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‘Siku’, the title of Nicola Cruz’s January-released album, neatly symbolises the Ecuadorian producer’s precision. The name of an Andean panpipe Cruz employs in his music, it signals his enthusiasm for analogue production; but as an indigenous term for playing music in pairs or groups, it also denotes harmony. Harmony between instruments, between bandmates, between melody and discord, between theme and subtext, and between musical cultures and folkloric traditions across the globe.
“I remember being in a ceremony a year ago,” Cruz explains to Dummy over Skype, “the girl guiding us, she mentioned ‘siku’; it was one of those revealing moments where you say, ‘that’s it, that’s the album name!’ It tied everything together; siku as this Andean tradition of playing together, being inclusive, it’s what I wanted to capture.”
Reinterpreting indigenous traditions such as siku in a modern musical vernacular has arguably been the locus of Cruz’s career. Despite being geographically dwarfed by its neighbours Colombia and Peru, Ecuador has a remarkable plurality of musical and folkloric traditions, spanning the idiosyncratic tribal mythologies of the Andes mountains and the Amazon rainforest. Cruz’s catalogue can be read as an attempt to explore the mysticism of these worlds through traditional instrumentation, arbitrated by an electronic music through-line. Millennia of culture mediated by Ableton.
“I don’t try to replicate or create my own modern folklore,” Cruz clarifies. “I take inspiration from it and try to apply my own interpretation. Of course, you need to be very respectful of how you use this instrumentation.”
Although Cruz has been releasing music for nearly a decade, including a stint on Nicolas Jaar’s now-defunct label Clown & Sunset (“that was a really rich period for me, I learnt to perform live properly”), his modernising of Ecuadorian folk music manifested most ambitiously on his warmly received 2015 debut album ‘Prender el Alma’. Nearly four years on, his second album ‘Siku’ is pursuing something altogether grander. “It has a wider vision than the last record, which is mainly focused on South America. ‘Siku’ expands its borders to different regions across the world.”
For Cruz, ‘Siku’ was an opportunity to experiment, to record with gifted, pan-international artists and producers pretty much impulsively; and eventually form an album from these disparate recording sessions. “I wanted to collaborate much more. I met a lot of amazing musicians in touring that I wanted to work with, but I was lacking studio time, so I did the recording process on the road, so that’s how it took shape; recording in Lisbon, Mexico, Argentina. I did that for almost two years, then when I thought I had all the material ready I went to the studio with the recordings.”
Cruz was as conscious of respecting the indigenous instruments of foreign countries as he was his own. “The sitar I know nothing of, so this was the point of sharing with someone who has other experiences. The musicians I work with are masters.”
Complementing his exposure to talented musicians and exotic instruments, was the opportunity to engage with other folkloric traditions; and how they intersect with Ecuador’s own. “Their resemblance and difference to the traditions of Ecuador was fascinating. I started making a mental map in my head of these translations, how I can best interpret them respectfully.”
“I want this midpoint, where he’s still human but performs as a machine by my instructions”
The unobtrusive, electronic hum which underpins Cruz’s work was vital in balancing the myriad ideas and sonics on ‘Siku’; but he’s keen to stress the electronic elements are there to harmonise melodies, not to proffer political symbolism. “I did not do it as a statement. Sometimes it’s just for colouration, sometimes a track needs a heavy beat, sometimes it needs much more presence, it’s more for balance. How I see it – this is perverse, but in a good way – is that I programme the people who work with me. My buddy here, Pablo [Vicenzio], records percussion for the album, and I want this midpoint, where he’s still human but performs as a machine by my instructions. After all, electronic music is good programming.”
Outside the album format, Cruz has enjoyed leaning more heavily into the electronic, creating EPs, 12”s and contributing remixes for tracks far more primed for the dancefloor than meditation; without compromising on his evocation of indigenous, with dense 4×4 beats marinated in salsa and bomba textures.
“The album is a longer concept, and I like to develop longer concepts in challenging me in my sound engineer and sonic explorer side. When I work on EPs I try to leave that aside for making danceable stuff. Although it’s relative, isn’t it; what you can dance to, it depends on yourself.”
Cruz is renowned for his thrillingly immersive live sets: “Ableton Live is still the brain of the whole thing; one Octatrack works as a drum machine, and in using small sample beats of each song to make a mash-up at some point. The other track is aligned with a modular system, which I really like nowadays, to throw melodies and arpeggios; or at some point on the songs, stay looped, and I’ll create a new part. I like to use sound effects as well, so I might bring along a reverb pedal and delay pedal for an overall control an APC40.
Vitally for Cruz, he leaves room for improvisation alongside obedience to track chronology and structure. “I’ve realised that some of the songs I play work when really fragmented into many different parts, the moment you play those it does feel like a remix of the song. Other songs really ask themselves to be played with respect to their structure.”
After over two years of putting the ‘Siku’ jigsaw together, it’s bringing the record to life across venues and festivals which Cruz is excited for: “I’m enjoy[ing] ‘Siku’ being spread around, playing live shows of it. That really feels nice after a long album journey, letting it be free.”