So many aspects of Lara Bello’s new album Sikame are novel and fresh. The music comes from a combination of collaborators, songwriters, and musicians, such as Lionel Loueke, Richard Bona, Gil Goldstein, Leni Stern, and Rajiv Jayaweera. Born in Grenada Spain, Bello’s music stands on a rich foundation of flamenco, classical, jazz, and popular styles. Her new album is being released in a new physical and downloadable format, The Biopholio, on Fabian Almazan’s new Biophilia Records label. The details come together to create a rich musical, visual, and collective experience.
We’re thrilled to be hosting Lara Bello and her band for the release of Sikame. The show will feature Bello on vocals, as well as Julian Shore (piano & Rhodes), Vitor Gonçalves (accordion), Romero Lubambo (guitar), Samuel Torres (percussion), Rajiv Jayaweera (percussion), and special guests Hadar Noiberg (flute), Leni Stern (ngoni), and Janet Sora Chung (violin). We spoke with Bello on the phone about singing in Spanish, the new Biopholio, and the ins and out of building the new album from the ground up.
The Jazz Gallery: Congrats on the release of your new album!
Lara Bello: Thank you. After almost two years working on it, it’s nice, to say the least. The label, Biophilia Records, it’s amazing to work with them. It feels like harmony.
TJG: What kind of work did you do with the label?
LB: Everything. It’s a new format, The Biopholio, that Fabian Almazan has developed. The label, Biophilia records, is concerned about ecology and music. Fabian wanted to avoid CDs. Not for printing costs, but rather because CDs are not biodegradable. He wanted to give importance to the physical part of the experience by creating something new. It’s a paper design for people who want a physical piece of art. It’s like origami, with a digital download code inside. The cover isn’t square, it’s made of interlaced diamonds. Everything had do be done from scratch. My album is the first Biopholio out there, so it was a challenge for everyone. It’s a very creative label, and we did a beautiful video too. It was intense work.
TJG: Sounds like you all deserve a vacation! Tell me about the title, Sikame.
LB: Sikame is a word from Benin in Fon, the mother tongue of Lionel Loueke, who is featured on the album. The title song is a new version of his tune. Lionel likes to give names to people. I asked him, “Lionel, give me a name!” He said, “Sikame.” I asked, “What does it mean?” and he replied, “It means ‘the soul of the gold’.” It’s the essence of the gold, the thing that makes gold gold. Wow, I said. That’s a beautiful name. When I was thinking about my album, listening to his music, everything came together. Richard Bona came from Africa. Everything on the album is related to African grooves in some way.
TJG: Leni Stern, who will be at The Jazz Gallery show, has African ties too, and seems like a terrific collaborator. Have you played before?
LB: She’s part of the album, yes, and we played a few concerts together. I met her some years ago. She liked the flamenco influence in my music, which is popular in some African traditions. I recorded some vocals on her album too. The whole album is filled with friends.
TJG: What was Gil Goldstein’s role in the album?
LB: I’ve known his work for a while, so I wanted to work with him. My previous album has a lot of complex Latin American rhythms, and was beautifully arranged by Samuel Torres, the percussionist and composer who will be playing at The Jazz Gallery. In New York, there are a lot of different rhythms from Latin America. But on this new album, I wanted a different foundation. The Lionel tune is rhythmically complex, for example, but I wanted it to be easy for the listener. I knew Gil could help. He makes space for the voice, creates atmosphere. I contacted him and thought he’d never respond, but soon after, we met by chance in a friend’s art gallery. After that, it was coincidence after coincidence, like we were meant to work together. Two guests from Spain, Romero Lubambo and Jorge Pardo, are known in the flamenco community, and they had links to Zebra Coast, Gil’s band. The connections were everywhere.
TJG: Your instrumentation for the show will be piano, accordion, guitar, two percussionists, plus guests on flute, violin, and ngoni (an instrument from Mali). It’s a complex setup! What’s the interplay like between the three chordal instruments, accordion, guitar, and piano?
