Q&A: M.A.K.U. Soundsystem, The Cool New Low Class Band

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It was a beautiful Friday evening a few weeks ago when M.A.K.U. Soundsystem took over the Levitt Pavilion stage in Pasadena, their first performance in L.A. The night before at the Levitt Pavilion in MacArthur Park was plagued by a random summer rainstorm that failed to keep many fans away largely thanks to these NY-based, Colombian funk rockers who pulled out a riveting shows two days in a row, playing many from their first two releases, as well as a few new tracks from their upcoming EP, M.N.D. meaning Music Never Dies.

I sat down with the whole band (Juan Ospina, Camilo Rodriguez, Liliana “Lala” Conde, Felipe “Pipe” Quiroz, Andres Jimenez and new member Isaiah Richardson Jr.) and we spoke about what the M.A.K.U. acronym means and its association with the low class, how society should operate with similar values as cultural centers, and finally, they even gave us a lesson on the various cumbia sytles.

The mixture of Latin sounds, like yours, is really growing popular. Your band is one of many modern groups mixing styles of rock n roll with traditional styles such as cumbia. How large of a role does Afro-Colombian music play in M.A.K.U. Soundsystem?

Ospina: The foundation of [our music] is traditional music from Colombia. That tradition is really a mix of the indigenous people, the indigenous heritage, the African heritage of our country and then the European heritage of our country. Those three cultures meet and it’s that tradition.

Many of us in New York have been playing traditional music for years, and that’s actually how many of us came to meet. Camilo had this idea of M.A.K.U. in the back of his mind, and slowly but surely, we started coming together and…the band started shaping itself.

Some of us have actually gone to Colombia and performed in traditional music festivals. If you’re going to interpret traditional music, there’s a structure that you have to follow…well, you don’t have to but you would like to respect it. With M.A.K.U., we break free from that. It’s not traditional music, it’s M.A.K.U, it’s this vehicle that allows us to be free.

So is M.A.K.U. like a style of music? What exactly is it? I’m familiar with Nukak Makú, the tribe in Colombia. Is it related to that?

Rodriguez: Makú is the name of a group of indigenous people from Colombia. The word Makú actually means low class.

Conde: Or low caste.

Rodriguez: So M.A.K.U. Soundsystem actually means Low Class Soundsystem. Party for the people!


Did you make a conscious decision to mix styles at the beginning or was it something that happened organically over time?

Rodriguez: The sound that we have now is just everybody doing whatever. Right now, we’re finding the place where we all feel comfortable and identify with the music.

Quiroz: Rhythmically, the foundation is always based in the tradition, and we started throwing sounds on top of that. I play the synthesizer which is very far away from the traditional, but yes, once we have that foundation, each one starts putting their own input.

Rodriguez: The music that we listen to is also in there. M.A.K.U. has a lot of influences. A lot of Afrobeat, soul…

Ospina: Reggae, funk, raspa. It’s not really like a style that we can call. Even like the cumbia songs that we have don’t really sound like cumbia.

Rodriguez: We respect cumbia because cumbia is all over the world. We’re playing the roots. Cumbia is like the top of the iceberg because there’s a lot, a whole bunch of rhythms in cumbia. Cumbia is the one that got really famous. There’s a whole bunch of stuff like puya, buyerengue, porro…

Ospina: See, cumbia is just one of the heirs of the traditional music from the Atlantic coast. From the interior of the Atlantic coast, you have tambora, and that in itself has many different things in it.

Quiroz: We try to explore all of those [genres].

Ospina: In many cases, they share the same instruments. You have the alegre, the tambora, the maracón, and some of them don’t. Gaitas are added to it so it’s all part of it.

Jimenez: It’s like an ensemble of instruments that you can make different styles and different rhythms.

Ospina: The approach is not “let’s fuse Afrobeat with this cumbia rhythm.” I respect people who do that. That works for a lot of folks, but in this case, it’s not that plan. We’re trying to express ourselves.

Rodriguez: To me, it’s very interesting because…people are always asking me, “What kind of music do you play?” It’s very hard to explain what music we play, but with the sound of the band, I’ve been discovering that there are some similarities with these different genres.

Ospina: This new album that’s coming up is called M.N.D., it stands for Music Never Dies. I think you’re going to find a M.A.K.U. that is a lot more solid in that album. There is definitely that identity that is more comfortable. We’ve broken the ice within ourselves as to how we communicate with each other musically. In Makumbala, you see a lot of intentions and directions that the band could go.

Jimenez: It’s been a process and the more we do it, the more natural things feel. The shows are evolving too. We’re still finding our sound and ourselves.

Isaiah: One of the things that I’ve liked about M.A.K.U. since I started playing music is that it has its original sound. I played with other bands before that are like cover bands. They’ll play something punk and then something like rock — each one is completely different. They actually sound like different bands. Camilo was talking about music styles, but to me, every song still sounds like M.A.K.U., whether it’s a little bit more of this or that element in this song or this section, it all sounds genuine. [looks at Rodriguez] I think if you played a song that I’ve never heard before, I think I could tell.

Tell me a bit about some of the projects you support on your webpage. Specifically, what is Calles Y Sueños?

Ospina: Calles Y Sueños is a special place, man!

Rodriguez: It’s our second home.

Ospina: It’s operated out of Chicago. It is run by a woman by the name of Cristina Obregon and by Carlos Bueno and then Luis Muñoz. Those are the three sort of main people. We got to Chicago in October of last year, we were gonna play at Old Town, and in terms of accommodations and all that stuff, I gotta say, some places just take care of the fact that you play here, so you get paid and that’s good. But some leave it to the artists or to the musicians to figure out where the hell you’re gonna sleep, that’s how some operate, and that’s fine. And man, these guys came like angels. They offered us beds to stay. We were fed. We didn’t need anything. Their whole thing is about giving and about opening their doors to the community. They opened the doors to their own community. They have all kinds of events happening.

Quiroz: It’s a casa cultural. They have art openings, workshops, etc. It’s all about giving back to the community and supporting different artists and culture. Young people may be second, third-generation, but they still feel a very deep connection to Mexico [the founder is Mexican so the center has a lot of Mexican traditions/work], and they just embrace that culture a lot. I don’t see that with Colombian traditions yet in the States.

Ospina: Calles Y Sueños is a very small model of something that should be larger in terms of how we should operate in society. It’s founded on just straight-up love, the love to give.

Back to your new album, M.N.D. will mark three albums in a little over three years, right?

Ospina: Three albums in three years. That’s part of the mission, man. At the end of the day, you can spend your whole life trying to record the most perfect album if you want to. That’s not what we’re about.

Conde: It’s about the process and documenting the process.

Rodriguez: That’s how we see making an album. It’s just documenting something.

Conde: It’s like if you’re a photographer or painter, you can’t just make your best painting right away.

Ospina: We have 50 Makumbala’s or so left. Once those are sold, that’s it…time to do the next album!

Conde: We have 50 left?

Ospina: Yeah.

Jimenez: I mean, we can press more but…(everyone laughs)

Ospina: But the idea is that you move forward.