Between South American giants Brazil and Argentina lies the small, often overlooked country of Uruguay. Despite its size, Uruguay’s diverse ethnic roots have cultivated a rich musical tradition. Tapping into these and other South American musical roots and infusing them with contemporary rhythms has made Uruguay’s new generation of musicians ones to watch.
A Sounds of Uruguay showcase Wednesday at Speakeasy will feature seven Uruguayan artists that play everything from tango to rock. Among them will be the Grammy-nominated band Campo, spearheaded by Bajofondo member, co-founder and co-producer Juan Campodónico. Some of his band mates in Bajofondo, the celebrated South American tango fusion outfit, are also in Campo.
Campo’s musical mix of indie pop, electronic, rock, neo-tango and neo-cumbia gives sound samples of life in Uruguay’s capital city, Montevideo.
"If you take a taxi (in Montevideo) the taxi driver could be listening to tango, cumbia, Michael Jackson or Coldplay," Campodónico says. Having different cultures merge in sound, Campodónico says, is part of Uruguay’s musical landscape.
We caught up with Campodónico and Campo vocalist and guitarist Martin Rivero ahead of their showcase to talk more about the music scene in Uruguay and how an independent debut album made its way to the ears of Grammy officials.
Austin 360: You’ve been a part of the Bajofondo collective for about a decade now, what prompted you to create a new project?
Campodónico: I felt the urge to make something different. With Bajofondo the sound is different; it’s more traditional tango with an Argentine component and the culture of Buenos Aires and Montevideo … and Campo tries to be trendy music but with roots. Music from the south of the world that’s new but with an identity.
Rivero: What’s interesting about Campo is that it first was a studio project that Juan came up with and then it became a band.
Campodónico: Yes, it’s been an interesting journey from conceptual album to a band. We had to figure out how will we play these songs live? Who will play guitar? And now it’s great.
Deciding to record independently and without a label seemed to really work for you guys, so much so that your debut album was nominated for a Grammy award. How did that come about?
Campodónico: It was kind of a big surprise for us, something very unexpected. It’s kind of a unique thing to be in Uruguay and nominated for a Grammy. It was great news for all of us. And when you think that Campo’s album was independently released and released only digitally in the U.S., then it was amazing to be nominated.
It was good to start as an independent project because it gave us the freedom to do whatever we wanted. And the thing with being independent is that if you want to post a song online, you can do it. If you want to release an album digitally, you can do it yourself. And if you want to release a free remix, you don’t have to ask a big company that might not have the time for you. In a way it’s easier and more in the moment.
Juan, your musical path has taken you in a unique direction. You started out as an arranger, then record producer and now artist. Is there a particular role that you’re more comfortable in?
Campodónico: I love music, so I love to make music from different points of view. When I’m producing, I’m looking at the big picture and making sure all the elements in recording are making sense. As an artist, I’m trying to express something creative.
Most artists start as singer/songwriters and become producers when they are experienced, but I started in an opposite way, and now I feel more oriented and motivated to be a performer and recording artist.
Rivero: Sometimes producing and arranging has to do with a more rational part of your brain. And the singing is more of an emotional thing, more cathartic.
So what was it like for you to be the artist now, and singing in particular?
Campodónico: Campo was the first time I’ve sang in my life. I haven’t even sung at house parties. Campo was the place to try to get out of my comfort zone. It was something new, and I discovered my voice.
And now I sing a song called "Lluvia" that’s on the new Bajofondo album "Presente." We do that song live with Campo, too.
You’ve had a successful experience with both Bajofondo and now Campo is receiving attention, but tell us what it’s like for Uruguayan musicians right now trying to break into the industry.
Campodónico: Well here in Uruguay there’s no music industry. We are so far away that we don’t belong to most music industries in the world. And we are trying to be part of it little by little by going to SXSW with other Uruguayan artists. Campo was nominated for a Grammy, and we’re trying to get there. But it’s not easy.
It’s challenging. You have to put in a lot of hard work to be part of the music industry or create one. Uruguay is a very small country next to two big countries, and it can feel like Uruguay is an island. It’s very difficult to connect with the other countries in South America. And we are so far away from Europe and the U.S.
But with the Internet, music from here is starting to become relevant in different South American countries. And we’d like for people in the U.S. to get to know us, so we’re bringing different kind of Uruguayan artists to SXSW. It’s like a free sample from Uruguay. It’ll be an interesting night.