Gabriel Garzón-Montano's 'Agüita' Is A Rebuke Of Genre's Limitations

Oct 7, 2020
Originally published on October 7, 2020 8:05 am

Combine vibrating urbano bass that conjures classic Daddy Yankee, a silky R&B voice that could make Prince blush and textures reminiscent of John Carpenter's Halloween score, and you've got the latest album from Gabriel Garzón-Montano.

On Agüita, released Oct. 2, the genre-bending multi-instrumentalist takes listeners around the world in less than an hour. But he says the album isn't just a musical vacation: It's also a rebuke of an American culture obsessed with classifying everything.

"You have the Grammys [and] the Latin Grammys. You have, as an American, pop records — and then you have 'world music,' which is literally just saying, like, us and them," the artist says. "It's very standoffish."

Growing up in Brooklyn, this son of Colombian and French immigrants said it took a while before he found that comfort — as a musician and as a person — and that that process informed his art. NPR's David Greene spoke with Garzón-Montano about the cultural education that led to Agüita; hear their conversation at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


David Greene: What impact did your upbringing have on you, and on your art?

Gabriel Garzón-Montano: I think speaking three languages gave my ear something that I can't quite describe to you, but I know that it shows up in my music as sometimes — this, like, phonetic in-between language. It's almost like you have imagined that there's a geography of your brain, and you've put one thing here and one thing there. "Oh, Spanish is on the left side," or whatever — your own little childish map of the things you know or the ways you can be.

The language thing gets into culture, and then into code-switching, because it gets into the perception of what race you are — and all of that informs your identity, right? And then that makes the sounds you produce, I guess, as an artist. You start noticing how being Colombian and French, and being first-generation American, gives you — at first — the stifling feeling that you don't belong anywhere. But then you realize that everybody is like that. And so that's why I'm so excited about this record, because it just celebrates mutt-ness, right? Everybody in America has to mainstream-ify their mestizaje, their blend.

It sounds like you've really come to peace with it. I know in the past you've described being multicultural and feeling like you don't fit in, almost giving you the feeling of being a tourist wherever you were — and that no one really gives the tourist a shot.

I mean, maybe what I was trying to say — without feeling too defeated — was that at that moment I just felt a particular case of the ubiquitous imposter syndrome. So that feeling of eternal cultural tourism, it gangs up on you.

The music video for the title track of the album, "Agüita," you filmed in Colombia. Did you feel like a tourist there, or did you feel at home?

YouTube

No, I've been going there for a while — I went out there and started spending a month at a time just disconnecting. I live in a house from 1910 out there, so it's like, I got cockroaches coming through the front door. [But] yeah, it was actually connecting to Colombia that gave me access to these new feelings, and just discovering what was already there for me.

Do you feel that same sense of connection when you're spending time in the U.S.?

Yeah, absolutely, but it's different, you know? It's with select people. There's not a lot of cultural agreements that bind any two strangers on the street. It's not as probable that's going to be the case as it is down there.

I wanted to ask about your mom, who was a singer and multi-instrumentalist like you. What did you learn from her, when it comes to music?

I think there's so much of her in my connection to music. I sound like her when I sing, in a certain way. She helped me develop my ear a lot. She loved music, played five instruments, [and] I think she passed down a really serious love of music to me. She must have been jamming when I was in the womb.

You have a song, "Moonless," on this record, about her death from cancer in 2006. Why was having that song on here important to you?

It's my first poem about her. I'm 31 years old and I was 17 when she left us. So I've been waiting to write a song that felt like it was mine, you know? There's a real comedy to how some of the most important and traumatic things that mark your time here, when you try to write them down as plainly and as truthfully as possible, they just sound so corny. And I think there's a slow power to not falling into certain trappings of summarizing experiences, you know? Of really saying it your way. When it's missing, it doesn't feel right to me. So, yeah, it's a natural thing to write about for me, but it wasn't for so long. And I think that the song is beautiful for that reason, because I arrived at it patiently. It happened when I could write it.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So what do these John Carpenter-style notes...

(SOUNDBITE OF GABRIEL GARZON-MONTANO SONG, "TOMBS")

GREENE: ...This vibrating urbano beat...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MUNECA")

GABRIEL GARZON-MONTANO: (Singing in Spanish).

GREENE: ...And this silky R&B voice...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WITH A SMILE")

GARZON-MONTANO: (Singing) So in love, something like Mike with a purple glove.

GREENE: ...Have in common? Well, they're actually all products of the same mind, Gabriel Garzon-Montano. His newest album, "Aguita," is this eclectic offering that travels the globe in less than an hour. But he says it's more than a musical vacation. It's also a rebuke of an American culture that he says tries to classify everything.

GARZON-MONTANO: You have the Grammys, the Latin Grammys, then you have pop records, right. And then you have world music, which is literally just saying, like, us and them. It's very standoffish.

