The Franco-Colombian group has finished its new album in the land of the ancestral currulao tradition on the Pacific coast, combining the electricity of rock music with the freedom of jazz.
On the Pacific coast in Colombia, the currulao is not a dusty folkloric subculture, but a musical heritage that new generations continue to draw on. It has fueled the success of the Herencia de Timbiquí group; its rhythms infiltrate the hip-hop of ChocQuibTown and Explosión Negra; the singer Nidia Góngora has carried it overseas through her collaboration with the British producer Quantic. But its most radical treatment has been by Pixvae, a Franco-Colombian group that works from a studio in Lyon. In 2016, their first traditional-modern album brought together marimba, drums, baritone saxophone, and electric guitar like never before. This kind of heresy demanded to be repeated, and has been in the form of Cali, an album whose title indicates its location.
We can only imagine the faces of Colombians upon seeing visitors from Lyon who display an affinity with the currulao, at the same time as corroding some of its tenants. This initiative was undertaken with the utmost caution, however, as this is a music born from pain. On the Pacific coast, where most of the five million Afro-Colombians are concentrated, the currulao, its ternary rhythm, and its instruments (cununos, bombo drums and the marimba – a cousin of the balafon) espouse the history of slavery. The songs themselves, which revolve around soloists and choruses, typical come from millenarian cults. This probably explains why the currulao has not been subject to the same contemporary rereading as the cumbia, which itself is reworked by many groups from Bogota, from Bomba Estéreo to Systema Solar, as well as by the Meridian Brothers, whose approach is similar to Pixvae’s. Maybe its best to evolve on the fringes of a tradition such as this in order to approach it in the best way.
Pixvae brings together seven musicians on stage and Romain Dugelay takes on the role of artistic director, playing keyboards, and above all, a baritone saxophone that paints his rock accents in a fashion similar to the band Morphine. He also arranged the repertoire, half of which are original compositions (including three by the Colombian Alexandra Charry – who shares lead vocals with Margaux Delatour), while the other half consists of traditional currulao songs. The foundations of each track (with Damien Cluzel’s guitar and Leo Dumont’s drums) were laid at Jafar Studios in Lyon in September. The following month, the band traveled to Cali to superimpose native percussion, marimba, and voices. “We wanted to get to the heart of the matter, and therefore go to Colombia,” states Romain Dugelay, who continues, “I was eager to see this encounter take shape. We didn’t know what to expect, for example when reworking the standard “Canto de lejos,” sung by a French woman and adorned with big saturated guitars. But actually we were very well received. People felt that our approach was based on kindness and respect.”
Even when pushing the currualao into the depths of math-rock or jazz-core, Pixvae retains the key elements of its vocals and rhythmic signatures. “I like this ternary side, as well as the vocal harmonies that chafe – minor, major – and whose impact rivals the power of the drums,” says Romain Dugelay. “These poly-rhythmic possibilities produce a trance-like sensation, like a moving locomotive.” One time, in the Cali studio, he wanted to record a percussion recording backwards, to see how it turned out. Faced with the Colombians’ reaction, he quickly felt that he had gone too far. “They looked at me wide-eyed. I understood that I had touched something about the very identity of this music. And, actually, it didn’t work.” Pixvae’s strength lies precisely in the way it combines culturally-rooted music with the electricity of rock and the freedom of jazz. Each element plays its role precisely, yet fits together naturally. Obviously, nothing is entirely natural, and sophistication is hidden under a guise of clarity. That’s quite a feat.