LB: This is the instrumentation for the recording too. The piano, accordion, and rhodes were played by Gil Goldstein on the recording. He couldn’t make the Gallery show because he’s out of the country. So, I tried to find someone to do piano/rhodes and someone else for accordion. All the rhythmic atmosphere of the album is this combination of piano, rhodes, accordion and guitar. There’s not much percussion on the recording because Samuel and Rajiv were creating these atmospheric rhythmic textures. We tried to put percussion on some of the tunes, but it would make the tune feel too square. Gil had worked with Romero on Infinite Love where the textures are similar, so Romero and Gil were the main instruments on the album, creating really nice space for the voice. The percussion is more organic. We have some cajon by Torres, but in general, the percussion is light.
TJG: Flute and violin have similar ranges and timbres to the vocal range—how have you arranged for them to play with you?
LB: With Hadar Noiberg on flute, I wanted to bring the most color from the album that I could to The Jazz Gallery, just because it’s all so new for me. Hadar is a great flamenco flautist, and it’s special to hear those flamenco melodies. On the recording, there’s no violin, but there’s cello, which is just a different color. Having strings on the show will be great, so I invited Janet. I love violin, I studied many years ago. She’s going to play the color of the strings, even if it’s not as deep as the cello. Just recreating the colors from the album.
TJG: Are you ever conflicted about what language to write and sing in?
LB: In general, most of my music is in Spanish. On this album, it’s the first time I did a song completely in English, and there’s another song that’s half-and-half. I have friends who are into ‘Spanglish,’ morphing the two languages. I’ve been here for a while, and English of course isn’t my first language, but this is my way of reaching out to my audience here, even though so many people in New York speak Spanish. They understand the part of my music where I try to make poetic lyrics. I usually sing in Spanish, unless I have something specific I want to say in English.
TJG: You said the album took two years. What was the most difficult thing to record, aside from Loueke’s “Sikame”?
LB: Half of the album is my own compositions, and the other half is the music of others, with new lyrics by me. Richard Bona brought two new tunes that we composed together in the studio, and a tune by Gil Goldstien. We had many of the musicians from Zebra Coast, and so the other difficult tune was “Farfalle,” meaning ‘butterfly’ in Italian. That tune was difficult for me with the voice, because it wasn’t written for voice, just flute and piano and accordion. It was interesting. We recorded it many times. We had two sets of lyrics to try, with different flamenco ornaments, and recorded it four times, with different styles of voice, just trying to find the essence of the music. That was difficult [laughs].
TJG: You studied violin and voice at the Granada Conservatory of Music, were trained as a classical soprano at the The Royal School of Music of London, and studied flamenco singing at the Superior School of Flamenco Studies in Granada, Spain. How did you keep focused when there were so many different things you could be practicing?
LB: Yeah, that’s difficult [laughs]. When I was a teenager I was into many things in the arts, because I saw all of them as being connected. So, I like mixing art forms and performance styles. Studying classical singing at conservatory, I was going to flamenco classes at the same time. I couldn’t tell my teacher at the conservatory though, because she was really classical. She would have killed me! It was a bit sneaky of me, but I have always been curious about ‘how this could be, how that could be,’ so to speak. All of those things are part of my culture, my hometown, and at the end of the day, I sing them all. I can put them in my music, because part of my life is learning everything I have absorbed. It was inspiring to create my own sound.
TJG: We’re excited for the show! Anything else you’d like to add?
LB: What can I say? I’m really excited. It’s new for me, it’s the first time we’re performing some of these tunes, the first time with this instrumentation, the first time on stage with some of these musicians. I can’t wait.
Lara Bello celebrates the release of Sikame (Biophilia Records) at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, March 30th, 2017. The group features Ms. Bello on vocals, Julian Shore on piano & Fender Rhodes, Vitor Gonçalves on accordion, Romero Lubambo on guitar, Samuel Torres on percussion, Rajiv Jayaweera on percussion, Hadar Noiberg on flute, Leni Stern on ngoni, and Janet Sora Chung on violin. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.