GREENE: Gabriel and I caught up recently. He was laid back. I could see it in the Zoom call. He had his feet up, the curtains were drawn in his LA hotel room. He looked totally comfortable. But growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., the son of Colombian and French immigrants says it took a while before he found that comfort as an artist and as a person, and that informed his art.

GARZON-MONTANO: Speaking three languages gave my ear something that I can't quite describe to you. It shows up in my music as - sometimes it's, like, phonetic in-between language. And so then that - the language thing gets into culture, then it gets into code switching because it gets into, like, the perception of what race you are. And then all of that informs your identity, right? And then that makes the sounds you produce, I guess, as an artist.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIRA MY LOOK")

GARZON-MONTANO: (Singing in Spanish).

And yeah, you just start noticing how, yeah, being Colombian and French and how being first-generation American gives you then at first the stifling feeling that you don't belong anywhere, but then you realize that everybody's like that. And so that's why I'm so excited about this record just because it just celebrates muttness - right? - which is - really everybody in America has to mainstreamify (ph) their mestizaje - right? - their blend.

GREENE: Well, it sounds like you've really come to peace with it because I know in the past you've described being multicultural and feeling like you don't fit in, almost giving you the feeling of being a tourist wherever you were and that no one gives a tourist really a shot.

GARZON-MONTANO: Maybe what I was trying to say without feeling too defeated was just that, you know, at that moment, maybe I just felt a particular case of the ubiquitous impostor syndrome, you know? That feeling of that eternal cultural tourism. It gangs up on you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AGUITA")

GARZON-MONTANO: (Singing in Spanish).

GREENE: Gabriel Garzon-Montano looks right at home in this music video for the album's title track, "Aguita." He's shirtless in almost every shot, and he's exuding the confidence of even the most established reggaeton artists, surrounded by wheelie whipping motorcycles in city streets or the lush green leaves of a bamboo forest. He filmed the video in Colombia.

GARZON-MONTANO: It was the only place to do it. I couldn't imagine a place to go in nature that I found more beautiful than the (speaking Spanish), which is literally the bamboo that grows out of water. One of the leaves of which is actually covering me.

GREENE: It's basically all that's covering you.

GARZON-MONTANO: (Laughter) It's the canopy. It's my umbrella.

GREENE: Did you feel like a tourist in Colombia or did you feel at home there?

GARZON-MONTANO: No, I've been going there for a while, you know. Like, I just went out there and started, like, spending a month at a time and just started feeling way more peaceful in general. It was actually just connecting to Colombia that gave me access to these new feelings and these new - just discovering what was already there for me.

GREENE: Do you feel that same sense of connection when you're spending time in the U.S.?

GARZON-MONTANO: Yeah, absolutely, but it's different, you know. It's with select people. There's not a lot of cultural agreements that bind any two strangers on the street. It's not as probable that's going to be the case as it is down there, right?

GREENE: Gabriel's introspection on this album does not end with his identity. He also explores the love and the loss of his mother, who was a singer and a multi-instrumentalist like he is.

GARZON-MONTANO: She helped me develop my ear a lot. I think there's so much of her in my connection to music. And I sound like her when I sing and I really feel like I invoke her when I make music. And she loved music, played five instruments. I think she just passed down, like, a really serious love of music to me. She must have been jamming when I was in the womb, you know. She was, obviously. She was with Philip Glass when he went on tour. And just being around music all the time with her, I think just - I don't think you can separate it from the way I think about it or make it or hear it.

GREENE: You have a song, "Moonless," on this record about her death from cancer in 2006. Why was having that song on here important to you?

GARZON-MONTANO: It's my first poem about her.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOONLESS")

GARZON-MONTANO: (Singing) There's a woman in my sky, 17 when I learned to cry, I don't know, she had to ride, pick a straw, dance for your life.

I'm 31 years old, and I was 17 when she left us. So I've been waiting to write a song that felt like it was mine, you know? It's amazing and there's a real comedy to this, how some of the most important and, like, traumatic things that mark your time here, when you try to write them down as plainly and as truthfully as possible, they just sound so corny. And I think there's, like, a slow power to not falling into certain trappings of summarizing experiences, you know, of really, like, saying it your way, that when it's missing, it doesn't feel right to me. So, yeah, it's just a natural thing to write about for me. But it wasn't for so long. And I think that the song is beautiful for that reason because it was - I arrived at it patiently. You know, it happened when I could write it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOONLESS")

GARZON-MONTANO: (Singing) Trying to hide the ripening tumor, breathing fire, love but a rumor.

GREENE: What would she think of the song if you could play it for her?

GARZON-MONTANO: Oh, she'd be like, it's beautiful. And then I'd be like, yeah, I stole it from Stravinsky and then she'd be like, yeah, I know.

GREENE: (Laughter) Gabriel, it's been a real pleasure talking to you. Best of luck with this album and thanks for all the music you've brought us.

GARZON-MONTANO: Thanks for these joyful moments in this conversation, dude.

GREENE: That's Gabriel Garzon-Montano. His album, "Aguita," is out now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.