The Kena is perhaps not the most obvious choice as the lead instrument of a band. As a diatonic keyless Andean flute, its melodic possibilities are somewhat limited by its simple design. But it is this instrument that Mauricio Velasierra has spent the past decade mastering, even producing his own instruments to find the ‘perfect Kena’.
His new album, Rodar, explores a wide and surprising range of soundscapes. Since it is heavily influenced by both the music of Colombia and jazz improvisation, the tunes frequently take unexpected turns. Most notably the closing track ‘Estepa’ almost imperceptibly progresses from a simple playground theme to a fully fledged jazz improv solo.
The pleasing variety on this album is not only due to the influence of genres, but also the instrumentation. Classical and jazz instruments compliment the Paraguyan harp, Sikus pipes and Charango guitar, amongst other instruments. Over all of this, Velasierra plays the Kena chromatically with subtle glissando between the notes. Careful shifting from discord to resolution features throughout and helps to mesh the diatonic flute with the other instruments.
Some of the best moments on Rodar can be found in the hypnotic alto melody of tracks such as ‘Carrilera’, which echoes the smooth bass notes of the flute with string harmonies. Or, in complete contrast, in ‘Hey Simona’, which plays with Colombian rhythms and succeeds in twinning a zesty Kena with clever phrasing and upbeat percussion. Equally, the semi-triumphant ‘Paso 3’ is a gorgeous listen – from the silky smooth opening, the plodding bass underlies the ever increasing entwining of flute and upper strings before returning to a synchronised conclusion. To me, ‘Onomatapeya’ is perhaps the only odd one out in sounding bizarrely Scottish, with a hurdy gurdy that threatens to become bagpipes near the end.
Interestingly, each piece on the album has a story or concept behind it. As a taster, three numbered pieces (Paso 1, 2 and 3) describe the journey of the Andean people, ‘Carrilera’ is a piece about railways through forgotten landscapes, and ‘Llatoco’ depicts the courting of llamas.
I asked Mauricio how he came to choose the seemingly random inspiration of courting llamas as the subject of ‘Llatoco’. He explained, “Llatoco comes from my love and fascination for animals, and marks an area of music that I am developing in some of my new compositions.” In pieces like this “each musician learns the character of a particular animal, translating movement, sounds, character and dimensions. Now llamas are strong animals able to survive almost any temperature and in the Andes they are considered part of the family with the distinction that they provide transport and food. Bass and cello are used respectively as male and female in a sensuous game between this strong noble animals, well suited to the plucking used throughout the piece, the Kenacho flute is simply a witness to the interplay, representing the Andean condor and adding a sense of freedom mixed with danger.”
Following the sense of the unexpected throughout this album, the track ‘Melquiades’ is actually based on a character from the Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel 100 Years of Solitude. A gypsy, Melquiades is forever intrigued by new discoveries and spiritual ideologies. Mauricio told me that “[Melquiades] becomes an immortal voice of wisdom, and to me he becomes a symbol of something that is often lost: the possibility of the surprising magic in life, and also the blurring of lines between life and death, good and bad and generally the layer of judgement that obscures a more pure perception of events.” And so the piece incorporates key changes before each solo and shifts from the steady modal sound to one of unrest. Eventually it breaks down to a bass solo “where the texture changes completely to echoing the magical yellow butterflies in the book.”
Mauricio coaxes an impressive range of music from this simple instrument and there is certainly an undeniable jazz vibe resonating through the Colombian rhythms that helps make each track compelling and enjoyable listening.
Rodar is released worldwide on Lotus Arts Box on 26 September. The Mauricio Velasierra Quintet plays the Forge, Camden, on 24 November 2011.