Zarabatana

It’s hard not to mention Zarabatana and free jazz in one sentence. But this Portuguese trio of drums, upright bass and trumpet hi-jack the heritage of Art Ensemble of Chicago from the institution, and bring it back to where it belongs: in a urban complex of fast moving bodies, wild exotic night life and tranquilized woods. Quick, some heavy loaded questions with Bernardo Álvares, the bass player of the trio.
19 February 2018 | AG 11
Niels Latomme

When I discovered the Fogo na Carne Tape a couple of years ago, Zarabatana seemed to me a bit isolated from the Portugese improv/jazz scene. There is the scene with Pedro Sousa, David Maranha, Gabriel Ferrandini and likes. Is this a correct impression?

Bernardo Álvares

I wouldn’t say we are isolated from the Lisboa improv/jazz scene as I wouldn’t say that scene is isolated from all other scenes in Lisboa, from noise to electronic or African traditional music, or even contemporary dance and visual arts. Lisboa is not that big and everyone knows each other and follows what the others are doing. As for the names you dropped, they’re doing an amazing and very coherent job in what I believe to be a genuine jazz tradition but connected with all different things happening nowadays. A vivid scene, as you nicely put it, is an open scene and even if we don’t have the same aesthetic I strongly believe we’re part of the same thing. For instance, there is a movie Barulho, Eclipse, made about a concert of RAHU (the three musicians you mention with Júlia Reis and Alex Zhang Hungtai) where the director Ico Costa mixes that concert with footage from others such as Zarabatana.

NL

You have a distinct sound, more related to the work of AACM than to current improv and jazz music, it’s more open and free. How important is the AACM heritage for you, is it a direct influence; or is it a coincidence that you are in this lineage of free jazz? (I ask this, because as a young kid I played in a band, and everyone said we sounded like sonic youth; while we strangely never listened to them).

BA

The whole Afro-American movement in the 60s is one the most inspiring moments in history. A huge group of people understood the culture that was imposed to them was a lie and searched for something they could relate. And in that everything-is-possible awareness there were a lot of African and oriental wisdom used to counterbalance the western hegemony. In my opinion the works of the AACM represent beautifully that melting pot and taught me that, contrary to what I’ve learned in western classical music school, the music can follow you, you don’t need to be rushing to catching up the composition or even the groove. I don’t want to be esoteric but there is a comfort where doubt can cohabit with self-assurance beyond schmuckness. And that is the ring where I like to reflect on improvisation/composition and play Zarabatana concerts.

NL

Portugal has a very vivid and dynamic underground scene, but here in Belgium we don’t have a clear view on it. Can you tell me about it? 

BA

Even though some of the most interesting music in Portugal is been made in Porto, it’s difficult to talk of a Portuguese scene because there are not many exchanges between these cities (although it’s growing). Sticking to Lisboa scene, I’d say it happens due to our size and difficulties. People really need to work together in order to overcome those obstacles. We have great improvisers that were active in the 80s and the 90s, when there was money for musicians, but maybe because of that there was a huge competition between musicians and everyone lost with that. Now everyone feels it’s their mission to help out the others. I’ve organized concerts, wrote reviews for a jazz magazine, worked as a sound technician and lent my doublebass and other material for free because I’ve felt it was important to. Voluntarism might also be a problem, but that’s a conversation for some other time.

NL

Why did you record the most recent album in the woods?

BA

We wanted to capture the sound of old field recordings that are part of some of the music that influenced us. And since it’s expensive to pay for a studio in a lousy city, this was an affordable solution we found. A review of our album wrote something like the sound we managed to get was a punch in the stomach of all those who spend a lot of time and money in studios. Props to Fernando Fadigas and Daniel Antunes Pinheiro who recorded and mixed everything.

NL    

A zarabatana is an indian weapon from Central-America; a so-called blowgun to shoot poisoned arrows. Why did you choose this name for a band? Are you poisonous? And is Indian/non-western music an influence?

BA

I’d say that everything that matters is poisonous and wants to corrode and spread until ultimately destroy the world. And yes, non-western music is totally an influence. Our method might be improvisation but doesn’t the same happens with traditional music? There was a period where our rehearsals were of us showing to each other musics and rhythms of a region or country and trying to capture that feeling playing after. Of course we’re aware we could be doing some cultural appropriation but we are the internet generation, we grew up on stealing everything from everyone. And can it still appropriation if you appropriate everything?

NL

What can we expect for your concert on the festival?

BA

Blood of slain livestock spilled on your face. Or maybe some other forms of voodoo.

NL

And for the KRAAK audience, who might not know you. Who is Zarabatana, where does the band come from?

BA

Me and Yaw met in the 2012 edition of MIA, an annual encounter for improv musicians in a small village ~100km north of Lisboa. It was the first time either of us went to this encounter and for me it was a life changing experience. When I studied a semester in a jazz school I felt I learned a lot more than those previous five years learning classical music. And in my first weekend of MIA I’ve learned a lot more than all my music studies combined. It was mind blowing to meet a whole community of amazing musicians playing so freely. And even thou me and Yaw already knew about the existence of one another through mutual friends that told us we should definitely meet, that MIA encounter was the context. Back in Lisboa we started playing together and soon enough Yaw brought Carlos. We since went through different aesthetics, starting more jazzy and gradually becoming more psychedelic or minimal. Our first concert was as a quartet with our friend Gil Delindro, a sound artist now living in Berlin and we also played once with the percussionist Jorge de Carvalho but we’ve not made many partnerships with others yet. But that is about to change since our near future plans are to keep on developing a collaborative show with the dancers Elizabete Francisca and Flora Detraz and to record an album with guitarist Norberto Lobo.