Album Review: Nicola Cruz – Siku [ZZK Records; January 2019]

One of the most iconic and recognisable instruments from South America is probably the siku, a handmade pan-pipe made of bamboo shoots, originating from the Andes and played to this day by its indigenous peoples. Countless variations of the siku exist in South America – each with its own variation in tuning, scale and size – and they all represent the deep tie to the indigenous tradition that still lives in South American culture. As one of the first producers to retrieve its traditional musical heritage and bring it to life again, it’s no surprise that Nicola Cruz named his second full-length album after this traditional instrument.

Siku – out on January 25th on Argentinian label ZZK Records – is a step forward in Cruz’s ongoing exploration of traditional sound that started with his first album Prender El Alma, published in 2015 and immediately acclaimed worldwide as a shape-shifting work of music. We might dare to say that Siku is also a step back: Cruz abandons most of the electronic sound that characterised his previous work to make room for exploration of live instruments, such as analog percussions and, of course, flutes.

‘Hacia Delante’, for example, seems to be intentionally simple and authentic in its composition, built on a hypnotic percussive groove accompanied by flute melodies intertwining with Chato’s voice singing in Spanish.

Percussions are a fundamental element in Cruz’s music, who, as a drummer himself, proves to have a great knowledge of tribal rhythms in ‘Obsidiana’, an intricate composition of multi-layered percussive parts decorated by hints of melodies here and there.

There’s one more thing worth mentioning about the siku: the instrument is often divided into two smaller siku, each of which covers a part of one whole scale. The peculiar conformation of this instrument is at the base of its traditional way of playing in couples. This collaborative way of playing suits as a perfect metaphor for Cruz’s approach to the making of this album, in which he worked with lots of artists from all over the world, starting from the opening track ‘Arka’. Named after one of the two smaller siku used in the couple performance, arka and ira – this track is recorded together with Argentinian musician Esteban Valdivia, who’s also a music researcher, expert of traditional world ethnic flutes and founder of the project Sonidos de America. The hypnotic intro, a multi-layered flute composition, clearly declares Cruz’s intention for this new album, different in sound yet coherent with the one that preceded it.

In ‘Criançada’, Cruz welcomes the influences of samba in his music, pairing it with a soft percussive rhythm and the soothing voice of Brazilian singer and poet Castello Branco, in a suspended, calm composition, reminiscent of artists like Branko of ÌFÉ. A subtle experiment with Brazilian music, this track encompasses the on-the-road approach behind Siku, an album composed mostly while Cruz was on the road touring around the world. In his explorative research of sounds, the Ecuadorean producer has unexpectedly decided to play with the unique sound of the Indian sitar, creating a new unexpected synapsis between completely different worlds. In ‘Siete’, a cadenced rhythm, typical of South America, plays perfectly with the Indian instrument, which in turn weaves magically together with the pan-pipe melodies and a few synth chords, reminiscent of tracks like ‘Colibria’ from his previous album.

Nicola Cruz is undoubtedly a special one. His intuition, the attention to details, and the elegance of his compositions are quite unique in the realm of contemporary music. His new album is a clear continuation of the journey he started with Prender El Alma: he expanded his view outside of his homeland, Ecuador, searching through the sounds of the world and the people he met along the way.

And, although the result is not as striking in form as his previous work – it feels like a few tracks could have been developed a bit further – it’s clear that his purpose is not simply to surprise us with a new, stunning album. Siku reflects Cruz’s own personal journey, the blossoming of his curiosity and the deep vitality of his perception of the world. This time, Nicola Cruz invites us to look around, to listen and, most of all, to discover.