A chat with the Latin fusion band with an all-star roster.
If you haven’t heard Montevideo’s Campo yet, you will very, very soon.
The Grammy-nominated crew from Uruguay includes an Academy Award winning composer, a superstar star sound engineer with a roster like The White Stripes and The Shins, and Billboard charting members of the band Bajofondo, the group behind the electro-tango single “Los Tangueros.” Yes, with only their self-titled debut album out, Campo is already destined for stardom. They even won this week’s MTV Iggy Artist of the Week, the highest honor in all of human existence!
We spoke to lead man Juan Campodónico about the new album, Montevideo, the multi-cultural foursome that is Campo, and where their delicious blend of cumbia and hip-hop comes from.
(Interview translated from Spanish)
To be honest, we try to find bands from everywhere, but we haven’t really been able to find much from Uruguay.
There are a lot of bands and musicians in Uruguay — maybe they haven’t gotten a lot of international attention because Uruguay is a tiny city with few inhabitants (3.5 million), and it’s very south of the continent, between Brazil and Argentina — huge countries. Sometimes we are a little isolated, like an island. The language can be another reason why we’re not known in the anglo world. In Campo, our solution has been to sing half in English and half in Spanish. There have always been huge musicians and poets in Uruguay, but Uruguay is a well-kept secret.
What makes Montevideo special for you? What makes it your home?
I have lived in many different countries and cities — 8 years in Mexico city, in Buenos Aires. For 10 years I haven’t stopped moving around the world, producing records and playing with Bajofondo (my other band). Montevideo is a beautiful city with a very European style. It’s a small city, but with a lot of cultural movement, and a lot of personality. At the same time it’s a very chill city. The people walk slow, in ten minutes you arrive wherever you’re going….This place has given me a musical vision. In what place can you get a mix of tango, Brit-pop, cumbia and hiphop? In Montevideo. You get into a taxi and the taxi driver can be listening to Michael Jackson or a tango by Carlos Gardel or a cumbia villera. All of these elements are in the music of Campo….
What music did you listen to growing up?
I started buying records in the 80s. I listened to everything new wave, disco, funk synth-pop, rock, but in my house we were listening to bossa nova, tango, and folk. When I started to make music at the end of the 90s I saw myself highly influenced by hip-hop and techno, but I wanted to apply these ideas to something from the local sound; something that had identity, that would say who we were and where we came from. My music is a mix of new ideas and trends with roots from South American music — more precisely from the Río de la Plata.
We are living in an age of fusion, for sure. Do you find that non-Latin audiences are more open to your music now than they may have been, say, 5 years ago? Of course you charted with “Los Tangueros,” but it seemed like hybrid music was treated differently back then, maybe more like a one-time gimmick.
Yes, people are more open to listen to new things from different parts of the world and integrate culture. I’ve seen this process happening in Europe for many years, and in the US now. Campo is a great example of this sensibility. At once it sounds original and rooted, and it wants to communicate with the rest of the world. It’s international music but made from Uruguay — which is still something exotic.
A few years ago when I was in the US and said I was from Uruguay, people didn’t even know what continent it was on. Today, they know some little things — that we play soccer well (we’ve won two World Cups), that we have the most humble president in the world Pepe Mujica (who donates almost all of his salary, and lives modestly on a farm)….
…The world continues globalizing — you ask for dinner and not know whether to choose Thai or sushi or feijoada. This same thing is happening with music.
Cumbia has been the foundation of so much fusion music lately. What was once just a folk genre is now something cool. What is it about that beat that makes it so good for pop?
Cumbia is a beautiful rhythm. It’s a music that has indigenous, African and European components. It’s played in all of America — from Argentina to the US. It has mutated and been nurtured by everyone who comes across it. For many years in Uruguay and Argentina, cumbia was associated with marginality. The style that we call cumbia villera” is much more aggressive and rude than Colombian cumbia. It’s a return to the music of the poor neighborhood of Montevideo and Buenos Aires, which is also like favela funk in Brazil or hip-hop in the US, when they rose in the ghettos. But like hip-hop, cumbia villera has a beauty that transcends its social standing.
“La Marcha Tropical” has a mixed foundation of cumbia and hip-hop, and one day with Ellen Arkbro — who is a young Swedish singer who doesn’t speak Spanish –started to improvise with cumbia phrases that Vero Loza came up with. In the recording sessions she learned her parts phonetically…Ellen’s voice comes from a school closer to Nordic jazz. It was perfect between the fat hip-hop-based beats and congas and cowbells…It makes you appreciate both sounds from a new perspective.
Watch “La Marcha Tropical”
How did you hook up with the Academy Award-winning sound engineers?
I have worked for a few years with Gustavo Santaolalla in Bajofondo, which is well known in the world for ‘electro-tango.’ Gustavo is one of the most important composers and musicians in Latin America and for awhile a respected musician in Hollywood. He made the soundtracks to Brokeback Mountain, Babel, and recently, On the Road. He helped me produced the Campo album and brought it to Joe Chicarelli, an engineer and producer who has worked with The Strokes, The Shins and The White Stripes. Also on the team is Anibel Kerpel….The ability to have recorded the album in Los Angeles with these talents has resulted in a very special, unique, and personal sound. The best place in the world to record is Los Angeles. There we recorded in an old studio called Sunset Sound, where the Doors recorded, for example. Also, Campo involves my bandmates of Bajofondo as instrumental support on the album.
What do you hope to achieve with the new album?
Being pretentious — I’d like to make a mark on the history of South American music. We also just got word that we were nominated at the Grammys (yes, the American one) in the category of Best Latin Rock, Alternative, Urban album. It’s really shocking to be nominated for such a prestigious award for our first album. It hasn’t even been out a year, and it’s an independent album!
What’s next for CAMPO?
In February we’re going to the Grammys and we intend to win! If you’re reading this and you’re a Grammy voter, listen to Campo and give us a chance! Later in March we’re going to SXSW in Austin, which is an ideal festival for Campo.