Monday, May 25, 2015

Bueno Aires, Beyond Tango: Struggling and Striving in the Music Scene

I first met Grant Dull a few years ago when, on assignment from National Geographic Traveler, part of my job was to consult an expert on local nightlife and spend a night on the town with that person. In the end, for that assignment I went with an Argentine rather than an expat, but there’s no doubting Grant’s commitment to the city’s creative music scene in particular.
The stereotype of Buenos Aires nightlife is, of course, tango, but there’s much more and Grant’s made himself a career of exploring and promoting it through his record label ZZK. In Argentina’s complicated economy, though, musicians often have a hard time of it – something he’s hoping to help remedy through expansion in the near future. What follows is a lightly edited email interview with him.

WB: When did you arrive in Buenos Aires, and where did you come from originally? What brought you to Argentina, and why did you stay?

GD:  I first arrived to Buenos Aires in 1999. Fresh out of college. Wet behind the ears. Itching to see the world. I’m from Texas but studied in California. What brought me essentially was a book, and a song. My Buddhism professor my last semester at the University of San Diego told me I should read Borges. He blew my mind. Then about three months later, while deciding where I was going to start my international adventure, I heard Astor Piazzolla on the radio and that was it. Buenos Aires I was going. Fifteen years later, here I am working in music, arts and culture. So you can also say it’s what’s kept me here: music and culture.

WB: Am I correct that your first professional project was the What’s Up Buenos Aires website? Is that what led you to become a music promoter (if that’s a fair term)?

GD: You are correct. I came back to Buenos Aires in 2004 after teaching English for five years around the world.  I wanted a change and decided to put all my know-how of getting to know a city and being a traveler hunting for the best and most authentic experiences into the website. It was at a time where Buenos Aires was becoming a sort of  “hot spot” for travelers looking for a great city on a budget and WUBA became a great source of information. That is what led me to start being a promoter.  I wanted to translate what we were doing online to real life. So I started getting involved with the scene I was promoting online, throwing parties, producing events, producing content (music, visual) for different events. That's what lead to starting a weekly party Zizek, that inevitably birthed the record label, ZZK.

WB: How would you describe the Buenos Aires music scene? I think when most people hear the word cumbia, the initial impulse is to think of the tropical Caribbean. Is there anything in common between that and cumbia villera?
GD: The Buenos Aires musical scene is as diverse as the city itself. Anything you’re into, you can find. Rock, blues, jazz, electronic, cumbia, folklore, salsa, classical.  Really, it’s everywhere, and a lot of it, and a lot of it’s really good (see the video above). Argentines are very musical and Buenos Aires breeds good artists. Cumbia is a rhythm that was born on the Carribean coasts of Colombia and Panama, with origins from Africa, that mixed with the music from the European settlers and the indigenous people. A real mash-up of the Americas and New World.

Cumbia villera was born out of the slums of Buenos Aires and was a musical, cultural and societal reaction to a country in crisis. The common thread of what we do and cumbia villera is that it tends to get really raw, synthy and psychedelic. But our scene isn’t necessarily directly related to cumbia villera, rather it shares the same platform (Buenos Aires) but in a different socio-economic-cultural context.

WB: Where did the name ZZK come from? How many acts do you have, and what styles do they play? It seems the thrust is electronic dance music, but some performers incorporate strong folkloric elements such as accordion-based chamamé (which bears some resemblance to Tex-Mex conjunto?).

GD: We decided to stop using Slavoj Zizek’s name when we realized we were going to become a global brand.  One thing is to name an underground nightclub after a famous philosopher, another is to start a business. So ZZK is just an acronym of Zizek.
Historically, we’ve produced 15 acts. Their styles are all pretty different but always thread the line of “New Latin American” or “Latin American Digital” meaning they’re all working with Latin American sounds and rhythms, but in a new, contemporary context. Yes, chamamé is featured on the La Yegros album (see video above), malambo on Tremor’s album, coplas on Chancha Via Circuito’s album, huaynos on Mati Zundel’s album. They all tend to experiment with different folkloric rhythms. That’s what makes it so interesting. It’s not your typical electronic dance music. There are roots involved, swaths of earth, traditions, culture! 

WB: What are the best places in Buenos Aires to hear the latest music? Are there any up-and-coming performers who deserve special attention?
GD: Niceto Club, Club Matienzo, Salón Puerreydón, La Trastienda (pictured above), La Oreja Negra. So many little underground spots that are popping up every day.  The newest artist we’re about to present to the world is Nicolá Cruz. He’s based in Quito, Ecuador. Here in Buenos Aires I’d keep an eye out for Barrio Lindo, Dat Garcia, SidiRum, Femina and Sofía Viola.

WB: How do you deal with the challenges of operating a business – music is a business, after all – in such a complex economic environment as Argentina?

GD: By staying on my toes, being creative, working a ton, calling on our friends and fans to help out, being open to change, being flexible to adversity and day-to-day struggles that are commonplace in Argentina, and the music industry. 

WB: What are your plans for the future? I understand you have a crowd-funding project underway.

GD: More music, more everything.  I’ve started working in documentary filmmaking too as a branch of ZZK, our first project is in development. Our crowdfunding project through IndieGoGo is about our future. We launched it about three weeks ago and we have about four weeks to go. We’re calling on our friends and fans to give a little something back to a little, independent operation that has given the world some amazing music, and wants to continue to doing that.

WB: Where can people find ZZK music to buy?

GD: Bandcamp, iTunes, Amazon, Beatport, Spotify. If you’re in a big city with some great music stores you might be able to find them there too, like Amoeba in Berkeley, San Francisco or Hollywood.

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