Don’t be fooled by the title of Gabriel Chakarji’s debut album, New Beginning: Chakarji has been thriving in the jazz scene for years, and his new record serves to solidify his evolving message and sound. Hailing from Caracas Venezuela, Chakarji grew up in a multicultural community, toured with the Simon Bolívar Jazz Band, was nominated for a Latin Grammy for his work with Linda Briceño, and has played on the stages of Dizzy’s, The Blue Note, The Bern Jazz Festival, The Mexico City Jazz Festival, and many more. Now in New York, Chakarji studies at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music.
For Chakarji, New Beginning represents not only a synthesis of his musical influences–namely Afro-Venezuelan and jazz, musics with shared African roots–but also an expression of daily life as an immigrant in NYC, discovering the history and culture of The United States. The performance will feature Chakarji on piano, Ana Carmela Ramirez on voice, Morgan Guerin on saxophone and EWI, Juan Diego Villalobos on vibraphone and percussion, Dean Torrey on bass, Jongkuk Kim on drums, and Daniel Prim on percussion. We spoke with Chakarji as he was preparing for a different show at Terraza 7 in Queens with Spanish flamenco-jazz saxophonist Antonio Lizana.
TJG: How did you get connected with Antonio Lizana?
Gabriel Chakarji: I was on tour in Madrid, Spain, with some friends. I met him through those musicians, and I discovered that he has collaborated with other Venezuelan musicians that have played with me before. Antonio and I have lots of friends in common. Antonio has also collaborated with the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, the big band of Arturo O’Farrill, and I’m close to them too. I sub for Arturo sometimes, I’m really good friends with Zach and Adam, it’s family for me. Zach will actually be playing tonight with Antonio too.
TJG: Have you been really focused on your Jazz Gallery show?
GC: Yeah, we rehearsed on Monday night. It’s a lot of people, and it’s always hard to schedule rehearsals in New York, but it worked out, and it was amazing. We’re working on music from my album, and it’s a lot of music. We’re playing a couple of my new songs too, and there will be a “premiere,” something I’ve never played before.
TJG: Will JK and Daniel be on the Gallery show?
GC: Yes, JK will be playing drums, and Daniel, my good friend from Venezuela, will be playing a bunch of different percussion instruments, at least four instruments from Afro-Venezuelan culture. One is the culo’e puya, a long drum, there’s also the cumaco that you play on the floor. Daniel Prim and Juan Diego Villalobos will be playing all those on different songs. That’s part of the music that I’m writing now, bringing these sounds together with the jazz quartet or quintet sound.
TJG: You grew up in Caracas, and you seem to be an expert in Venezuelan, Afro-Caribbean, and South American music. But it’s not necessarily guaranteed that just because you’re from Venezuela, you would know a lot about this music. Can you tell me how you came to be so experienced in these Afro-Venezuelan, diasporic traditions?
GC: Of course, and thank you for that question. It’s true. You just pointed out a social issue that I deal with throughout my music, and I wish people in general would know more about our own cultures. I was fortunate to be close to some elder musicians when I was growing up in Venezuela, and when I was around 14 or 15, I started getting into the Caracas scene.
To give you a little background, my parents are musicians, and Christian, so I grew up playing in church. My father is a pianist and my mother is a singer. They’re not professional, but I grew up with music. Through the church band, I got to know musicians from the scene. I studied with this pianist Cesar Orozco, who eventually moved out of Venezuela, and I actually got a bunch of his gigs [laughs]. So when I was young, I got to play with amazing musicians like Aquiles Báez, who actually lived in New York for many years.
Playing with other musicians like the C4 Trio, Gonzalo Teppa, and Linda Briceño, I ran into all of this music, I had to learn Joropo, Merengue, I got close to the Afro-Venezuelan musicians and culture. Not even my parents had any connection with it, so it was through these other musicians. I was also part of “El Sistema,” and about ten years ago, they began to add popular music to their repertoire. It used to be just classical, but then they added Venezuelan repertoire for the Simón Bolívar Big Band. I was a member for three years. I learned a lot, and we actually toured to New York, which was my first time here. In Venezuela, I was around the music, I was interested, I took lessons, I wanted to learn alongside my jazz education. The deeper jazz stuff, bebop and all of that, was hard to learn in Venezuela.
TJG: Do you remember when you went from “I’m kind of involved with popular music but I mostly do jazz and church music,” to “Oh, this is really a part of me, I can own this and grow with this?”
GC: It happened naturally within my community, my friends. It didn’t only happen to me. I have a bunch of friends who were interested in this music and jazz at the same time, so we would listen to a lot of music. Carmela Ramirez, who will be the singer in The Jazz Gallery concert, was someone who, together with Daniel and others, I listened to a lot of folkloric music with, music from around the world. Carmela came back to Caracas after a trip to Brazil and brought all these musical ideas and names. We were down to play them, shed them. We had a duo project where we could perform—I had the opportunity to perform my own projects a lot in Caracas, in different bars, theaters, venues. We would always try my compositions, maybe some Brazilian or Argentinian or Venezuelan music, we were a community that was moving toward this sound. It was a great moment for music in Caracas.
