El Curandero is Minneapolis based producer/songwriter/instrumentalist Rico Simon Mendez' newest EP off of his imprint Cultura Love. I loathe saying things like that because this album is so much more than just the hotest new joint that just dropped. El Curandero is timeless, spiritual music that transcends so many cultural/genre constraints. Here are some things rather significant things that this interview + songs will make you question that will make you say "hmmm":
Does listening to too many artificial sounds have a negative impact on your psyche?
Does the camaraderie in musicians playing together actually give added benefit to the physical body?
What do you need to release your work and not hoard it?
Rico's play-by-play of each track will answer some of these questions.
How did this EP happen?
This EP is kind of an awakening for myself again. It happened because I was re-acquainted with the Aztec dancers that I used to practice with before we moved to New York several years ago.
Tell me about Aztec dancers.
The Aztecs and the Mayans have traditional dances in their cultures. A lot of it is ceremonious.
One of the Aztec dancers was curating a show at the gallery, Dimensions of Indigenous. There was one day at that location to submit something. I didn't think I would ever put these songs out, but decided to go for it. I got a listening station; a rocking chair that I put gods eyes around. I put these songs on a cd, placed some headphones up, and put up instructions that said "Please sit down. Wrap this blanket around you. Rock in the chair, and listen to my music." I made some cds to sell there, then I said to myself "what the fuck? Put out an album!" It was such a blessing. Those songs would probably still be in my hard drive if that exhibit didn't happen. The whole thing took me 3 days to put together.
Habla Indigena: Track 1
The first song is just all natural indigenous instruments from Mexico. I used to go to Mexico every year with my family, and would always see the natives play their music with clay flutes, and other instruments made of clay and skin. It was fucking dope and beautiful and would always match the environment. There was always something very healing and spiritual about that.
You're an instrumentalist, but also a producer. How did you first get into the more technical aspects of music?
I started out with a 4-track, a drum machine and cassette tape to song write and record my ideas. I got into DJing in ‘99, when this club opened up and they hired me as a DJ and a promoter. The club was based off of multimedia and I didn't even know how to use an email back then. The owner wanted me to report to him through the email, so he gave me a computer and showed me how to work it, and he ended up being my mentor as far as digital production goes.
How on this album do you negotiate between the organic sounds and the technical aspects just mentioned?
For the EP, the digital aspect of working on it was me trying to create soundscapes with lots of feeling to it, but would also match with the melody. That was my attempt to bridge those two worlds and create a balance. It seems like today, people don't really have the patience to go and learn an instrument. They want to go get a computer and have the whole world to them with sounds right there in front of them. It seems like it takes more energy from a person than giving energy to them. All of the electrical aspects of it: your screen killing your eyes, or the power--it zaps your energy, even your posture; the way you're sitting in a chair, and you're not moving. When you play an instrument or sing you're creating your own energy through your bodies, because that’s what our bodies do.
What’s your advice to musicians trying to strike a balance?
If they choose the digital path, I would tell them to just create music that is going to make them feel good, and make other people feel good, because that's what music is supposed to be about. I feel like a lot of music coming from the digital world is very harsh. They can come up with all of these crazy sounds now, but they can be really painful.
Sacred Voice: Track 2
A lot of times when you are trying to find your spirit, it's like you have to go through some shit--you find the light in the dark. This was kind of a transcendent piece--me trying to search for my own spirit where I had to do this chanting and get myself in a zone, and go through this journey to find out where I was. It’s kind of like if you meditate, and you didn't realize how far away you were from yourself.
I made that song in the past two years, and a lot of that was due to working at The Open Center and taking the sound healing course, because I was never into chanting before. I wanted to take it to a sort of darker place to see how it would make me feel. It's kind of an experimentation, and I also brought in the Nigerian Udu drums on that track. Those are made out of clay, and are supposed to reflect water, to give the song a water balance to it.
What do you think you were you trying to overcome personally?
I don't know what specifically I was trying to overcome in the song. It could have been the chanting and the singing, because I don't sing for shit. This is my first time putting my voice out there.
