The Enduring Serendipity of Manongo Mujica

Photo by Francisco Medina

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Manongo Mujica is always listening; always on the search for new sounds from any source. This enduring spirit is why the percussionist, composer and visual artist has been a vital force in Peru’s contemporary music scene for nearly 50 years. From his early ensembles with Susana Baca and work with the National Symphony Orchestra to the heady days of the Peruvian avant garde in the 70s and 80s. His interests stretch beyond sound and into visual arts as well, both of which come together on his newest album, Del Cuarto Rojo. The album is inspired by and celebrates the work of Mujica’s friend, painter Rafael Hastings who passed away in early 2020. It’s another chapter in the ever-growing story of Mujica, one that more people should know. 

Del Cuarto Rojo is out now on the excellent Buh Records. Manongo Mujica can be found via his website.

What are some of your earliest memories and experiences with music and with sound?

Some of my earliest memories have to do with listening to nature and old jazz records. One that I remember vividly was being alone at the beach and suddenly, out of the blue, the huge sound of the waves hitting the shore took my body by surprise, and then I heard a voice in my head whispering “this is what you are meant to do in life…” 

I was only five years old, but this experience turned my world upside down. I started listening to all kinds of music, in order to find out what instruments sounded like the sea. And to my surprise, I realized that drumming and percussion were like breathing. Back then in school, the director, who was a very eccentric character, took me out of the class and told me to listen to jazz records at his office. He said: “Manongo, close your eyes and try to discover what is the role of a drummer.”

Did you grow up in a family where music was important?

Yes, indeed. My mother and my uncle were always playing the piano and talking about music and art.

When did you first begin to seriously create your own works, whether it was playing and composing music or visual art?

I still don’t know if I have “seriously” created my own works, because the spirit behind what I do is playing not working… I adore serendipity, improvising, and letting things happen, so I hope I never take myself seriously.

What is it about percussive instruments that draw you to them?

What draws me to percussive instruments is their organic power, the textures, the colors, and of course rhythm.

In the 70s and 80s, you were a big part of the experimental music movement in Peru that’s been documented so wonderfully by Buh on Territorio del Eco. Can you tell me a little about this?

Being part of this group of Peruvian experimental artists was in those days completely different from what it is today, in the sense that I was not aware of what the other artists were doing until now. After listening to Territorio del Eco, I realize that we were all going through the same search for roots, ancient roots. It is truly amazing how determined we were all searching for a kind of “Peruvian identity,” of course with different styles and aesthetics, but the spirit was a very profound need to discover our roots, which led us to include them in our exploration ancient rituals and native instruments… a new kind of sound mysticism.

How did this period change you, not just as an artist but as a person?

I believe that experimenting in art is an endless process, it does not end in a result, but it is an ongoing work in progress, and so I think maybe this period is still redefining the way I experience life thus far. 

What are some of the memories from that time that stand out the most for you?

My memories are related to creating a new language from sound. For me, playing and composing was a way of knowing myself. There was a book by an English author that touched me deeply in those days: “The Hidden Face of Music” by Herbert Whone. I’m still very grateful for his understanding of music as a path to inner knowledge.

What are the most important and lasting lessons you took away from that time?

One of the lasting lessons from that time which I tried to apply on a daily basis is the importance of connecting with your inner self, in order to apply discipline to your creative process and to create certain conditions in your daily ordinary life to live in silence and thus, achieve a more harmonious and fulfilling life. 

Let’s talk about your new album Del Cuarto Rojo. It is a tribute to the painter Rafael Hastings, your friend. Can you tell me a little bit about how you two first met and became friends?

I was living in Vienna, Austria in those days, my father was the Peruvian ambassador in Austria and he was organizing a huge exhibition of Peruvian art called “3,000 years of Peruvian Art.” I saw the catalog and there was a painting in black and white of the face of a man in deep pain, almost screaming…The style was pop, however, the context was totally different. Years went by and I traveled from Vienna to London and eventually ended up in Lima where I actually met him. He told me he was producing films about Peru’s ancient history and landscape and he wanted me to compose the music for his films because he had listened to a music score I did for his wife Yvonne von Mollendorff. That experience of working with him and traveling all over Peru in search of images and sounds created a very strong and unique friendship.

The music on Del Cuarto Rojo is so diverse and lively, it evokes so many emotions and mental images. What was your process like when creating these pieces and relating them to Hastings’ work?

