Roberto López’s Afro-Colombian Guitar: ‘It is all about the groove….’

Roberto López – photo by Richard Deckers

by Carey Rutherford & Paul Verhaegh

Roberto López was one of the surprises of Calgary’s 2018 Folk Music Festival. Born and raised in Colombia, living in Montreal, his website describes his music style as modern Latin music with hip arrangements. Under Colombian grooves he unabashedly adds jazz, funk and electronic music to the mix.

“I play electric guitar, peddle board and also back vocals since there is not really a singer. We all sing together. The sampler enables me to break the beat. The idea is to create a landscape of the sounds of the street in Colombia. The vendors selling stuff and singing and talking and people talking. It creates the ambiance in which the music lives. I did that for the album and then had to puzzle how to implement that in a live show. We have to do it electronically. I always have been an acoustic musician. We don’t play with computers or anything electronic. You play music with the instruments.”

MUSICAlive! asks him who his favourite artist is. “Joe Arroyo, the salsa player, and a great melody maker. He made albums during 70’s and 80’s.”

But let’s get back to Roberto. We ask about the two drummers and a bassist and him playing guitar and the sampler.

“It is hard to make a living as a musician nowadays, so having a big band is not feasible. But you need a set of three or four drums to reproduce the rhythm correctly. You need a drum because of the raw power of the beat of a drum.

I research how to incorporate electronic elements into the music and find my way. You don’t want a show that is electronically oriented, because it is not electronic music. It is all about the groove…. I had to implement that in a way that we could groove as a band and not be attached to an electronic beat.”

The guitar is not just an acoustic guitar. You add echos and other effects with the guitar. It is almost as if you have taken the guitar as a separate unit from the rest but still are part of it?

“The other instruments do the groove and the guitar has a double function in the band. There is not another player to do the rhythm part, to create the impression of a rhythm part and a melodic part. I was used to having different colours in a band, like having a cornet, a tenorsax or trumpet or trombone, so that you can get different colours by mixing these instruments or using them alone. Here, the only one that can colour the lines is me, with the guitar. The effects that I use create the contrast between the melodic part of one section and another section. Like if there was a keyboard player doing a line. So there is a conversation – but it is me talking to myself. That is how I see it . . . A riff goes into the sampler. The riff keeps going and I play on top of it.”

We note that he brings stuff together that comes from different places.

“Growing up, I listened to so many different sorts of music… and I continu to do so. As a creator, I want to all these colours and groves, lines and melodies of latin music put together and mix it. Find a way of making things that are opposites work together.

I play with different grooves and find the common point. Many of the base lines are inspired by Motown and R&B. I convert them to fit the latin groove, the anticipation of the beat. They are not really latin, nor Motown, but something else. I play a lot with double time or half time to create a rhythmic puzzle. I get the pleasure in creating the unexpected. I really love to surprise people.

My music is Afro-Colombian, not Afro-Cuban. It is close but different. The pattern of the drums is different in Colombia. Latin drumming comes from the oral tradition. All rhythms have a name. Once you know how the pattern works, you can start composing and mixing them with other stuff. I create the patterns and the charts for the musicians and all the base lines.”

Can you tell MUSICAlive! how you experience the audience?

“Every venue is different. How the audience reacts to the music depends on the vibe of the audience and the vibe of the venue. His last festival was the International Jazz Festival of Montreal. A lot more people dancing and clapping than in Calgary. Here (at the Calgary Folk Music Festival) people were more spectators, which is okay, but it is different.”

Criollo Electrik, his fourth and most recent album, brings us the the sounds of the street with the electric guitar. The music is based on traditions of Colombian music. They are all mixed, like a creole. Elektrik with a ‘k’ at the end, by the way, so that it works in both English and French.

Roberto López and his band – photo by Shanti Loiselle

What does this album mean to you?

“Getting to this album is like closing a circle. As a teenager I started playing rock. In Colombia that was counter current with al the folkloric and traditional music going on. I was influenced by all the great British and American bands. Then there was the rocking Spanish movement in Latin America in the nineties. It started in Argentina, Chili and Spain and then spread out to all of Latin America. I was part of that movement. When I came to Canada people said “You play rock! But it sounds latin!” Then I went to jazz school and played only acoustic guitar. Now I am going back to where I started. In this album I merged the rock influence from my youth with what I learned throughout the years about traditional music and mixing it with all the stuff I love about music.”

Upcoming events

The Montreal Arts Council is setting up performances for Roberto López throughout Montreal this year, although exact dates are not yet known.