When an artist creates his or her sound, it’s most often a sonic representation of their reality. Prender el Alma, Nicola Cruz’s debut album, is nothing short of this. The self-proclaimed Andes step producer’s work is organic and evokes the sound and landscapes of his homeland with a modern electronic twist. Drenched in nostalgia, it’s a beautiful dream into his past, with hints of the future lurking in his present.
I was eager to see Cruz for his second performance in Los Angeles at The Well – a hair salon/clothing store/gallery/concert venue in Downtown Los Angeles. Generally, The Well invites a crowd that’s not predisposed to music from outside of the U.S. Usually, the crowd is part health goth, part Young Lean and SoundCloud rap fans, and 100 percent hipster LA. But tonight would be different – electronic downtempo from Latin America would be taking over the evening. Little People, Yppah, Teen Flirt, and of course Nicola Cruz would be changing the scene.
Cruz’s set began slowly with light percussion, airy Andean flutes, and hushed, attention-grabbing chants. Although Cruz was the only performer onstage, his compositions sounded as if all the instrumentation were being performed live. The lack of computer-based technology created a very raw and intimate setting, where attendees experienced the land, culture, and musical history of Ecuador and the Andes. As his performance progressed and built up layer by layer, I realized that Cruz isn’t just any other producer – he’s inviting you into his life and his personal history.
Although it might seem like his downtempo, modernistic production clashes with the folkloric Andean musical tradition, it instead comes across as a projection of himself. Cruz’s compositions mesh folkloric instrumentals with current technology, to create a sound that represents both worlds – his country’s past and Western music’s present.
Cruz’s background provides a window into his creative process. Since his work is heavily based on environmental sounds, Cruz’s journey to music came much more naturally. At 12 years old, one of his friends was looking to create a band and needed a drummer. Entering the band solely to spend time with his best friend, Cruz convinced his parents to buy him a drum set. He says that “it was one of those subconscious decisions that you take and all of a sudden you’re on this camino towards music.” Oddly enough, he began his music career playing Megadeth covers.
As he continued on his musical path, he found his sound evolving from thrash metal to a more techno-inspired style. There was a specific night when Cruz created a slow, soulful production, and he ended up scoring his big break with Chilean DJ Nicolas Jaar. “That night, I finished the song and sent it straight to him and Clown and Sunset [Jaar’s defunct label] with one phrase in the email saying, ‘You should really hear this.’” The very next day he received a message from Jaar asking him for more music, and eventually, Jaar took him on tour to perform in both New York and LA.
After the label shuttered, Cruz began to create a new sound for himself. He describes it as “Ecuadorian folkloric, mixed with contemporary or electronic music.” This is when he would begin his self-produced and self-recorded debut album Prender el Alma. Finding inspiration from Enrique Males, an Andean artist from Ecuador, he began working with many artists, including his “eternal collaborator” Daniela Baquero (aka Huaira Ukay) and Tanya Sanchez. While Cruz’s music has folkloric roots, he stated that being within nature was crucial to his creativity. Thus his studio in Tumbaco, Ecuador created a “specific state of mind that really inspires me to create these organic textures.”
As I listen to Prender, I find it hard not to imagine the beautiful, green environments that have influenced his work. With “Colibria” as the standout track, he tells me that it’s based on Baños, Ecuador, where Huara once lived. In Baños, there is “an active volcano, so the community is used to having this symbiosis with [it]. So the story of Colibria is really magical; it’s an analogy of Huara being reborn” along with the earth. “Cocha Runa,” the final track on the album, also evokes deep connection with nature. Its lo-fi sound, along with Tanya Sanchez’s mesmerizing voice, resembles a beautiful purification of the earth.
Prender el Alma highlights Cruz’s range as an artist, and brings with it all of the experiences he’s had throughout his life. Cruz’s music provides an introduction to Ecuador; in fact, he’s one of the only artists hailing from Quito who is touring right now. “It’s up to me to show the place in terms of sound,” he says.