Gustavo Santaolalla 2024
Photo: Alejandra Palacios / Nonesuch Records

Gustavo Santaolalla on the Album That Launched His Career

Award-winning musician and producer Gustavo Santaolalla is re-releasing a personal instrumental album that was a turning point for his lauded career.

Gustavo Santaolalla
26 January 2024

You could be forgiven for thinking there is more than one Gustavo Santaolalla. There’s the one who won Oscars for the soundtracks to Babel and Brokeback Mountain. The one who produced seminal albums from Latin American rockers, including Café Tacuba and Juanes. The one who co-founded the Bajofondo Tango Project.

Now, the 72-year-old Argentine is releasing a 25th-anniversary vinyl edition on Nonesuch of his singular album Ronroco, which reimagined the playing of folk instruments and inadvertently launched him into the global spotlight of film soundtracks.

As a young boy, Santaolalla was given a ronroco, a small ukelele-shaped folk instrument, which he constantly returned to even as he fell in love with rock ‘n’ roll and drifted away from his early ambition to become a priest.

Initially a fan of the English-language rock that swept Latin America in the 1960s, Santaolalla became the teenage co-founder of Arco Iris, a popular Argentine band. In the 1970s, it spearheaded rock nacional, which electrified the country’s folk traditions, just as young American and British musicians used the blues as source material.

Because he was a long-haired rocker, Santaolalla drew the attention of the 1970s right-wing dictatorship in Argentina and was arrested several times. In 1978, Santaolalla left for Los Angeles and made it his new adopted home. In the 1980s, after the right-wing junta fell from power, he embarked with a folk musician, León Gieco, to record traditional musicians for a project called De Ushuaia a la Quiaca, named for the northernmost and southernmost towns in Argentina.

“Everyone was marked” by that experience, Santaolalla recalled. It led him to the realization that he wanted to collaborate with other musicians. He went on to become a mainstay in the international Rock en Español movement, producing albums by Molotov and Maldita Vecindad, among others. Notably, he produced the Mexican band Café Tacuba’s 1994 album Re, which was named number one in Rolling Stone‘s 2012 top ten list of Latin rock albums.

Though he was hip-deep in boisterous amplified rock, he continued to experiment for 13 years with the ronroco, an Argentine instrument that was originally made from an armadillo shell. He was given one as a boy and created wistful, introspective songs that he kept to himself. “It was something very intimate and just for me,” he said. “It was something that worked on a very personal level.”

Now, with the new vinyl reissue of Ronroco, the always multi-tasking Gustavo Santaolalla is also planning related projects, including a worldwide tour. “I went to Argentina and I tried to see if I could really translate the spirit of the album to a live situation,” he said, “and I think I did it, so I’m very, very happy with that.”

Other Ronroco projects include partnerships with traditional instrument makers and even a perfume. He is also considering a sequel to the album with new compositions.

After releasing the original Ronroco album in 1998, Santaolalla recalled, some of the songs were picked up by college and alternative radio stations. Then he got a call from director Michael Mann, who asked if he could use “Iguaza”, named for a waterfall between Argentina and Brazil, in his 1999 movie The Insider.

Gustavo Santaolalla
Photo: Chris Cuffaro / Nonesuch Records

The shimmering “Iguaza” was subsequently used in other films and commercials, but more importantly, it pushed Santaolalla into moviemakers’ consciousness. After getting a call from Alejandro Gonzalez Iñírritu, Santaolalla – with a typically overfilled plate of projects – told his assistant to turn down the request. After all, he reasoned, Iñírritu had never directed a movie; he was just a former radio deejay.

Gustavo Santaolalla recalled that in the middle of the night, he woke up and thought: “Suppose this guy is a genius, and this film is amazing.” He called Iñírritu and asked to see some of the nascent movie, which became the 2000 film Amores Perros. Santaolalla loved it enough to sign up and begin a partnership that lasted over three movies.

Iñírritu introduced him to director Walter Salles, which led to his soundtrack for The Motorcycle Diaries. He then worked with Ang Lee, which led to his doing Brokeback Mountain, where they worked in an unusual method: Santaolalla wrote the music before seeing the film, and Lee fit the music in appropriate places. The latest branch of his soundtrack work has been his award-winning music for the popular video game The Last of Us, which was subsequently made into a TV series – with a Santaolalla-composed score.

Gustavo Santaolalla also called attention to his native country’s most famous genre: tango. In 2005, he organized the Café de Los Maestros project, which included a concert, documentary, book, and double-CD boxed set that brought together the master elder musicians of tango’s golden age. He also co-founded and played guitar with Bajofondo, which brought electronics to tango and other regional genres, won a Latin Grammy, toured worldwide, and had songs used in television, ads, and even the Olympics. Santaolalla said the band is a reflection of the contemporary music landscape throughout the Rio de Plata region, which encompasses Uruguay and the greater Buenos Aires area, so it also includes traditional genres such as milonga and murga, but also newcomers such as hip-hop and electronica.

Gustavo Santaolalla 2024
Photo: Alejandra Palacios / Nonesuch Records

“I always had the concept of identity in my search,” Gustavo Santaolalla said. He noted that when Arco Iris added folkloric music, “I was criticized by the rock intelligentsia at the time in Argentina … I found something more tribal, more primitive, that related really good with the energy of rock. Whereas with tango, I found it more intellectual. I was always very respectful of the tango because tango is a music that became very popular but is extremely sophisticated in the way it is written, composed, and arranged. I knew that at a certain point in my life, I was going to get into it to try to do something with it. But at the same time, I never intended to do like the ‘new tango.’ I was always very clear about that.”

Looking back at the influence of Ronroco on his career, he cites iconic Argentine folk musician Jaime Torres, who played the folk instrument called the charango, as the inspiration for making his private songs public.

After a project compiling the work of Torres, Gustavo Santaolalla became friends with the man sometimes called the “Ravi Shankar of the charango”. Santaolalla wondered if he should show his ronroco songs to his esteemed friend. He was so worried about what Torres would say that Santaolalla told him the songs were by someone else when he passed them along.

“I had tremendous respect [for Torres],” he recalled. “I was a little bit concerned about what he could say about my playing because I don’t play with the technique that they use. Also, I don’t play necessarily music from the Andes mountains.”

Instead, Torres told Santaolalla he could tell the songs were his – and that he loved them. He encouraged him to record the songs and put out an album.

Gustavo Santaolalla said that Torres told him: “There’s no rules about charango or ronroco. You found the spirit of the instrument.”