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Many Strings to a Fiddle: The (Other)Worldly Sounds of QViolin

QViolin (promo photo)

An astonishing performer of mixed heritage, Quetzal Guerrero (QViolin) finds a balance between down home earthy blues and the simmering elegance of otherworldly Latin rock.

Quetzal Guerrero, AKA QViolin, performs his music with the same kind of deliberation it takes an artist to produce a painting; there's prominence on the desire to communicate a certain noise through colour and shape. It could be argued that Guerrero’s sound comes in many forms and colours and his highly disparate influences, which pull from classical, jazz, Latin and hip-hop music respectively, have granted him an all-access pass into as many genres that continue to be created as you read this.

In the ever-approaching storm of his stylistic shape-shifting, Guerrero has managed to maintain the one element that has granted his songwriting consistency over the years: an unerring devotion to pop music simplicity. Whichever way the winds blow in his sonically shifting world of sounds, Guerrero grounds all the elements with an assuring sense of purposeful musicianship; no sound is thrown in carelessly without the judicious judgement of its vital necessity. Every element and influence has its place in Guerrero’s music and combines to make a multifarious and singular whole – much like the artist himself, the product of a multiethnic and diverse upbringing.

In Guerrero’s groove-laden, sun-dappled music, you’ll find the thread of various Latin sounds (a prominent strain) weaving its way through the quilt of a hip-hop-blues-pop patchwork. The artist, who has Brazilian, Mexican and Native American heritage, made his first proper introduction to the music scene with a number of independent releases, including Buscando which featured a more straightforward approach to his violin playing. When he was picked up by Yoruba Records, Guerrero began his journey in artistic experimentation, interpolating a more contemporary blend of pop music styles.

Now (2009) works from a primary base of Latin pop, but the sensuous sway of dancehall rhythms and the light buzz of electronica are forcibly pushed along by the amiable folk-pop strumming. Still pulling the contours of his art into the desired shape of his true vocation, Guerrero was just beginning to appropriate his work as an artist who called upon his Latin forefathers for inspiration.

The title-track, a decadent mixed dessert of Brazilian soca and smooth, melodious R&B, features among the scattering of illustrious, sometimes dark, jewels of global pop on the album. In many ways, one will see the indistinct form of Rubén Blades’ spiritual descendant coming into being in Guerrero and the fresh and succinct application of skill in his music is what makes his work extraordinarily relevant.

In 2011, the artist would draw his circles of influences even wider with Coiza Boa, a smorgasbord of hip-hop, R&B, folk and Brazilian pop sounds that dip heavily into the tropical leanings of such artists like Flora Purim and Luiz Bonfá while subtly paying dues to jazz greats like Erroll Garner (an artist who cornered the swing jazz phenomena of the ‘50s). The feel-good jives on the album often give way to the more tender ballads, which underline Guerrero’s sloping, tonally-pleasing voice, a textured croon evoking the attractive panoramas of white-sand deserts. The sensual vibrancy of Coiza Boa is captured in numbers like the sunlit trip-hop of “Morning Gaze” and the rubbery Afro-Cuban jam of “Luoco”, bringing the musician’s purpose into definitive focus. On the percussive rumbles of “Samba do Cuale”, there's the proud and jubilant declamation of culture rising from the swirling groove, the throngs of drums pounding at once with exactitude and abandon – a careful exercise in carefree living.

Guerrero’s latest studio release, American Import, continues to trade on the influences and styles of his previous efforts while exploring some of the musical traditions of his Native American heritage. If the Native American influence is not readily discernible in sound, the album is certainly infused with the spirit of its culture. This is most evident in the startling and cinematic music clip for the album’s single, “Run Like the Wind”, a funk-inflected jam of Latin blues and mercurial pop-rock. In the video, a Native warrior stalks the streets of a calm and indifferent LA before he is ensnared in a racially-charged brawl with the city’s denizens and trigger-happy constabulary.

American Import also ventures into the glam-rock terrain of such affiliates of the genre like Roxy Music, imbuing the crunchy, sex-infused grooves with a disposition undeniably Latin. Where Guerrero crooned before, he now growls with the crushing drawl of a singer finding an intermediate balance between down home earthy blues and the simmering elegance of otherworldly Latin rock. Such imaginative gambits are not uncommon in Guerrero’s world of sound; he once recorded an aquatically lush cover of Blackstreet’s “No Diggity”, a Cajun-Dancehall fusion of heavily accented Cumbia flavours storming around in the march of a booming synthetic groove.

American Import also attests the strength and skill of the singer’s principle instrument of delivery: the violin. Brandishing his preferred instrument like armor, Guerrero has now become synonymous with the violin amongst his fans and the public. Classically trained as a child, he’s picked up a world full of influences along the way, playing his violin with the inventive signature of a seasoned artist who’s offered up an uncompromising work of consistent and solid musicianship. Whether with tremendous force or supple delicacy, Guerrero draws passionate, clear lines with the violin, stretching the sinews of sound beyond the borders of conventional design. The violin’s prominence in contemporary pop is quite atypical (Anna Palm’s art-pop of classical strings and offbeat tribal rhythms is but one rare example) and Guerrero brings to the form the resplendent dexterity and aplomb that his talents will afford his treasured instrument.