TJG: Tell me a bit about your life now, the culture of being an immigrant in New York, especially relating to your community and the Venezuelan diaspora.
GC: Sure. I moved here in 2014 to study at The New School. I didn’t have big expectations. There were three or four of us that came here, all musicians from the big band. The trumpet player, singer, and producer Linda Briceño–she won last year’s Latin Grammy for producer of the year–she’s a good friend. I recorded on her first album, and she was the first one to move to New York to go to New School. She encouraged a lot of us to audition, so I did, and came here. In Caracas, the situation was tough, but I was doing a lot of gigs, because a lot of musicians moved out. Somehow, I was playing a lot, but everyone was like, “Man, you really gotta move to New York for your career. Here, the situation is going to be hard.” So I moved, I got a scholarship, and am so happy for the opportunity.
It used to be that as an international student, you would get help from the Venezuelan government, you could buy dollars for a cheaper exchange rate. But when I moved here, I had missed the last year where that was possible, so I didn’t get it. It was tough. I had to figure out where to live, roommates, rent. Gladly, I had the scholarship, so I didn’t have to worry so much. I was fortunate enough to know a lot of people, so I started working and gigging in the Latin music community. For all of us who move here, we have to study and work at the same time, to figure it all out.
Then, there’s the whole cultural thing of learning English, of speaking with an accent, of getting into the craziness of this music culture. It’s a shock. You’re trying to make friends, to play, and everyone has a different musical language. The approach is different, you have to adjust. It’s a process that takes years. This album, my first album is all about that, the process of adjusting here, how our culture mixes with this culture, how that reflects within ourselves, our souls, our everyday living. Meeting new people from different places, relating to their stories as well. As an immigrant, it’s easier at first to relate to other immigrants from other parts of the world.
TJG: How so?
GC: If you’re an immigrant, you have an accent, you don’t know anyone. People who grew up in the states usually already have a group of friends when they arrive at school. When you have a group of friends, you’re close already, and you don’t need anyone else. Then there’s the rest of us, people from Latin America, Israel, Asia, all over. It’s easier to relate about food, culture, language, communicating. People abroad are usually more touchy too—I’m used to giving hugs and kisses to people I know. Here… you don’t really do that. You say “hi,” you might not even touch the person, or maybe give them a high five.
Learning about the history of this country was the biggest shock for me. The civil rights movement, the racial history of this country, was a big shock. In Venezuela, there’s racism too, there’s colorism, but we have a different history and different values. Simón Bolívar, for example, the liberator of Venezuela, grew up with one of his mother’s slaves, called La Negra Hipólita, and he thought of her as his second mother. She was a really important figure in Venezuelan history. And there was el Negro Primero (Pedro Camejo), the only black officer in Bolívar’s army, who was also a really important figure in the independence of Venezuela. The relationship to slavery in our history is quite different. There’s racism all over Latin America, but it’s not the same. Learning jazz history is of course linked to the civil rights movement and the racial history of The United States. It’s been a deep experience for me to learn about the history of this country, relating it to the conquerors, the killing the native people, slavery, and how we have many things in our common histories between North and South America. I’m glad to be learning, and the music I play now is more meaningful because of it.
TJG: I want to finish by asking about the recording you shared with me, “No Me Convence.” It’s absolutely slamming. High energy, unrelenting, pure and focused, cohesive. Having Daniel and JK together is amazing too. Tell me about how you wrote it and what it’s about for you.
GC: I was researching this area of Afro-Venezuelan music and culture from part of Venezuela called Aragua, and there’s a specific rhythm from a city called Cumboto. All over the coast of Venezuela there are ‘black towns,’ and each and every city has a different style of music that they play for the San Juan holiday on the 24th of June. This is shared among most countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, a musical ritual, a big party, and each city has a slightly different genre, instruments, lyrics, and so on. I was studying this specific one called cumboto, and it’s amazing. If you listen specifically to the percussion, it’s this great rhythm, end of four, second sixteenth of the one, this great specific rhythm and beat. I was listening to a track called “No Me Convence,” a traditional song that I quote at the end of the track–I put a little of the original song in there. I was listening a lot to Grupo Cumaco, and I wanted to compose something inspired from this, so I started writing this song.
I ended up adding all of this other crazy stuff, hits, melodies, but I was definitely thinking of something high-energy inspired by this song. The song, “No Me Convence” is a little love story: “If you don’t kiss me, you don’t convince me, if you don’t love me, you don’t convince me.” The song was also inspired by those lyrics. I get a lot of the percussive and melodic elements from the conch shell melodies that you hear, horn-like and long. The background for the percussion solo comes from that, in trumpet and piano. Most of the hits are inspired by the traditional hits. Then there’s a rhythmic, angular bassline, not-obvious harmony, free improvisation…
Gabriel Chakarji’s New Beginning plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, February 6, 2020. The group features Mr. Chakarji on piano, Ana Carmela Ramirez on voice, Morgan Guerin on saxophone & EWI, Juan Diego Villalobos on vibraphone & percussion, Dean Torrey on bass, Jongkuk Kim on drums, and Daniel Prim on percussion. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $25 reserved table seating ($15 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.