Mateo Mera sits cross-legged on a mat, resting his Sitar on his bent leg, as he opens the set with a Sitar solo, sung in his best gentle voice.
What followed was a raucus few songs in not-so-light rock with his quartet’s three guitars blazing. While this seemed like a quirky and unlikely contrast with the viewer’s expectation, the group rather skilfully switched tempos, as well as instruments as they moved through Uruguayan, Indian, the 1970s/1980s American pop rock. Their second concert at Grahamstown’s Standard Bank National Arts Festival 2016 on 6 July drew sold out crowds again, thanks to the group’s sponsorship by the Uruguay Embassy in South Africa, Nikki Froneman Arts Management in partnership with NAF 2016, and hosting in Johannesburg by UNISA who provided workshop and performance opportunities to these zesty young musicians. I particularly liked their inventive interpretation of a BeeGees song, “You don’t know what it’s like to love somebody” as they swung into American-styled rock. Their concerts pulled songs from their first album, “Sobre los Puentes y Las Alturas” (Over the Bridges and Heights) cut in 2013 but published in 2015.
Full of humour in their performance, the members pranced around the stage, taking sips from their water bottles and swopping instruments and places. Mateo’s highlight was playing guitar and harmonica simultaneously while kicking (backward) a drum with attached cymbal suitcase for percussive effect. Here he excelled in delivering a soft ballad. This was followed by a Beetles’ song by George Harrison, “Here Comes the Sun”, played with a ukulele, after which Mateo jumps around to the piano and vocalizes with the band a heavy rock song (unfamiliar to my otherwise jazz ears). This was mostly a rock concert, and the Sitar was, unfortunately, forgotten after the first song, but the bands versatility in delivering different fusions of rock was appreciated. The set ended with the drummer swopping his drums for the mic as he swung the band into an exciting and physical rap. This ‘rappatoire’ brought instant whistles from a rock-oriented audience, along with a standing ovation.
I caught up for a chat with the band before this performance. Matea puts me at ease immediately as he enters the room and offers me a sip of Uruguayan tea with a chuckle. As I looked down at the greenish brown herbal mush in a brass pot and sipped from a brass straw, Matea enthusiastically remarked, “This is for energy!” Indeed, they had it. This group of 30-somethings chuckle throughout their encounter, each calling out answers to any questions and volunteering information freely.
CM: What is special about South Africa?
The Group: There are great musicians. They don’t make one mistake. They were really professional, like Roland Moses and Sakhile Moleshe, the singer. He is like a Uruguayan rapper. We all have a lot in common.
CM: You seem playful and also serious at the same time. What social issues concern you in your music?
The Group: We are goofy and laugh a lot. We’re a sun of another time. But we talk about violence against women, the street life of gangs, and people in difficult circumstances, in our songs. The world has no borders now and I can be anything in the world. We are not just from a country but live in the world. We would like to spend more time in South Africa working with musicians and learning more about your history, particularly those aspects of colonialism and apartheid which were similar in Uruguay.
CM: You say you are a fusion band.
The Group: We call ourselves a rock band, but we actually would like to do more jazz and improvisation. We love fusion, and mix everything. We travel to other countries and find out how to mix our music, like using flute of Bolivia. We love to do special things so we are identified as doing special sounds.
CM: Where did you study or learn your instruments?
The Group: In the house of a master – there’s not a structure for studying in institutions. It’s private study. There are limited numbers of students. You don’t have to go to school to be a good musician. In Uruguay, everybody plays guitar. The government has funding to enable a student to study with a particular professor.
Mateo – I learned my sitar in India with a master. I take several trips to India in order to learn and buy the right instruments. It’s hard to find Indian players in Uruguay.
CM: What kind of groups would you want to work with here in South Africa, if you had an opportunity?
The Group: Percussionists. All of our Uruguayan percussion came from Africa. Our ‘cueros’ percussion is special, too, and goes like this (demonstration).
CM: Why do you want to move more into jazz?
The Group: On stage we are always improving. If we are excited, we absorb the energy of the audience. People loved our first show in Grahamstown. They told us we should play in a theatre without chairs so people can dance.
And yes, their rocking music is danceable! I hope this zesty group returns to RSA soon. Huuummm…..funding………
Mateo Mera – voice, sitar, guitar, keyboards, bass suitcase
Gonzalo Díaz – voice, bass guitar
Rogelio Lago – drums
Rodrigo Baeza – voice, guitar, sax