formal education helps him, that’s good. But I think that sometimes formal education concentrates more on the perfection of technique and less on the emotional side, sometimes educated musicians are cold, but then what is the point if you can’t touch people? And there are things that you will never learn in school, like the basics of Hip Hop, freestyle. It’s a very difficult and conflicting topic.
I don’t believe I’m a dude who has talent, but I’m a dude who studies a lot. I play every day. I listen to a lot of music, as much as I can. I try to repeat the music I like.
Where is your home right now?
Here. But… I’m a very Latin dude, I miss mountains. It’s difficult to explain to people who never lived in a place like that… Latvia is flat. It’s not bad, but I grew up in a place where you see mountains all the time. Also — superficial friendship. You go to the bar — you talk to the people, you go to the beach — you talk, on the bus stop, standing in line… Here you need to draw your own smile. The people don’t treat each other well. Yes, that doesn’t mean you’re friends, but it makes the day better and it’s good, not that lonely.
You came to Latvia straight from Argentina, so was it like being thrown into the ocean after the puddle?
I came to Europe twice before that, I played in Norway once and in Scotland. But I was at festivals and I was surrounded by Latins, so I didn’t really spend any time with locals. It was totally different when I came here. It’s so different from Buenos Aires…
It’s not really fair to compare Riga to Buenos Aires…
No, I know, but the brain does that all the same, it’s what I lived through and I tried looking for what I got used to here, but it’s so different. The brain lies to you.
The place is important, but the people are more important. I have a girlfriend, my son, that’s good, I’m happy. It’s a privilege to play with talented Latvian musicians who are my friends now. And after all these 10 years I can call myself a Chileton (a mix of Latvian and Chilean).