Not one to miss an opportunity to catch his audience on all fronts, the singer has chosen for himself a violin the radiant colour of cobalt blue; it’s fetchingly sleek and eye-catching and by Guerrero’s own confession, holds no significance. Much like the musician himself, however, it makes an indelible impression – one which speaks to the joy and creative force which drives only the most impassioned and inspired of artists.

* * *

Can you discuss your early years in music as a child, studying in Japan and Brazil, learning the violin and just beginning to write songs? What was learning music from both Eastern and Western cultures respectively like for you?

I was born into a very artistic and musical family. My mother is a classically trained pianist who began at the age of five and also plays accordion, marimba and guitar. My father is a master mask maker, sculptor and muralist who is one of the founders of the Chicano art movement in Arizona. He also plays music (guitar and flute) and sings. Needless to say, art and music was abundant in our house.

I began learning violin, using the Suzuki method, at the age of four. One year later, my father won the National Endowment of Arts grant to live and study in Japan. We moved to Kyoto and I was enrolled into kindergarten there. Taking advantage of the fact that we lived Japan, my mother took me to study in Matsumoto where the International Suzuki Institute was located.

Living, learning and experiencing life in Japan has left an indelible impression on me. The culture, food and work ethic really became imprinted in me. The discipline and focus like that of a Samurai has always intrigued me and has set a standard for me to uphold. We stayed there for close to a year, then traveled throughout Asia until I returned to the States to begin school again.

Throughout my childhood I traveled a lot to Brazil. My mother is from a city on the North-Eastern coast of Brazil called Recife. We would spend summers there as well as in Bahia, Salvador where my uncle lived. Brazil is another country and culture that has really shaped my perspective in music and life in general. The music and life there is so celebratory and festive! I have always gravitated towards that in my music.

Both of those experiences gave me a very broad understanding of music and humanity at a very early age. I didn't really start composing anything until I was around 12. Up until that time, I was studying, practicing and absorbing on a daily basis.

Over the course of your recording career, your music became much more diversified; there is samba, classical, R&B, Brazilian and American jazz and, now more increasingly, elements of Native American music. You've achieved a perfected amalgam of these sounds. What has your experience as an artist been like, trying to streamline these disparate influences into one homogeneous sound?

Just like the challenges of life shape who we are, the growth of my spirit, character and understanding has been the driving force in the evolution of my music. I am always striving to achieve balance in my life and my music has become a reflection of that journey. The more I discover about myself the more I am compelled to explore. What I am constantly learning in one way or another is to always be open.

Lately, you've been exploring a lot more of your Native American roots in your music as well as your music's visual components (the video for "Run Like the Wind", for example). There aren't too many artists currently in the recording industry (save for Robbie Robertson, Kinnie Starr, and Tanya Tagaq, to name a select few) who are very vocal about their Native blood. Can you discuss your increasing openness to explore your Native American roots in your work?

I've always had some elements of indigenous sounds in my music. It's only recently that it's become more literal and pronounced. I think that has a lot to do with what I see on social media on a daily basis. The complete and total lack of respect and acknowledgment for aboriginal peoples all over the world has compelled me to make noise and say "Hey we are here, we are alive and well!"

The music video for "Run Like the Wind" is at once beautiful, terrifying, ironic and politically coded. What ideas/themes are you exploring in this clip?

The idea for that video really came from the director David Telles, who also happens to be my cousin. The imagery tells multiple relevant stories and causes the viewer to think about and discuss what they are seeing. The theme of the overall performance captured in this film is about the totalitarian racist state that has consumed this entire hemisphere. Some of us are victims of it, some of us are perpetuating it, and most of us are completely oblivious to it.

What new ideas and concepts have entered your artistic consciousness on American Import?

This album explores more of my North American roots and perspectives of genres like blues, folk and rock. The overall theme of the album is one of unity and the search for a higher consciousness.

Apart from the traditional and ethnic influences in your music, you have also explored R&B and hip-hop in your work (either in your own music or through collaborations with other artists). What is your own personal relationship to hip-hop music and hip-hop culture?

Growing up my teenage years, we were completely dedicated to discovering and exploring hip hop culture. I'll never forget the first time I went to a BBoy jam; I had never been so inspired to move! I was completely obsessed with being a BBoy, writing graffiti and supporting the movement in one form or another. I will always be a true hip-hop head!

You are practiced in Capoeira. How did you come to learn about this martial art?

I had observed Capoeira from afar as a kid living in Brazil and was always curious about it. It wasn't until I was 19 that I decided to dedicate my life to it. The more I learned about its history, the more I started to see parallels in my own ancestral history. I became very aware of how Capoeira could help me in finding my perspective and place in the world.

There is a film called The Red Violin from 1997 (with Samuel L. Jackson and Greta Scacchi). You may have seen it. It describes the history (and future) of a violin been passed from one party to another, and the value that the instrument has in many people's lives throughout the centuries. You have a blue violin, which has become synonymous with you now. Can you tell me about the significance of the Blue Violin?

The Red Violin is one of my all time favorite films! The color blue has always been a favorite color of mine, so my parents gifted me an electric blue violin when I was 14. I've had several other violins since then but the blue violin has always left the strongest impression on my audiences. For some reason the striking color compliments my sound very well and people always make it a point to tell me that. There's no deeper significance behind why my violin is blue other than those two facts.

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