Worldly Roots (Profiles in World Music): Rodrigo Chavez, Cassava Latin Band

by Krlmagi

I talk to Rodrigo Chavez about cultural cross pollination, creativity and exposing audiences to lesser known Latin American rhythms.

Rodrigo Chavez, the leader of the Cassava Latin Band, has had a particularly Canadian musical trajectory. He grew up in Chile studying classical guitar and percussion. He became fascinated by percussion and studied it in Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela and Argentina as well as studying congas and timbales with Cuban masters but when he first came to Canada in 1982, he played guitar in a Greek band.

He laughs and says, “It was very shocking to me and also to the Greeks! My Greek friends needed a guitar player badly and they couldn’t find one in the Greek community. I played with them for years. I learned how to speak Greek. We’re still friends and we still play together!”

Cassava Latin Band
Cassava Latin Band

Eventually Chavez returned to exploring his Latin American roots with the Cassava Latin Band but he adds, “It’s a very Canadian story. It wouldn’t have happened to me in Chile. In Canada, you get all of these wonderful opportunities to play blues with a gypsy band or play rock with a band from India. There are all of these crossovers and it really fascinates me!”

In Cassava, all of the other band members are Cuban. Chavez laughs and says, “I’’m the ethnic minority in the band! The singer Adis Rodriguez is from Cienfuegos, my amazing timbales player is her husband. His name is Amhed Mitchel. Alexander Brown, our trumpet player, is an amazing jazz player and he has his own jazz quartet. Our piano player, David Labrada came from Camagüey. He’s a great young guy in his 20’s. The bass player Juan Pablo Dominguez is from Havana.”

One thing that Chavez is keen to point out is the difference between music from Cuba in comparison to music from Latin America. He says, “If you put a Cuban musician with a Colombian or a Chilean there is very little in common except for our love for music and art. The histories are totally different. We both speak Spanish but we have different accents. The way of analyzing music and picturing music in compositions is completely different as well.”

As part of Chavez' exploration of Latin American music, he's also working with a band called Sikuris Saint Lawrence that plays Andean music from Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Chile. The band plays traditional instruments like the charango (a small 10 stringed guitar), the quena (bamboo flute) and the sikus or pan-pipes from South America.

Chavez and the band approach music differently depending on the context in which they’re making that music. Chavez explains, “We play festivals and corporate events. We play lots of salsa, timba and merengue at those events because people like to get up and dance to that music. In our recordings, we do our own compositions. In my compositions I like to include less well-known Latin American rhythms like the landó and the festejo from Peru or  Afro-Venezuelan rhythms. We tend to analyze or reinterpret our own roots and come up with new fusions.”

The band’s latest CD project is going to focus on all of the different styles of music that have informed Chavez. He says, “The new recording will incorporate musical elements from Colombia, Brazil and because I’m working very tightly with the Greek musicians, most probably we’ll have some rhythms from Crete like the maleviziotis and sousta and other rhythms like the kalamatiano from Greece. We'll combine those with Latin rhythms. It won’t be 100 percent Latino or 100 percent Greek.”

One issue for Chavez is the dominance of certain styles of music  from certain countries in the media.  He says, “The styles and countries that are portrayed through the media are mainly Cuba, Mexico and sometimes Brazil but most people don’t know much about the music of Colombia, Bolivia or Panama. Why? Cuba and Mexico are closer to America so they have access to the radio or TV but Panama or Guatemala are very far away from those centres of broadcasting and recording.”

He adds, “Everything is geared toward entertainment but not all the music from Latin America is for dancing. There is sad music, there is serious music, there is spiritual music and it doesn’t have to make you jump and dance and laugh every time. Musicians also have to reflect reality.”

Educating people about music  is something in which Chavez strongly believes. He says, “We teach and we do lots of seminars and educational concerts. I do percussion workshops in most of the schools of the Toronto District school board, I go to Ottawa, Montréal and Kingston and I teach. The piano player is always teaching piano and he’s a percussionist too so we do drum workshops together.”

Chavez continues, “The educational aspect is very important, maybe the most important aspect of our band because if we educate the new generation in the future you will find knowledgeable people. We don’t want to just play and get a cheque at the end of the month.  It’s our mandate to be committed to education.”

One of Chavez’ main inspirations is the children he teaches. He says, “They’re always teaching me something new. I'm inspired by their curiosity, their way of handling the instruments and the questions they have.”

Listening to a wide variety of music also helps inspire Chavez. He points out, “I listen to lots of Latin American music like Isaac Delgado from Cuba, rock bands from Mexico and Venezuela, music from India and I’m constantly listening to Greek music which is my secret passion.”

Finally Chavez practices on his instruments daily. He says, “Every day I practice my conga drums or or my flamenco exercises to be in tune with the traditions."

For more information on Rodrigo Chavez and the Cassava Latin Band, please visit their website here.

For more information on the Sikuris Saint Lawrence project, please check them out here on Facebook.


This profile is based on an interview conducted with Rodrigo Chavez that was recorded on June 2, 2016.


Updated: 06/06/2016, Krlmagi
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