Interview: Populous – Assembling Musical Tiles (January 2018)

Italian producer Andrea Mangia aka Populous debuted in 2002 with an album titled Quipo. 15 years later he is still making music and finally receiving the attention he deserves both in his native Italy and beyond. His latest album, Azulejos, released last year, has earned him the appreciation not only of an impressive number of new and international fans but also of the musicians that inspired it, artists like Nicola CruzNickodemus or Chancha via Circuito, who played his music in DJ sets across the world.

Ahead of his performance on 16th February at Archspace in Haggerston, London, where he will be supporting Gilles Peterson’s protégées Owiny Sigoma Band, we caught up with him and had a long chat on everything, from music to Portugal.

We have been looking forward to seeing you play in London and finally, it is happening. Is this your first time playing in the British capital?

Yes and no. I actually played in London some years ago, as Girl With A Gun, a folk project of mine and Italian producer Matilde Davoli. I also DJed a couple of times in the past; however, this is my first time performing live as Populous, and also presenting my album Azulejos”.

What can we expect from your show?

It will be an audio-video show, with videos synchronized with the music. I want it to be a performance that one can enjoy listening to, dancing to, and also watching. Expect the sounds of cumbia, moombahton, global bass. I will play the most dance-floor oriented tracks from my latest album Azulejos, plus some productions made specifically for live sets. Perhaps some stuff off my previous album Night Safari too, but definitely not my older music. That is very different from my latest works. I still like them but it feels like they are from another life“.

Indeed, it is true your first works sound different from Azulejos. What did it make you change your musical style?

Due to some personal issues, I put music aside for a while. There is a few years gap between my first works and my last two albums. When I started making music again, after all this time, it felt like a new beginning. I felt I could start from scratch and do whatever I wanted to do. I did not feel compelled to make something in line with what I had previously made.

I studied Musicology at university, so I have always listened to the most disparate music genres, and I have always wanted to try making different kinds of music. These days I am thinking I would like to make a trap record, but also compose contemporary classical music for prepared piano, as well as something more dance-floor oriented in the style of kuduro and/or Afrohouse. I always have too many things on my mind, too many ideas, and sometimes it is hard to pick one and focus on that. I guess one of the flaws of my previous album, Night Safari, was exactly that: there were too many things in it. That is why with Azulejos I tried to focus on one specific style and sound. I forced myself to use the same instruments and synths in all of the tracks in order to make the album more cohesive and homogeneous”.

You recorded Azulejos in Portugal, and the album is heavily inspired by cumbia. Why cumbia and why Portugal then? Did you go to Portugal first and then decided you wanted to make such an album? Or did you want to make such an album and therefore went to Portugal?

I wanted to make such an album and therefore went to Portugal. Cumbia was already the inspiration underlying some of the tracks on Night Safari, but in that album, there was no real direction. When I started working on the new one, I asked myself: what is it that the Italian music scene is lacking? There was no one experimenting with that kind of sound. Apart from Nicolas Jaar, who as a Chilean is of course influenced by its traditional music, but however he does not perfectly represent the scene I am referring to, musicians like Chancha via Circuito or Dengue Dengue Dengue are not really known. I wanted to import this kind of music in Italy and see how Italians would react. And it seems they like it!

Portugal was the best place where to make such an album because it is at a crossroad between Europe, Brasil, and Africa. And the music I wanted to make was exactly the one originating from the coming together of these three cultures. I think Lisbon is musically the most interesting place where to be at the moment, where something brand new is brewing. See what Branko and his label Enchufada are doing, for instance“.

Have you been afraid of being accused of cultural appropriation?

A few months ago I was invited to discuss such topic at the Internazionale Festival in Ferrara, Italy [i.e. an important cultural festival organized every year by Italian magazine Internazionale]. I joined a panel called ‘From world music to global music’ alongside Jace Clayton aka DJ /rupture, American DJ, artist and writer, who was presenting his new book titled Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture. In the book — which by the way is great, I highly recommended it — he touches upon the topic of cultural appropriation. I guess I was invited exactly because my album Azulejos draws also from musical traditions that are not the one I grew up in.

It is, of course, a very delicate and complicated issue. What I can say is that my intention was not to make a traditional South-American album, or stealing those traditions and pretending I invented that sound. I wanted to remix those sounds I love my way and offer something new, my interpretation. I guess anyone can tell by listening to Azulejos that it is an album made by someone white, gay, and European. There are so many other influences coming into play, that are as evident as the South-American one. And by the way, the music of Nicola Cruz or Dengue Dengue Dengue is also heavily influenced by European music“.

So what are the elements that make Azulejos an album by Andrea aka Populous?

The idea behind Azulejos was to make a rhythmic album. However, I cannot escape from composing melodies and composing them in a certain way. I think that is what makes people recognize this album and my previous works as music made by me. There is a magical, dreamy feeling that you can find in all my music — which comes from the influence dream-pop has had on me“.

In which way and how much do you think the environment you are in has an impact on the music you make?

I believe we are strongly influenced by the environment we live in. For instance, I was born and grew up in Salento [i.e. the Southernmost part of the Puglia region in Italy], whose traditional music rotates around the rhythm of the tambourine. Those sounds are not incorporated in my music at all; however, I do think the concept behind pizzica music, the idea of constructing music around rhythm, using rhythm as a starting point, has shaped somehow my way of approaching music-making. I started from the rhythms of cumbia and moombahton to develop something else”.

A few notable musicians make an appearance on Azulejos, such as Rhythm Passport favourite Nina Miranda. How did you end up collaborating with her?

I wanted the sung pieces on the album to have lyrics either in Brazilian Portuguese or Spanish. No English, no Italian. The lyrics in Spanish have been written and sung by Ela Minus. I thought she was a perfect match because Azulejos is a South-American album with a European soul, and she is a South-American with a European soul. Her music is very much akin to the Icelandic pop sound.

As for the piece in Portuguese, a friend of mine suggested me asking Nicola Conte [notable jazz musician hailing from the same region as Populous], who is a friend of Nina, to put me in touch with her. I had met Nicola a few months earlier for the first time but I was not really expecting him to reply. But he did, and so I emailed Nina. I told her the story behind the album, that I was in Lisbon and all of that, and she fell in love with my story. She also loves Lisbon, Portugal, Brasil, and those sounds I was inspired by, therefore she agreed on collaborating straight away!”


And what a track you two made. Looking forward to your live performance!

Photo ©: Carmen Mirotta