Q&A: A Trip Through South America with Mati Zundel

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A lot has been written about Buenos Aires’ Zizek Club and its predominant influence in the international expansion of ñu-cumbia. What few have noted is that even though the club (and the subsequent record label, ZZK) started in the heart of the über-coolness of the cosmopolitan capital city, many of its key players were from smaller towns deep in the provinces. Frikstailers are from La Pampa and Córdoba, Fauna and Super Guachín are from Mendoza, even Chancha Vía Circuito is from some small town out far in the outskirts of the big city.

Mati Zundel, formerly known as Lagartijeando, is from Dolores, a rural town halfway between Buenos Aires and the beach resorts of Mar del Plata. And that’s not just a random detail in his bio, it plays a major role in his characteristic approach to cumbia and other South American folkloric rhythms. He’s an avid backpacker who traveled half a continent in search of mind-expanding experiences and ethno-musical discovery, but the fact that he grew up with a small town mentality, away from the bohemia and snobbism of the big city fellas, becomes evident when listening to his amazing debut LP, Amazónico Gravitante, out now on ZZK/Waxploitation. Aside from the expected electronic experimentation for the eclectic audience, Zundel aims to also please the common everyday folk with something that most others in the ñu-cumbia field haven’t yet dared: actual songs.

How did you get into cumbia production?

I was living in Mexico when I started to get into this electronic cumbia thing. In San Luís Potosí, I discovered Celso Piña and all that music that was a big inspiration for me. In Argentina at that point El Chávez was already out doing things with cumbia with his previous band called Nuca and the Zizek kids were starting to come out. Also back then I remember I was a huge fan of Ramiro Musotto’s album (Civilizacao & Barbarye), and that was when I produced my first track which was a mix between huayno, hip-hop and some kind of dub.

Did you have any musical experience previous to that?

I’ve been playing in local rock bands since I was 14 years old. I was a bassist and I was into hard rock and metal. But because I lived in a small town and there where very few bass players and everybody knows everybody, you know how it is, other bands would always be asking me to come play bass with them, cumbia bands, folklore bands, all kinds of music. I just loved playing so I would play with anybody that invited me. That’s why when later I started experimenting with cumbia and traditional rhythms it was very easy for me. I was never really into cumbia back then, but you couldn’t avoid it because it was everywhere.

That’s really the way the way I remember cumbia too. Regardless if you liked it or not, cumbia was always there.

You can’t escape from it. Even if you don’t like it, you know all the songs. And the same thing happens with folkloric music, because this is a very rural town. Although I didn’t really get deep into folklore until I started traveling to other countries.

What was the motivation behind that trip you mentioned to Mexico?

I went to Mexico fascinated by the books of Castaneda.

So you went looking for the mescalito experience.

Yeah. Looking for shamans.

Neo Bailongo was the title of Zundel’s first EP on ZZK Records under the alias Lagartijeando, a name that he later dropped under the label’s advice because it was almost impossible to pronounce for the non-Spanish speakers of other latitudes, places where his very peculiar brand of psychedelic digital cumbia started to get the attention of DJs and bloggers. But Neo Bailongo was mainly a collection of computer-generated instrumental tracks aimed at the dance floor, something very different from his current song-centric material signed with his birth name. Is almost as if Lagartijeando and Mati Zundel were two different artists, although he insists “in Argentina I’m still Lagartijeando, that’s the name everybody knows me for here.”

How do you explain that change between Neo Bailongo and Amazónico Gravitante?

Neo Bailongo was more electronic. In Buenos Aires that worked okay, but then when I started traveling through Latin America, I was like, let’s see how people respond to it in different places. I went to Bolivia and that’s where I realized it didn’t work. I was DJing and spinning all the ZZK music and people where like “what planet is this from?” So when I started conceiving this album, I had in mind the idea of it being more able to appeal to a wider Latin American market, not only to the big cosmopolitan city dwellers.

That’s why there’re a lot more songs in this album?

Right, there’re more songs. I didn’t sing them, but I wrote some of them, others are collaborations. Songs are always able to reach a wider audience.

In between Neo Bailongo and your debut album, we featured a mixtape of yours where you went deep into the Andean folk sounds, something that many may have thought it was odd, compared to the modern, experimental digital cumbia sounds of your previous work.

After Neo Bailongo I wanted to move to Bolivia but for some twist of fate I ended up living in Ecuador. I was feeling I needed to travel, go different places and learn about the music of these places. I discovered a lot of interesting music and I wanted to do a mixtape with it, even though it had nothing to do with what was going on in the scene, with what ZZK was doing. I felt I needed to put that music out there, because nobody was paying attention to it.

And that was later a heavy influence in this new album.

Exactly. Many songs from Amazónico Gravitante came from there.

One of the most evident examples of this, I think, is in that trippy song “Tarde en la Siesta Cósmica” that’s inspired in an ayahuasca experience. Am I right?

I used the voice of this shaman/doctor lady in Perú. I mean, she’s an actual surgeon, but she’s also a healer. She works in drug rehabilitation with ayahuasca. She got that song directly from an ayahuasca experience, ayahuasca told her exactly the lyrics of the song. A great story. And that song transports you.

Talking about hallucinogenic experiences, tell me about that crazy video for the song “Señor Montecostes.” How did that came about?

There are two videos for that song. The first one I did it myself in Peru. The second one, the one you’re probably referring to, was done by this production team in Chile. I wasn’t involved in the production of it. They only showed me a brief script before they did it and I didn’t understand much of it either, something about cows having a psychedelic trip. I was like sure, go ahead! I don’t thinks there’s any deep secret meaning behind it. But I think they got inspired on a scene about a butcher that I had on the original video.

In Amazónico Gravitante, Zundel plays guitar, bass, charango and other live instrumentation, which he later masterfully combined with his experimental digital collages and synth programming (he’s a graduate recording engineer). The album also includes many guest appearances like the rapper Boogat, from Canada, the singer-songwriter Socio, from Uruguay, the Argentine ragga toaster Miss Bolivia and the Brazilian baile funk singer Marina Gasolina of Bonde do Role, who wasn’t really invited into this project. “I got the acapella from the internet and used it for the track. Later I contacted her and sent her the track and she loved it.”

Did you have to clear a lot of samples to be able to release this album?

Oh yeah, a lot. There were too many samples used without permission. Here in Argentina, nobody cares, you can do whatever you want. But to release the album abroad we had to take care of that. A lot of the samples I had to go back and replace them with live music.

Do you feel the popular perception of cumbia has changed in Argentina throughout the years?

It changed a lot from a sociological standpoint. If you compare how cumbia was regarded in the ‘90s to what it’s now, it’s completely different. Not only is it a lot more accepted in a popular level, it’s also OK for artists of other scenes, like rock, to sing a cumbia. Playing cumbia is not an exclusive privilege of the lower classes anymore.

Back in the ‘90s, especially in Buenos Aires, cumbia was a taboo.

Yeah, it was very common to hear people say “I listen to any kind of music, except cumbia.” Nobody took it seriously. It was considered disposable music to listen to just for fun. Still, there are some remaining taboos: the majority of the music journalist keep ignoring this movement and so do the organizers of big music festivals.

My last question is, how much psychotropic tripping was involved in the recording of this album?

Not much really. I already had it all incorporated by then. I did all my experiences when younger. This is more an album of an old retired man (laughs). No, really, I’m over all that but I did experience peyote and ayahuasca and that changes you forever. There was a lot of tripping involved in this album but in the literal sense, because it’s an album that was conceived and produced while traveling through Latin America.