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Apri/May 1994

by Richard Thorne

Kantuta: Dancing To Their Rhythms

by Richard Thorne

Kantuta: Dancing To Their Rhythms

Kantuta is a business. Good business. In 1992 the band played a whopping 390 gigs, last year 320, and already this year they estimate they’ve played to over 150,000 people. Their self-titled first album is close to platinum status with over 14,000 copies sold locally, the second, ‘Pacifico’, which came out here in November 1993 is also set for release in Australia, Colombia and Chile. Richard Thorne caught up with band leader Eduardo Diaz and sax player Cameron McKenzie.

Kantuta was formed 11 years ago as a cultural group to help keep alive the musical roots of Auckland’s expanding Latin American population. Since the first gig at the Titirangi Folk Club in ‘83 it has slowly evolved to what it is now – likely the most popular show band in the country.

In the early years they played at 340 benefit concerts, for the likes of Greenpeace and Amnesty International, breaking into the Auckland restaurant scene through the Performance Cafe. A month-long contract in Queenstown launched Kantuta professionally. In 1987 band leader and spokesman Eduardo Diaz set up the legendary El Inca, Auckland’s first Latin American restaurant, where the emphasis is on dancing and partying. El Inca gave Kantuta a residency, and other Latin American artists a venue.

“Instead of us playing everywhere, we could invite everybody to come to our ‘house’, to take the music, take the food, take the dancing – and that’s how it all began.”

Eduardo sold his interest in the restaurant two years ago, but the band still plays there regularly, and it remains a popular venue, often attracting over 500 people on a weekend night. Since 1990, Kantuta have actively taken their music beyond Auckland, changing from a cultural group to a dance band. Lambada hit the headlines about then too, but Eduardo insists that lambada wasn’t the key to the band’s success.

“We were already making people dance, that’s why we had El Inca. Lambada did help, it helped the whole world change its attitude. It’s got a lot of Kiwis interested in dancing. At that time we already had three self-funded albums out, which were selling very well.”

By 1994, though, the lambada tag has become more of a cross, a bone for critics to point at a band who clearly believe they are treated unreasonably by reviewers at large.

“People say, ‘Oh Kantuta, they’re a Lambada band’,” says Cameron McKenzie, the band’s sax player and one of two Kiwi members.

“Lambada’s a rhythm, one of many we play. On both our albums there is not a lambada in sight. Lambada is music from the north of Brazil, made famous in Europe. A lot of the rhythms that we play are Afro-Caribbean influenced, originating from the African slaves. Then with the multi-cultural influence of South America it is what it is now; salsa, the mumba, the merengue, rhumbas, the cha-chas. All these rhythms have particular styles to be danced to, all very close and sensuous.”

Eduardo stabs the table as he complains that “… all of the reviewers don’t know a thing about what they are talking.”

Kantuta are self-managed. Four of the core members make up a limited company who between them organise everything. They have their own sound and lighting equipment and transport – and sponsorship from Kahlua. Through the ‘90s they have travelled a lot, out of town every six weeks. They have toured throughout the country, playing as many small towns as possible. Consciously business-minded, they evaluate each venue and venue-management, for the future benefit of all says Eduardo.

“In South America the artist is treated as an artist. Here, they think they are doing you a favour. By being firm about our expectations we are trying to change that attitude, to increase their respect for artists, which will help every touring musician. I know of so many cases where bands go on tour and come back in the red – everytime we tour we come back with a profit. We try to be very, very professional, and commercial, that’s how we can go on with a big band, employing roadies and the whole thing.”

Any skeptics in the audience with a sense of rhythm are generally won over without too much trouble, either by the band or by the dancers who often accompany them.

“Once you start listening and feeling the rhythms it’s infectious, contagious – it’s not hard to want to dance,” observes Eduardo. And that traditional small town Kiwi shyness doesn’t seem to have held them back around the country.

“For instance, there’s a small community in Christchurch who are teaching Latin dancing, so when we arrive in Christchurch there’s already a big audience dying to practice.

“In Blenheim there’s a huge audience for us, all wanting to dance to our music. We played to 15,000 people at the Blenheim Wine Festival, and the next day with a band called Four On The Floor, we did a family show in a park that attracted 10,000 people!”

Kantuta, he says, play 98% original material, but sometimes do a song or two that are familiar. At the moment it’s Spanish Eyes, in a faster tempo, but people recognise the tune and feel relaxed straight away.

“Our repertoire is designed to please all audiences, our rhythms are a little bit Euro-Latin so we can get the Anglo Saxons involved, and then we have rhythms that make children very excited and rhythms that make old people part of it. That’s why we do so many weddings, because we appeal to all sectors of society, our music’s been designed to please everybody.”

The music maybe, but in recent years Kantuta has seen numerous personnel changes. The present core has been together for four years now, but from the outside the band does seem to have developed something of a revolving door policy. Cameron ex-plains simply that it’s a lot of work being a member of Kantuta.

“We did 390 shows in 1992, that’s because we were often doing double shows. We were one of the first bands to get out and play in record shops around the country, we did 50 in-stores, and set it up for other bands to follow. That takes its toll of people’s social lives and family lives. You can’t be halfhearted in your commitment to the music at that level.”

Eduardo concurs.

“It was a lot of hard work, that’s what it was. Especially after we recorded the first album with EMI, we had to promote it with touring and in-stores. A couple of members of the band didn’t know what to expect after recording an album with a big record company. If you don’t work hard you don’t sell as we did – we sold 15,000 copies of the ‘Kantuta’ album here in NZ.

“No, we have not had conflict. It was hard work, and people wanted to be committed but they hadn’t the time – children, marriage – lots of personal reasons for leaving. To put it bluntly you have to be in or out. It’s got to be strict, you have to be available all the time.”

