Gustavo Santaolalla: An Oscar-winning Sonic Visionary

Musician, producer and award winning composer, Buenos Aires-born Gustavo Santaolalla is probably best described as a global ‘visionary’. Having won two Oscars for his original scores for Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain and Walter Salles’ Babel, among other prestigious awards, he is mostly seen on stage with his Argentinian-Uruguayan ensemble Bajofondo — who return in 2013 with their fourth album Presente

Gustavo Santaolalla spoke to Athinorama magazine and Danai Molocha before an impending live show in Athens, in October 2007, upon the release of the band’s third album Mar Dulce. Largely focusing on the music heritage of Río de la Plata, an estuary between the Argentinian and Uruguayan border, the musician shares his insight on the area’s artistry and sonic wealth — as well as the background of a multifarious career spanning from song-writing to winemaking.
Gustavo Santaolalla
Gustavo Santaolalla/ © Presidencia de la Nación Argentina
From revolutionizing Latin rock in the beginning of your career to, more recently, writing film music, the music spectrum of your career has been pretty colourful. What makes your work with Bajofondo stick out?
I take every project in a very personal, passionate way — they all become your kids, you know.. You love them all. But Bajofondo are a little different from other projects because of the fact that they took me back to playing on stage. I had stopped playing for many years and now I can go beyond just writing music and producing. It is a project very related to the place that I come from, so I would definitely say that Bajofondo, without being better or worse than any other thing that I do, is something really special.
Is that ‘live’ feeling you wanted to convey through your third album Mar Dulce?
Mar Dulce is a very different album, in a way, and yet it still continues with the Bajofondo school, you could say, the Bajofondo aesthetic parameters. It is the result of what’s been happening in the last three-four years... When we did our first record it was more like a live project in which Juan Campodónico and myself got together, we designed this music and invited other producers and musicians to participate. So when we took that record to a live situation we had to put together a band. Very shortly we got together this group of people with whom we had been playing for the last three years and a half. Mar Dulce reflects the new face of Bajofondo, where we have become actually a band that plays live - it has a lot of that immediacy. We recorded it with everybody playing in real time, like the old tango, rock or jazz albums and it definitely reflects what the group is today.

It’s also a record that unites special guests from very different backgrounds. What is the element that unites artists like Elvis Costello, Nelly Furtado and a legend like the late Lágrima Ríos, known as ‘the dame of candombe’?
Bajofondo/ © Schorle/Wiki Commons
A lot of different things. First of all, we were very interested in the experimentation with everything that has to do with the culture of Río de la Plata. The band is split between Argentina and Uruguay and so we were really looking for new ways of expressing the aesthetics of that part of the world. Musically, we like to tap into everything that has to do with our personal story - and this is also why we don’t like being described as ‘tango electronico’, we really don’t feel we just play either tango or electronica. We play music from Río de la Plata today and, honestly, if you really want to do music that represents those urban centers then tango, candombe, milonga are there, they are part of the generic musical map of that part. But for us, so are 40 years of rock in our own language, hip hop and electronica. It’s a mixture of all these things and on the record you also find influences of the glorious days of ‘60s and ‘70s pop music. One of the things that we were interested in was using different vocalists, who will connect through the project. Obviously, Lágrima Ríos is an icon, a tango singer of music from Río de la Plata. Gustavo Cerati is probably one of the biggest rock en español stars, and he also belongs to that part of the world. On the other hand, you have somebody like Nelly Furtado, who has a Portuguese background, she is Latin. She is a dear friend and to us she represents the girl next door — a typical girl that you would find in a suburban area of Buenos Aires.

And how about a veteran rocker like Elvis Costello?
He connects to another thing, something that we would like to call the universal, cosmic tango spirit. We feel there are some performers around the world that have a tango component in what they do. Somebody like Tom Waits is a tanguero — even if he doesn’t know it. Nick Cave, Marianne Faithful, or the Greek actress Irene Papas are tangueros. There is an element that has to do with drama, passion and melancholy that connects these people in that space. It’s what we wanted to explore and what Elvis brought to the project - he has that view and that vibrato that is very typical of tango singers.
Lágrima Ríos passed away while you were making this album…That was very sad.. I did another project called Cafe de los Maestros, which is the gathering of the elder, the wise people of tango between 70 and 95 years old — we are currently finishing a motion picture about it. When I met Lágrima she was in retirement and this brought her back into the limelight. Unfortunately, Mar Dulce turned out to be her last recording. I think people are going to be very happy to hear her voice there. All the collaborations worked out great and everybody made an effort to put their best on the record. We are tremendously grateful for that.

"Nick Cave, Marianne Faithful, or the Greek actress Irene Papas are tangueros. There is an element that has to do with drama, passion and melancholy that connects these people in that space." - Gustavo Santaolalla

What do you think is so special about Río de la Plata music that had to come out here?
It is the same thing that we tried to bring out on Cafe de los Maestros. There are obviously people that are known internationally, like Astor Piazzolla, but there are so many other great artists, and so diverse. There are many ways to interpret tango and milonga and we tried to do a little bit of that. What has happened is that some people got close to the sound of Bajofondo, but then they really go to listen to the real, original tango. I’d love for people to know that there is so much more to what usually is known as tango.
I am curious to know how can a person combine such danceable tango with the moving, often heartbreaking music you write for films?
I don’t know! I do many things apart from that anyway.. I have a book publishing company, several music publishing companies, I am producing my first movie - Cafe de los Maestros will premier in Berlin in February, it’s a fabulous movie. I like it all and I feel complete when I do a little bit of everything.

It won’t come as a surprise, then, if we see you involved in a few more projects in the near future?
On The Road soundtrack
On The Road soundtrack/ © Decca (UMO)
I am producing a new album with Colombian pop-rock artist Juanes, which is fantastic and is coming out right now, a new record for Mexican band Café Tacvba, I just published two new books with my book publishing company, I am working on a film by the Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung - he won the Golden Lion at the 1995 Venice film festival with Cyclo — and I am starting to work on music for On the Road, the movie based on Jack Kerouac’s book. We were supposed to start filming this year but we moved it for the beginning of next year, it’s definitely happening. I also have a vineyard and I am currently producing my first wine — a lot of projects indeed!

By Danai Molocha

The interview was published on the Greek weekly listing magazine Athinorama, 25/10/2007. Re-published on The Culture Trip, 04/10/2013.

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