Saugerties, New York, July 5, 2020 - Cochemea Gastelum

Interview: Q&A with Cochemea – Unearthing the Roots (July 2021)

You don’t often have the opportunity to explore and delve into the cultural roots and family tree of a musician simply by listening to his music.

With Cochemea, we were offered just that. His second album, Baca Sewa, which was released only a few days ago by Daptone Records, is a continuation of his journey of self and ancestry exploration, undertaken two years ago with his solo debut All My Relations.

Cochemea, as well as being a gifted sax player, musical director, composer and ensemble player who performed for 15 years in the glorious soul and R&B band The Dap-Kings supporting the late Sharon Jones, is indeed a California native with Yaqui and Mescalero Apache Indian ancestry and his personal story and the ones of several of his family members are thoroughly narrated and set to music in his songs.

A few weeks ago, we had the pleasure of interviewing him and discovering a bit more about his roots, new album and creative process…

To some extent, it is possible to say that your debut happened two years ago with All My Relations… After 15 years performing with and for other musicians, how was that and what “convinced” you to go solo? 

I’ve been part of a band for a good part of my career, but have also had a personal sound practice as well. All My Relations does feel like my second 1st album, but the idea, in some form or another, had been brewing for a while. After a conversation Gabe (Roth) and I had, while on tour with Sharon Jones, the timing, conditions and family of musicians, all came together.

You’re currently living in New York, but I read that you were born and raised in California (also considering your music formation). How was the journey West to East and how has it shaped your sound?

I had been wanting to move to NYC for some time before I did so. Luckily, I had a dear friend convince me that I had to move there back in 2002, so I did. It shaped my sound immensely! I’m grateful for the scene in San Diego that was happening at the time I was coming up, though. It was very diverse and influenced a lot of my musical tastes. Moving to NYC, however, brought my playing to a whole other level and I met the people who would eventually become my musical family. Playing with Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, Antibalas and many of the other bands in that universe, is where I learned to play in a section and not just as a soloist, which informed my whole process.

The title of your latest album (Baca Sewa) is a pretty clear indication of the pivotal role played by your roots in your music. Not only are they one of your main inspirations, but your songs brim with Native American cultural references and sounds. How crucial and challenging is it to affirm and showcase your origins, considering the divisive and turbulent years which American society is going through?

I think it’s important to remember that so called American society has always been turbulent, divisive and violent. That is part of its history and continues to be. Celebrating my personal origins in my artistic practice is an act of survival and defiance against a long history of erasure, as well as a form of healing for myself and my ancestors.

I also read that you literally “re-discovered” your Native American roots thanks to a family reunion. Can you briefly explain how it was to embrace them?

I wouldn’t say that I “re-discovered” my Native roots, because I’ve always known where I come from. I did, however, reunite with my father’s side of my family after many years of being apart. Some of those cousins are featured on the title track of the new album, Baca Sewa. So, spending time and deepening those relations was a healing journey, which comes full circle on this album.

When did you understand that Native American music could blend so smoothly with jazz, funk and soul? And how does your creative process work?

I was on tour with Archie Shepp some years ago and the drummer, Hamid Drake, introduced me to the music of the late Jim Pepper, a native saxophonist of Cree and Kaw origin. I was so moved by his music and it felt like what I had been wanting to hear all along. His music became the inspiration for ‘Song of Happiness’ and ‘Baca Sewa’ (song), but also, I loved how he blended so many influences together with his Native chants. I also greatly admire the work of Gato Barbieri and his use of Latin indigenous instruments in his music.

I had written and recorded a version of ‘Song of Happiness’ before the All My Relations sessions and when Gabe and I started talking about making a record, I saw how that song and the more percussive pieces we were imagining, could fit together. On All My Relations, we did a lot of group improvisation and I brought in a few compositions. On Baca Sewa, I brought in a lot more composed pieces beforehand, but we did write a couple songs together in the studio. The group, along with Gabe, always arrange the songs collaboratively. This is a very important part of the process.

As it happened with All My Relations, your personal life and the ones of your relatives are the main characters of your new album. How do you feel about this and what prompted you to put yourself “on the line” opening your family “photobook” for everyone willing to listen to it?

There is a vulnerability there that I’m not always entirely comfortable with, but I also feel, as an artist, to put myself on the line opens up a lot of things that might stay closed otherwise, in terms of what the music is saying and my own process. Although the inspirations for a lot of these songs are personal, as we were saying with the All My Relations album, all is related, we are connected to all things, even though we are made to believe we are separate. So, my story doesn’t just belong to me, if it resonates even on a subliminal level, with the listener and the players.

Apart from your own roots, what are your main musical influences and what were you listening to when writing Baca Sewa?

My cousin Anthony wrote the melody for ‘Baca Sewa’ for his son, which later would become our family song. It’s a beautiful melody and I always loved it. He actually came and performed it, along with his son, other members of our family and his singing group on the album. I composed the music for the ‘Song’ part of it, which was influenced greatly by Jim Pepper.

How was it to record an album in such a troubled time and how much has the pandemic affected the process?

We actually recorded it right before the pandemic hit, so that didn’t affect the actual recording. But I do think, depending on the lens you’re looking through and your positionally, times have always been troubled in one way or another. Of course there seems to be a greater awareness of certain things now in the wake of last year’s uprising and the global pandemic, but to label this time as more troubled than another, risks obscuring root causes, in my opinion. It seems we are in a reckoning moment, but when we made All My Relations, it felt that way too in a way. Even though these albums deal with memory and the past, I see them also as direct responses to the present.

Musically speaking, what are the main differences between Baca Sewa and All My Relations? If considering its lyrics, it can be seen as a continuation or as you titled it, a Volume 2… what can we say about its sound?

Musically I would say they are in the same family, but we added some different sonic textures that weren’t on the first one and the band is a bit leaner, in terms of personnel this time around. It’s still mostly the same group of musicians, though, which is crucial. I see it as a continuation of the same sound, but whereas All My Relations, conceptually, took a macro view within the framework of the music and narrative, Baca Sewa is more personal and focused  on certain family stories and histories, which is the foundation of the title track. Also, I think Vol. II may have a bit more of a starker sound and we really focused more on melodic content and development, as well.

You have a pretty strong and long-lasting bond with your label. How is it to be part of a remarkable music family like Daptone and what kind of influence did they have on your sound? 

I am very grateful for the relationship I have with Daptone and I’ve known most of the folks there for many years. Everyone has been extremely supportive of this project and Gabe is an invaluable collaborator and dear friend. The influence has been immense! I definitely absorbed a great deal of music due to playing, recording and touring around with all those different bands, which is like a big family. There is also a shared philosophy of individuals coming together to serve the whole of the music, no matter the style.

Despite your new album’s release being only a few weeks away, have you already thought about other projects for the future

Yes. I’m already thinking about the next album, but also other projects, as well, which may or may not be albums, per se. I’ve been really interested in other mediums that involve image as form, so I’m looking forward to developing those and seeing how they take shape.

How would you introduce your music to someone who has never listened to it?           

I would try to say as little as possible! I’m interested in how music can resonate, and be reflected through, one’s own personal experience.


Photo ©: Jacob Blickenstaff