Interview: Belafonte Sensacional, Happy Songs for City Folk [MEX]

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Mexico City has a tradition of colorful characters telling stories through song. One could make the assumption that Israel “Belafonte” Ramírez is heir to these artists but it’s safe to assume he would reject being placed amongst other legendary urban historians, although he definitely belongs in that pantheon. With his Sensacional gang of merry music makers (who also play in bands like Monocordio and Coyoli) he’s been storming the stages with his celebratory take on folk music that doesn’t rely on cheap jokes or shies away from reality.

We spoke with Belafonte about discovering music thanks to his dad’s porn collection, his muse (Mexico City), and his forthcoming album, Gazapo.

Where do the songs from Gazapo come from?

Playing with the band, really. Belafonte is a person who can play alone or with his band. The record is autobiographical, 100% of what I say in my lyrics really happened. It’s an interpretation of my influences and my relationship with Mexico City, literature, film, music, everything. It’s a summary of my life right now. Also, in each song, there are certain references hidden that I hope the listener one day will pick up. I hope we can share them like a secret between us.

Actually, my next record, which will be called El Gabinete Maravilla, is going to be recorded on my computer with only my guitar and my voice. Both are part of a trilogy I will be releasing on cassette, and I still haven’t decided if [the third volume] is going to be rock urbano and rupestre covers or a live album we recorded at the [Consejo] Tutelar [de Menores]. It would be called En vivo desde el Tribilín [laughs].

Do you have a different approach when you write for yourself and for the band?

I always write the same but I decide which songs I like to play by myself and which to present to the band. It’s a choice made by intuition. When I take a song to the band, I let each person do whatever he or she wants to do with it, to have his or her voice within that song. I guide them, though. I tell them something like, “this song is a kid who goes out of his house running and then he stops at a traffic light and then runs again” [chuckles].

Why release it on tape?

My first approach to music was through that medium, not vinyl. There was a turntable at home but it was my parents’. The first machine I liked was a tape player. I had my Walkman and went everywhere with it. I discovered Rockdrigo on tape, same as Jimi Hendrix, Joe Satriani, and Naftalina. It had to be released on tape. It’s a precious object.

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So, when did you start Belafonte Sensacional?

A couple of friends died and my band broke up. I had these songs that I didn’t share with my bandmates, I didn’t think they were very good. The band wanted to play ROCK!, you know? And my songs were quiet and happy. These friends I lost didn’t know each other but both died the same year, and another friend of mine was diagnosed with leukemia at the same time. Everything pushed me to do something with my songs. I thought, “I don’t need a band to do this,” so I recorded an album in my friends’ honor. Then, things scaled and I decided to make 1,000 copies of the record. I thought I could sell them at my shows. At first, I didn’t even plan to play live. Next thing I know, I have a band behind me, supporting me. I love the power of music, I found support from other people through it. They are saying “we’re here for you, we believe in your songs.”

It’s funny because music has taken over my life in the past year or so. A very meaningful relationship I had ended because it was either this person or music, and recently I quit my job to just do music. People ask me when I will stop doing Belafonte and the answer is that it ends the day I die. I’m dedicating my life to it, everything I got…or maybe one day I’ll get sick of it and get another job.

Something that stands out for me is that you have a direct influence from Mexican music, especially Rodrigo González and Jaime López. Mexican bands usually get most of their inspiration from artists from other countries.

It’s something very natural to me. I will tell you how I discovered rock ‘n’ roll. I already knew about Elvis and The Beatles because everybody gets to listen to them when they are kids. One day, though, I was maybe 11 or 12 years old, I was looking for my dad’s porn collection. You know, the last drawer of the dresser where he kept his VHS tapes, his Playboys, and his Hustlers and, among all these, I found two cassettes, one with Three Souls In My Mind’s greatest hits, the other with Heavy Nopal doing covers of Rockdrigo’s songs. It blew my mind. Afterwards, I spoke with a friend who was really into guitarists and wanted me to get into that stuff, like Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson, the whole G3 thing, and I asked him about the tapes and he told me all about Rodrigo González. Later, I stopped listening to rock urbano and got into sixties rock, The Beatles, The Stones, The Doors, The Grateful Dead, and then I found Bob Dylan and The Velvet Underground and, boom, another door opens for me. And [they’re] both these cathedrals that haven’t crumbled with the advance of time. I mean, The Doors stay with you for like three years or something, same with Creedence, even Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. But VU and Dylan are always there for me.

Going back to rupestre and rock urbano, it’s very Mexican but at the same time, you can find country and bluegrass in there and even trova. I mean, I even had my trova phase. I talk about this with Julio [Maldad Cárdenas], my guitar player, and we say that rock urbano and rupestre are our folk music. We are city folk, urban beings that haven’t assimilated [with] other Mexican musical roots like son or mariachi or norteño. I mean, Juan Cirerol has country and corridos ingrained in him. Rock urbano and rupestre are my troubadours and bards. Living in a city like this forces you to be open to everything. You can walk around [Colonia] Guerrero and pass one house where they can be blasting Metallica, the next one can have Daddy Yankee, the next one salsa, and the one after Beethoven [laughs]. Our lack of identity that comes from living in a city like this makes you build another identity, a pastiche of everything around you.

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You play music that is very festive and happy, though.

I can’t control that! When I started playing I wanted to be like Elliott Smith and make everyone sad, but the opposite happened. I like that I give people joy. I’m just trying to be honest. There are so many bands that are bawling onstage and you can tell they really aren’t into it.

There’s a documentary in the making…

[Promoters/managers] Musiquetta are doing it and I think it’s very weird. They told me, “What if we make a documentary?” I told them, “Who the hell is Belafonte to have a documentary?” So they turned it around and made it about that same question, they want to introduce me to the world through the doc. It’s about me, Gazapo, and cassette culture.

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