The band’s contract with EMI is for three albums, with distribution rights throughout the universe. ‘Kantuta’ was released in NZ and Australia.

“We were so excited to do that album and everything came so quick,” says Eduardo. “‘Two weeks time you have to record the album.’ So we just recorded the best original songs that we had. Since that release we’ve talked a lot about the next one. The last album became one of the biggest selling albums in NZ and we’re very proud of that. It’s still selling very well here. We never had a real opportunity to go to Australia and promote that album but we are trying to make that time and space for this year.”

They did go to Australia, appearing on Hey Hey It’s Saturday, but it was only for 10 days in the middle of a tour. They want to take their music there in the same way they have to NZ, and are already claiming “a major success worldwide” because ‘Pacifico’ has been accepted for full release in Colombia, Chile and Australia. The album was designed to sell overseas. The first one they now acknowledge, although colourful and cheerful, was a little bit of “…too many rhythms into one album.”

This one is centred in the Afro-Caribbean rhythms such as salsa, merengue, cha cha, plena, rhumba, bolero.

With seven members on stage, three of whom can take lead vocals, the focus shifts and changes constantly, the musical mix more like a recipe. All the instruments converse with each other, piano, congas, drums, and the horn section answers back.

“There’s formulas to this music,” says Cameron, “and like a mathematical equation it can get complicated.”

So which instruments are important?

“Percussion,” answers Eduardo first. “We are very lucky to have Miguel Fuentes with us at the moment. He’s from Puerto Rico, the land of percussionists! He worked in New York and has played with big names, Grover Washington Jnr, George Benson, Sammy Davis Jr…”

“Most Latin rhythms are based around a clave rhythm, which can be in different time signatures,” Cameron explains. “That’s why we did April Sun In Cuba ‘cos it suited the timing, it fitted clave from end to end. In essence what’s sitting in April Sun is a montuno piano. You need a good pianist [Dutch-born Tonny Lansink] to play those montunos. Montuno is a piano rhythm, a conversation, the essential piano rhythms for Afro-Caribbean music.”

“The bass usually plays the off beat, so you need a good bass player, which we have…” continues Eduardo, “Shane Ball who’s a Kiwi. He’s a very good jazz player, and had a Latin band in Christchurch called Latin Quarter. A lot of bands are using a baby bass, which is like a double bass but smaller and electric.

“Then we need good metals, horn, sax, trumpet. They acentuate and add the melody to all the rhythms which are happening underneath. Then you need a good lead singer – Chico [Hernan Zarate] and good backing vocals. All the singers doing dance routines and playing hand percussion, like cow bells or shakers or maracas, guitars as well. Maracas are an instrument, a very important instrument, and the same with all percussion. Everything has to be done properly.

“In salsa the guitar isn’t important, but it’s needed in rhumbas, like Rafaela from the album. Then the instruments I play, which are the pan flutes and other flutes which are the indigenous influence in our music. What Kantuta does is unique. We have the old, the new, the ancient; influences from NZ, Holland… indigenous, Afro-Caribbean, European – all mixed together.”

Lyrics are mostly written in Spanish, but the mixing of English lyrics within a song is effective and successful – ‘Spanglish’. They term their music ‘Euro/Afro-Caribbean/Indigenous’ – which seems to ignore reference to Latin American – the term most commonly used to describe Kantuta.

“We never use those terms. We do use ‘Pacific-Latino’ a lot.”

“There’s songs in both albums that are about the Pacific region which is where we live,” says Eduardo. “Like Chico’s song Rumba Caribe [Caribbean rhumba] – you never hear of rhumba in the Caribbean, but we mix all the rhythms. If you didn’t know it was Kantuta you’d think it was a band from Polynesia.”

Which raises another gripe for the band – that they get over-looked as a ‘Pacific’ act. With an album called ‘Pacifico’ they found it odd that they weren’t invited to play at Auckland’s recent Pasifika festival event. Cameron points out that geographically South America is on the Pacific, and Eduardo adds that “… a lot of history says that Pacific Islanders and Maoris may have come from the Incas.”

Chico hails from Colombia, and with the Chilean release of the new album, Kantuta will be taking their music back to the home of conga player Edwin Westermeier, as well as of Eduardo and his guitar-playing brother Alvaro. The combined populations of Chile and Colombia offer an enormous music-buying market, though it does seem very much like a ‘coals to Newcastle’ exercise.

They attribute the international interest to the unusual mixture of cultures within the band, including Kiwi producer Stuart Pearce, who was a finalist in the Producers category of the NZ Music Awards for his work on ‘Pacifico’, which was recorded at York St Studios. To date, they’ve done only one single and one video off each album, which again highlights how well the albums have sold. ‘Kantuta’ was TV advertised, as will ‘Pacifico’ be, and the band say they have had very good coverage from shows like Nightline, Midday Show, Sale of the Century, Yahoo, What Now and other. Eduardo says they also get a lot of press.

“They try hard but they don’t know what they are talking about when it comes to Latin rhythms. Silly remarks are quite common. Maybe they should call us up if they don’t understand what we are doing.”

Radio support they say, has been excellent everywhere except in Auckland, their home town.

“But it’s a continuous battle,” says Cameron. “We have to hassle these radio stations – offer them percentage incentives to help promote our shows when on tour.”

The last word goes to Eduardo.

“There’s a lot of work out there if you want it, but the infrastructure of the band has to be running smoothly, you have to be committed. You have to be professional, you have to be 100% at all times – that’s the success of Kantuta. You have to run it as a business. You have to think of tomorrow. We want to get places, we have great plans, and with the new album we are expecting major success.”