Interview: Sonido Gallo Negro – Exploring the ‘Sonido Psicodélico’ Depths (May 2018)

Welcome to the mystic depths of Mexican music, where vintage cumbia intertwines itself with psychedelia, electronica, boogaloo and chicha, which sprout up into a visionary and mesmerising sound.

Sonido Gallo Negro, a nine-piece combo from Mexico City, is undoubtedly one of the most successful and imaginative bands to emerge from the up-and-coming psychedelic wave flowing from Latin America, and when it comes to bringing tradition forward, you can hardly spot a more accomplished example.

Mambo Cosmico, their fourth album recently released by Glitterbeat, is an accurate portrayal of their mission: to bring the sonido psicodélico – which characterises 1970s Peruvian cumbia – and chica into the 21st century and set them free.

A few days ago, we had the opportunity to speak with the musicians during their ongoing US tour and delve a bit further into this otherworldly side of Latin and Mexican music.

“Seven years ago, when we started, we were beginners in Latin rhythms. In our first album, we did a tribute to the sound of Peruvian cumbia and other instrumental Latin musicians, like some Ecuadorian and Colombian organists… With Mambo Cosmico, we wanted to portray how we perceive tropical music in Mexico and how that music helped to form the actual society.

The project was formed and developed almost spontaneously; the musicians were already friends and band partners before Sonido Gallo Negro, sharing the same passion for cumbia. It was a cumbia compilation which gave the decisive boost to their adventure. 

“Before SGN, we were already playing together in other instrumental garage bands called Twin Tones, Telekrimen and Los Calambres. We were also already working with Jorge Alderete for the artworks of our albums. We were listening to many kinds of music together, searching for new sounds, until one friend gave us a pirate CD compilation called Cumbias Instrumentales. That CD had no artists nor songs titles on it; no credits at all. That was like our grail! We searched further – investigated – to know more about those tunes and we went on playing them as a hobby until 2011.

By now, we have worked together for a long time, more than 15 years or so – 15 years sharing the same music taste, and, in some way, we also search the same thing in music, that’s the reason why we have such a strong musical and artistic cohesion.” 

After walking down a Sendero Mistico (the title of their debut album), Sonido Gallo Negro are now dancing to a Mambo Cosmico. We asked them to disclose the inspiration behind their imaginative symbolism – which also revives Ancient Egypt references – and ‘otherworldly’ themes.

“We are really like that deep down. We like to investigate rare themes and see more things than there are possible to see with the naked eye.  

Considering our sound, we like to play tropical music, but we like [it] a lot more if we don’t play it in the traditional way. For our latest album, we were influenced by some danzón songs, like ‘Egipto Heroico‘ of a composer from Oaxaca. Even in the ‘Golden Age’ of Mexican cinema there were some films that had their setting in the Middle East and a musical mixture of tropical and Middle Eastern sounds…

“When it comes to the design of our artwork, Jorge transposes our sounds in the graphics that are [most] appropriated to him. Dr Alderete is involved from the beginning to the final result in the creative process, so the artwork of the album is very empathetic of the music.” 

The most recent addition to Sonido Gallo Negro compositions is lyrics; Mambo Cosmico is the first album released by the band with a consistent use of vocal parts. 

“We decided to include more vocal parts because we wanted to use our voice as an additional instrument. We didn’t want to use in the traditional way of singing [the] normal structure song with verse and chorus… In addition, using vocal parts, we could also explain the context of the songs in a better way… If all the tunes are instrumentals, that tends to confuse the listeners and are not easy to remember.”

What are easy to remember are Sonido Gallo Negro’s live shows: they are always unique experiences where music and visuals go side-by-side and end up blowing away the audience.

“The live shows give us plenty of room for improvisation, both musically and visually. We have a basic storyline, but what we do next to it – what we add – it’s all about how we feel in that precise moment.”

It’s also thanks to their live shows that Sonido Gallo Negro have become a well-travelled band. They have performed all over the world, but they are still quintessentially Mexican. For this reason, we asked the musicians what relationship they have with their country and their city’s music scene.

“It’s not easy to write, play and promote the same music in Mexico and abroad at the same time. We know cases when bands had to make one album for the Mexican audience and another one for the rest of the world, including a different track list in them. What we try to do is to let those souls coexisting. We try to play the same music wherever we are.

At the moment, there’s an incredible number of quality bands in Mexico, and in Mexico City in particular. We listen to a lot of them, especially underground ones. We recommend you to listen to The Cavernarios; they are an excellent instrumental band playing rock ’n’ roll and tropical repertoire.”

To inspire their sonido, the musicians also look outside of Mexico’s national borders and stretch their ears to Latin America at large.

“When we were writing Mambo Cosmico, we were listening to some important Latin American composers like Pacho Galan, Perez Prado and Lucho Bermudez Right now [it] is difficult to say what we are listening to. We are rediscovering some old danzón songs and old recordings of tropical music made in Mexico.”

It’s clear that these inspirations have shaped what the combo has become today, which in the words of the musicians is:

“Sonido Gallo Negro is a tropical band with a rock ‘n’ roll spirit wrapped in a dense atmosphere.”