Nutria NN: Ni de Aqui Ni De Allá

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How will history look at Michelle Bachelet 40 years from now? Who tells the stories today, of those who disappeared during the South American dictatorships of the 70’s and 80’s? How to convey the experience of being an immigrant in the metropolis, in another language and context?

Chilean past, present and future converge in the songs of Brooklyn-based musician Nutria NN, the stage name of Christian Torres-Roje, a Kant and Heidegger buff, music teacher by day, who is part of the small yet very active Chilean artist community in New York (Iván Navarro, Elisita Punto, Cano Rojas, Francisca Benítez and Manuela Viera-Gallo are some of his partners in crime.)

Nutria NN takes the 1970’s South American folk tradition and transplants it to New York. Modern and nostalgic, with songs in English and Spanish and from the perspective of a Latin American in this country, Nutria NN could not exist anywhere but this city.  His self-titled album was released on Iván Navarro’s Huesorecords, a follow-up to debut Roquerio (2002.)

Its melancholic, conceptual, harrowing folk-rock is performed on stage with Nutria on vocals, guitar and harmonica and musicians Pedro Pulido on keyboards, percussions, vocals, David Colado on bombo, percussions, and palmas, Shannon Garland on bass, and in the album, Bart Higgins on the sitar.

Although he usually performs at unconventional spaces such as art galleries, catch Nutria NN this summer at Pete’s Candy Store in Williamsburg and a special outdoor appearance this Tuesday, June 3 at El Museo del Barrio as part of Museum Mile, where the repertoire will be comprised of South American folk classics.

He might be “no-name” but onstage, Nutria is hard to miss: look for the guy with the black curly hair wearing a shirt with big, NN letters in bright reflective tape.

Name: Christian Torres-Roje

Age: 36

Roots: Chilean, Mapuche, Gypsy (on my mom’s side)

Where do you live?: Prospect Heights, Brooklyn

New Yorker since: 1999

Remezcla:Why “nutria” (an otter)? I’m also strangely fascinated by your ubiquitous use of NN because they are my initials.

Nutria NN: The name is very strange due to strange circumstances. My nickname in high school in Chile was Nutria (a ’water rat’ in the south of Chile) because of my short and oily hair. I had started writing some songs in Chile in the mid nineties, but it was in Brooklyn, around year 2002 that I put I bunch of songs together and I called it Nutria.

After a few years I found out that there was another band called Nutria, in Athens, Georgia. I came up with “NN” which means “Name unknown” and I see it as a general reference to all the anonymous people that history forgets. Certainly there is also a reference to the people that ’disappeared’ in the dictatorial regimes in South America, and then the bodies would show up, and the news papers would report them as ’NN’. I just found out there was an Argentinean band in the 80’s named ’Tumbas NN’.

RE: You say New York is a city where everyone dreams (for good or bad), what were you dreaming about when you came here?

NN: I was dreaming of diversity, getting to know different people, cultures, sounds, getting to meet my idols. I was dreaming of high intellectual standards, I was dreaming of urban enlightenment I guess.

RE: What are you dreaming about now?

NN: I am dreaming about what’s going on with my music, writing more and better songs, studying some of the greatest music ever created.

RE: I really like the use of Latin American folk in your music –its haunting. Were you always a fan of this music or did you appreciate it later?

NN: My parents played in an informal folk band in Chile in the early seventies. I remember a tape they made the night before my aunt went to exile in Canada. The songs in that tape kept playing at home for many years; their influence on my music was decisive.

RE:  The song “Tristeza de Lota” sounds like a soundtrack for a Western.

NN: It’s a miner song. It talks about the time Pinochet sent the army to Lota, a miner town in the south, to put down the miners that were protesting for better conditions. It started as a blues, cause I wanted to explore blues music, but then the song ended up as a dub reggae almost, which also interested me a lot as a style. Then I realized that what I was looking for with “Tristeza” is the African root of all rhythmic music.

RE: What about the song “Y si bombardean,” were you here for 9/11?

NN: I wasn’t here, I saw it on TV. I was in Chile for one year, becoming high school philosophy teacher. But my girlfriend was in Brooklyn and her office was in down town Manhattan. She was fine. The whole thing inspired me to talk about a kind of love that is stronger than bombs. I have come to think that this song could be about New York, or about Baghdad, or about Buenos Aires (I remember when the the Malvinas war started Charly Garcia wrote a song named “No bombardeen Buenos Aires.”)

RE: The first track of the album is called “Volver al Futuro,” I love it, how did you write and what is it about?

NN: It is about Michelle Bachelet, president of Chile. It talks about the events in her life, but as if we are looking at them from the future, let’s say year 2037. In politics the same evil things happen from time to time, it is almost like I movie that we have seen before and plays over and over again. It is a song that suggests that time is circular.

RE: You’re a music teacher at La Escuelita in Brooklyn. What do you learn from the kids?

NN: They are a like a compressed sample of human history, not to mention human knowledge. Some of the parents come to my shows and like the new CD, it’s awesome.

RE: What is a “quintissential” chileno like? Do you fill that mold?

NN: I think I do. For me, the quintessential chileno must be a mix between Pablo Neruda, Violeta Parra and Victor Jara. I think, I hope, there is a little bit of these people in me. That’s what I am aiming to do, to be.

RE: Do you feel part of a group of cantautores in Chile such as Gepe and Manuel Garcia?

NN: In general terms, I think we are part of the same folk-inspired sound. I have my theory that the Golden Era of Chilean Arts happened in the 1960’s, with Violeta Parra, Pablo Neruda, Victor Jara and Nicanor Parra actively working and performing, poetry and music, shaping the Chilean identity forever. Manuel Garcia and I have the same age, Gepe is ten years younger and belongs to a different generation. The seventies in Chile is the decade when utopias were assassinated, in cold blood almost. Victor Jara, Salvador Allende and Pablo Neruda died within ten days of each other. In one month we went from having too much, to having nothing.

During the seventies, the cultural consequences I would say, of the military coup were very present. The amputation, the cut, was deep, but most of us had a memory (through music) of what has been before the military coup. More and more it becomes clear to me that what happen in Chile in 1973 was a cultural tragedy. During the eighties, the government wanted to give the impression of Tabula Rasa, and managed to create a sensation of normality that was very toxic, the society was culturally sedated, and then in the nineties, well, everything was almost forgotten. If my songs are political, even though slightly, it is because I was born in the seventies, in Chile.

RE: After all these years, NY must feel like home by now. Then, where does the nostalgia y la musa go? Would you move to another city in a few years to keep yourself “ni de aqui ni de alla” like the Facundo Cabral song you adapted?

NN: I thought about going to live in Santiago and play music for one year, but then I changed my mind. I am comfortable in New York now, I still have to spend some more time, learn some more, live some more, I guess. The only New Yorkers are the people who were born here, so it’s perfect because I will never became a New Yorker nor I am a Santiaguino anymore.

RE: What is a “cosmopolatino” anyway?

NN: A person with Latin/Hispanic heritage who is prepared to think and to talk about anything.

Photos by Mariana Garay

VIDEO: “Flashlight: I’m not from here, I’m not from there” by Nutria NN and Iván Navarro (cover of “No soy de aqui, ni soy de alla” by Facundo Cabral.)