Soul Luna: Track 3
I actually wrote that song for my older daughter Issa when she was first born. Her original name was Soul Luna, and then we changed it. As far as the influence of them, I really think about how music and frequencies are going to trigger one's spirit and really how it's going to make them feel. For Issa, that song was my interpretation of her coming from the divine and her whole spiritual journey to here to earth, coming through her mother Sarah, and coming out here. If that was a movie it would have been her song score.
What motivates you creatively? What’s your flow like?
It definitely changed after Sarah and I had our first baby. Before we met, it was music all day everyday. I was a full-time DJ and musician and I was always trying to work on music. Once we had the baby, everything kind of slowed down, and eight years later, my productivity kind of comes in spurts. Back in Minneapolis, I’m DJing a lot again, and doing gigs. As far as sitting down and writing, it doesn’t happen as often. When it does happen I feel like I can go a few days and just knock it out.
I love how you said it "changed" and didn't assign a judgment to that.
My family is really important to me. When I write, a lot of times I think of how is it going to work with Sarah. We try to make our projects so that we can make a living doing it.
Shaman’s Dream: Track 4
Shaman's dream was imagined like a score. The way that I write music is like I'm scoring a movie in my head. Visually, Shaman's Dream is the shaman going on his vision quest. Rhythmically how the track starts off is--he's getting in his trance and slowly, once he is able to let go of his spirit, his spirit just soars. It's like he is flying into the sky, seeing his visions come to him. It ends out with him going back to where he came from.
Does music play a big part in your spirituality?
It's the number one for me. I feel like I actually got taken away and forgot about that, especially when we lived in New York. I was working at a digital production school. It was so technical and digital that there wasn't too much feeling in the music. They had open lab where students would come and work on their music, but everyone has headphones on. I would catch myself a few times looking around in the room and everyone is staring at their laptop and all I'm hearing are mouse and keyboard clicks. And this is music now!? I'm not sitting in a room where people are actually working together in a circle. There are no string players staring at each other trying to vibe out. Everybody is in their own little box, staring at their own screen, and it just seemed fucked up to me.
Canela: Track 5
That song is actually 10 years old.
Well it's new to everyone else.
That's what I love about music. To me pure music is timeless. I did that song before I even met Sarah. That song was just more about gratitude to the simplest things. I used to wake up and my grandpa would always have coffee on, but it would always smell like cinnamon because Mexicans like to put canela sticks in coffee. The song is just talking about the feelings of those little things, the smell of cinnamon, eating fruit in the morning. Those things were so special to me.
How do you feel now that the EP is out in the universe?
It was really a blessing. It was also great that I was able to just make it happen, because normally I am not able to make shit happen like that.
I'm so unorganized, and the biggest procrastinator, and I have mad fear of putting my music out there.
That doesn't sound unfamiliar to me at all, and in fact, it's brave for you to even say that. Now that you found the courage to put this out, what advice would you give to folks about putting their work out there?
I realized that I used to idolize other producers because of their success of accomplishing and getting work out there. I would say, just do it! Dont think about it too much. Just make sure it's on point, and it ain’t sounding all shitty. Just put the stuff on Soundcloud and call it a day and share it on Facebook. That's where it's at now. Nobody is going to the store and buying a cd. It's all online. It's download nation.
Do you feel like now that you've released this work out there, you are energized to do more?
Definitely. I just don't know how I'm going to do it--like putting a new track up once a week. I noticed it helps a lot of musicians that just keep putting their work out there every week. That's how they build their name. At the same time you think of artists who have albums that you still sit down and speak about, they might have had a year or two years between albums. I think there are two different things. I think you can put your work out there all the time to help you start getting into that mentality of releasing stuff, like releasing your art. I also think there's something in taking your time and taking the patience of putting something that you are going to put all of yourself into.
Maybe it's about striking a balance?
Buy ElCuranderoas a holiday gift to help mellow your family out, or maybe yourself. I've used it for meditation for the past week, and it's really done me wonders. Follow Cultura Love on Facebook, andTwitter. All photos by © Sarah White for Fotosforbarcelona
Words by Boyuan Gao