Nicola Cruz on His Evolving ‘Andean Step’ Sound, New Album ‘Siku’
Channeling ancient folk traditions with a modern-day awareness, DJ-producer Nicola Cruz’s latest video for the song “Obsidiana,” directed by Camilo Coba Riofrío, interconnects Hindustani-influenced sounds with stirring electronic flourishes fit for the dancefloor. The song appears in his wind-laden sophomore studio album Siku, released in January via ZZK Records. The 31-year-old producer crafted his his sophomore outing in transit, roving from places like Japan to Portugal to take in folkloric music customs across the globe — meanwhile staying in tune with the divine cosmology of his own forebears in the Andes.
“I feel an essence that ties all of us together,” he tells Rolling Stone over the phone while at home in Ecuador. “It’s really beautiful to find that around the world and connect ancient cables, like when this was all a big continent.”
Born to Ecuadorian parents in Limoges, France, Cruz moved to the capital city of Quito when he was three years old. His curiosity for music kicked in at the age of 12, after his folks gifted him a drum set; then, after years of rigorous practice, Cruz relocated to Mexico in 2007, where he studied audio production for five years, with a focus on techno and sound design. Merging club-friendly sounds with traditional Ecuadorian folk music, the producer pioneered a sound many have described as “Andean step.”
He released a series of EPs between Canada’s globetrotting label, Multi-Culti and Argentina-based label ZZK Records, before he finally issued his debut LP, Prender el Alma, through the latter in 2015. Later that year, the Latin Grammy-winning Uruguayan artist Jorge Drexler called Cruz’s music “the best Latin American sound I’ve heard in a long time.” Their mutual musical admiration led to a collaboration in his 2017 album Salvavidas de Hielo, in which Cruz recorded one of many featured percussive guitars.
When it comes to the cross-cultural exchange on Siku, Cruz casts a wide net: In “Esu Enia,” Portuguese percussionist Márcio Pinto shines flickering melodies from the balafon, a xylophone-type instrument that originated in 12th century West Africa. And on “Voz de las Montañas,” heavenly chants by Colombian-Swedish duo Minük draw links between both Nordic and Andean spiritual practices. “[Siku] is about bringing back this attribution of reconnecting through music,” says Cruz, “and portraying music as something inclusive rather than something of the elite. Everyone is invited to perform.”
A few hours ago [January 21st] there was a total lunar eclipse. Were you able to see it?
I went outside around 11pm, and I was waiting for it. But it was too cloudy here in Quito. Sometimes the red moon spawns the next day, so maybe I’ll see it today.
In your album, you pay homage to the siku, a traditional Andean panpipe. Your bio briefly explains that this instrument represents a sacred duality to Andean peoples. Can you elaborate?
[The siku] is normally played in pairs or more. It’s not about the format [of playing], but rather the sense of personal disconnection or interconnection. More than paying homage to the instrument, it’s about bringing back this attribution of reconnecting through music, and portraying music as something inclusive rather than something of the elite. Everyone is invited to perform. Because of the album’s collaborations, it really makes sense for me to chose this symbolic name. If you hear the album, a lot of it is not necessarily inspired in the Andes. But at the same time, it made all the sense in the world to name the album Siku.
The Andean folk group Altiplano features prominently on Siku. Your new single “Obsidiana” features the majestic sitar of Mauricio Vicencio and percussions by Pablo Vicencio; as does “Siete, ” which featured pan flutes by Julio Vicencio, and ranked in one of our Best 20 Latin Songs last year. What was it like to work with the legendary musical family?
Julio, Pablo, and Mauricio Vicencio, are two brothers and a father. All three are great musicians, a percussionist, a string player, and a wind player. I’ve worked with them for a while now, and it was quite nice to work with the three of them again. They have a nice symbiosis, they’ve been playing for ages. It’s great working with world instruments because they are really masters of them.
I read that you had recorded “Arka” inside a cave, in the Ilaló volcano! Surely it’s been inactive for a long time, right? How much did you find that a space like a cave affected your creativity?
I like my music to be expressive. Working with different music environments are one of those things that get me very inspired. We get interesting reverb, surprises that makes it in the recordings. That’s what I look for in my music, lots of experimentation. Lots of it comes from the recording itself. A setting like a cave, like you mention, really sets you in the mood, especially when you’re recording, and when the musician is performing. But in New York, there are interesting spaces too, like warehouses. My song “Colibria” was recorded in this sort of warehouse, which also puts you in a mood.
To answer your other question, volcanoes are quite common around here. Basically every mountain [in Ecuador] was a volcano once!
Since [2015’s] Prender el Alma, you’ve traveled extensively in places like Glastonbury, Berghain, Dubai and Japan. Do you feel that these travels were a direct influence to your latest material?
Definitely. All this traveling was the main source of inspiration for the album. Getting to know a bunch of different cultures, listening to so many places, trying different [types of] instrumentation, and seeing new ways of approaching music was all very rich for me these three past years. From collaborating with my good friend Márcio Pinto — a percussionist who plays the balafon on the last song, “Esu Enia” — to traveling around Japan and getting to know the island of Hokkaido … Those moments made the album come to life.
While your previous record looked more introspectively to Ecuador, Siku bridges more universal sounds.
Yeah, but that sounds a bit easy. As a musician, there was a big evolution from Prender el Alma up to this point. A lot has changed in me in the way that I perceive music, or the way I feel, but that’s where it gets complex — putting that into an album, that portrays all this process, all this time, all this evolution. I guess that’s more than just trying to become more global.
For millennia, indigenous populations have used ícaros, or ritualistic songs, to connect with a spiritual realm. You’ve been in tune with these sacred customs from your own country in Ecuador. Throughout your travels, you connected with other musicians who are also in tune with their own roots. Did you see more similarities or differences from your own?
I feel there’s a similarity, but of course the way we do things is quite different. Musically speaking, how we move, how we perform, or how we move from one note to the next is different; Or our customs: the colors we choose, or the food we eat. That aside, I feel an essence that ties all of us together. It’s really beautiful to find that around the world and connect ancient cables, like when this was all a big continent. It’s fun to find this relation. For example, if you go to a specific point on the coast of Ecuador called Salango, you find certain boats with a similar shape as the ones used in Polynesia. Then you think about the connection, like someone [from the pre-Columbian era] crossed the Pacific Ocean back then, and influenced this side of the world. Or when you talk about African music in the American continent, slavery was brought to the Americas, and hearing their music transform or evolve here [from its origin]… These are just some examples of how beautiful it is to find connections around the world through culture.
Nicola Cruz 2019 U.S. Tour Dates
May 9th – Miami, FL @ The Ground
May 10th – Queens, NY @ Knockdown Center
May 12th – Mayer, AZ @ FORM Arcosanti
May 15th – Seattle, WA @ Nectar Lounge
May 17th – San Francisco, CA @ Public Works
May 18th – Los Angeles, CA @ Echoplex
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