Interview: Q&A with Nicola Cruz – ‘Innovating Tradition’ (December 2018)

French-born, Ecuador-raised composer Nicola Cruz is one peculiar artist. When his first album Prender El Alma came out in 2015, many were left speechless: his intuition to blend warm, bass-fuelled, downtempo beats with traditional Andean melodies resulted in a new kind of music that spoke straight to the heart.

While touring around the world over the years, Cruz never stopped developing his one-of-a-kind approach to music and went on collecting experiences, collaborations and sounds that have become the foundation of his upcoming album Siku.

Excited about his new release, we reached out to the Ecuadorean producer to discover his thoughts about his musical journey, the new wave of South American electronica and much more.

Tell us about your first contact with music. Who are the artists that made you fall in love with music at first?

Probably my father. He’s not a musician, but he did a great job at having records and instruments scattered around the house and eventually buying me a drum set. Thanks, Dad.

Before developing your signature sound, you used to play and produce techno. What was the turning point that led you to mix electronic music with traditional Andean music?

I still compose faster and slightly more aggressive electronic music. For me, it’s just about being expressive. Electronic music is the medium I choose to express myself and I think I discovered that beautiful blend when I composed ‘Sanación’ in 2010. That really made me take a step back and listen, and question myself.

Prender El Alma has been received enthusiastically from all over the world. Was it something you expected or hoped for? How did you react to that?

To be honest, it felt quite natural. This is what I’ve done all my life, and it came to a point where making an album seemed like the right thing does. Most of those songs were ready in 2012, then I finished the rest in 2014, so I was eager to put that material out, finally.

In the last few years, traditional Latin genres – like cumbia – have been suddenly discovered and embraced outside of the borders of South America. Why do you think people from the rest of the world are now so in love with a kind of music that is so closely tied to a specific geographic area and an ancestral tradition?

Well, first of all, because people deeply feel this kind of music on them, of course; the relation to nature, tradition, respect and love – recognising these things in us. In a way, electronic music has been speaking a universal language for all of us in the last couple of decades and this brought unification when it comes to this particular theme: the roots.

You are not the only artist experimenting with combining electronic music with traditional South American sounds. I have the impression that we’re witnessing a sort of ‘New Latin Wave’, coherent in its intentions yet very varied in its outcomes. Do you think it’s a thing of your generation? Where does this shared interest for music heritage come from? 

I guess this interest comes from the need to heal a troubled world. Different manifestations of art have always reacted to the times we’re living in; to bring conscience, to expose, to rebel, to criticise. Everyone does it in their own way. In my case, I come from a place that holds very ancient knowledge – important to all of us. Keeping this heritage alive is our way to spread and raise awareness. Prender el alma.

Have you ever felt there is a limit to the kind of music you produce?

In the electronic music field, not really.

There are also European producers who are making music that explicitly picks and homages the sounds and rhythms of Latin-American traditions. Although I disagree, some people might call it “cultural appropriation”. What do you think about this matter in the realm of music? 

Well, I wouldn’t say it’s cultural appropriation either, but it’s important to have respect and knowledge for these traditions. I completely understand how [strongly] we can be inspired by the sounds and rhythms of the world – I’ve felt it myself – but I feel it is also important to ‘do the trip’, you know? Know what you are going to talk about, witness it.

I had the chance to see you live in Milan last year and I was struck by the energy of your music; the deep sense of connection I felt with everything around me. What’s your goal when creating a live set? 

My live sets are always different; I keep adding new songs I compose and plan the show differently according to the crowd and the city. That’s why I like to reach a city some days before the show, ideally, and take a walk around. In the Milan showcase, I was playing at a summer party; everyone happy, wearing their colourful t-shirts, why not visit a rather ‘tropical’ side of my music?

How do you relate with an audience? Do you play for them, for yourself or both?

Good question. I’m definitely not a crowd pleaser and never have been, but I try not to be egotistic as well (as far as possible, because we all are). So I’d say first, I try to always keep it interesting for me in terms of improvisation, sound, experiments, etc., therefore this transmits to the crowd. I never play the same version of a song live. What’s the point of wanting to hear a song exactly as it is in the album? Might as well listen to the album at home, comfortable. I take this very seriously, and I’ve got to say, some people get disappointed because I don’t play their favourite song. But for the rest of the crowd, it’s a new adventure every time.

I heard ‘Siete’, your new track that anticipates your upcoming album Siku (which will be released in late January by ZZK Records). It sounds different to your previous works, yet coherent. Would you like to anticipate something about the new album?

As you’ve said it, it’s different, yet coherent: new stories and explorations in Siku. Coming back to the question of the limit, I do not feel any limits when I compose with electronic music, and I’ve fallen in love with so many different cultures and places, and rhythms that I’ve been wanting to explore, and finally being able to scan these, even if briefly, feels so nice.

This is a strongly collaborative album, that’s the whole idea of the ‘Siku’ – an Andean tradition which means ‘playing in pairs’ – it’s a way of performing. It’s risky, and maybe it doesn’t follow the most obvious line, but in the end, my way of crafting sound is what I feel creates this line.