Hastings passed away two years ago. At that time, I was living in Paracas, a town in the Peruvian desert, a place that we both discovered together during his films. The pain of his death was overwhelming. There I remembered that a long time ago I was in a deep emotional crisis and I told him about what I was going through. He told me: “You are so lucky, is very rare to experience pain. Now you can compose real music.” So back then, completely torn apart by his death and in the middle of the desert we both love, I started calling him, “talking” to him, and playing music for him. This is how the music started to flow.  

What about his work is so inspiring to you that made you want to create this record?

His drawings and paintings are very mysterious, he has a rare quality, a type of silent atmosphere. I remembered the first time in my life at the Tate Gallery in London, where I found myself listening to the sound of a painting. And so, this is what Del Cuarto Rojo is all about: The Sound of Hastings’ Art.

Some of Hastings’ Work

It’s also mentioned that it has motivated the preparation of a new show by the dancer and choreographer Yvonne von Mollendorff, wife of Hastings. Can you tell me a little about that and how it intersects with the album?

Yes, when I finished the whole concept of Del Cuarto Rojo, I called Yvonne to tell her about my intention to produce an album as a sound tribute to Rafael’s work. She became very happy and told me that it would be fantastic to create a choreography inspired by the relationship between 8 of my pieces and 8 of his paintings. So right now, while I am answering your questions, the premiere of Del Cuarto Rojo is taking place at the MAC (Museum of Contemporary Art) in Barranco, Lima. So, the album is not only the music of Hastings’ paintings but the soundtrack of Yvonne von Mollendorff’s choreography of Rafael’s art.

One of my favorite pieces on the album is “Voces del Mar” the vocal arrangements are so hypnotic and the way they interact with your playing is so cathartic and powerful. And the recordings of the waves really ground everything – it’s fantastic and takes me, as a listener, to another place. In that spirit, how do you think about music and its ability to create new worlds where people are transported?

Thank you so much for your impressions about “Voces del Mar.” I will try to share with you the idea behind this piece. Once, I was listening to the sea, for a long time, and I was amazed at all the nuances and subtle elements that conform what we call the sea, but then I asked myself, do we really know what it is?

For a moment I had the impression that what takes place sound-wise is millions of voices singing in different tempos and languages but female voices as if the skin of water is feminine. So the first part was to find a voice, the voice of the sea, but parallel to that I was working on a drum melody and I thought it could be interesting to relate “the voice” of the drums, and eventually I found myself recording the sea. The voice of the sea belongs to the great Peruvian landscape photographer Pauline Barberi, who preferred not to be mentioned in the credits. She agreed to do it with one condition: “I will record my voice, but I must stay anonymous like the voice of the sea.”

Photo by Francisco Medina

You use a lot of interesting and affecting field recording on Del Cuarto Rojo. What do you like about working with field recordings and why are they such an important component of this work?

This is a very interesting question. I consider myself a landscape musician, having spent years trying to learn how to listen to the landscape and so, the atmospheric element is very important for me. Field recordings give you the possibility to visualize ‘places’ in a very precise way, where you want to take the listener to… Like you said, music has the power to transport the listener, so the use of field recording works as portals to travel to other worlds and dimensions.

Another really special thing about Del Cuarto Rojo is that your children, Cristobal, Daniel, and Gabriel, play on the album. What is the experience like for you to work creatively with your children like this?

This was the first time I had the joy of recording with them all as if we were creating drum parts as a collective force. Each one gave me their total support, feeling my close friendship with Rafael Hastings, someone they knew from their childhood till now. The first to get on board was Cristobal, who was with me in the desert of Paracas when Rafael passed away. He heard me playing a melody on a hang drum and said: “Father, what a beautiful melody, would you like me to write an arrangement for a string quartet?” I said: “Great!”

Then my son Daniel, who is a specialist in Afro-Peruvian and Afro-Cubans rhythms heard Cristobal’s arrangement and created a very nice groove with congas and cajon. And eventually, Gabriel came to my studio and added some touches of talking African drums. Thus, the first side of the record resembles a mural on the desert. The second part is more free-form, more humorous, and bizarre as if we were painting with Rafael a painting we never did, but one we can actually listen to if we pay special attention. Working with my sons has been a great gift from Heaven…a rare privilege. I feel deep gratitude for their commitment and creativity. 

What continues to inspire you after all these years?

What inspires me after all these years is the magic and telluric character of the huacas (sacred places) of ancient Peru. Their ancestors’ presences, their shades, their mystery…

What is next for you and your work?

My next adventure is to publish a book of paintings and photography and to release an album related to this great archeological legacy that we Peruvians have inherited and eventually, organize a concert that reflects the magnitude of these secret cultures.   

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