2020 might have been a tough year for musicians all around the world, many of whom saw their ambitions slashed by a pandemic that took the sector by storm. But Rotterdam-based multi-instrumentalist Leonardo Prieto managed to come out of it with two new records set for release this year; his solo debut and his band Son de Aquí’s new album, coming very soon. We ringed him to discuss everything from recording across borders to welcoming Metallica, Mozart, and Buena Vista Social Club into the same vision board.
Written by: Beatriz Negreiros
Photo: Jimena Maldonado
A few days after speaking to musician, composer, and songwriter Leonardo Prieto on the phone, just before Christmas, I checked back in with him to ask him a question so basic it has slipped my mind during our call: how old is he?
I was surprised to learn that he is already forty-two; the zestfulness with which he went on about the two releases he has lined up for 2021 made me believe I was speaking to a starry-eyed, up-and-coming musician. But I soon realized that it’s Prieto’s boyish enthusiasm for making music and his never-ending curiosity for embarking on new sonic experiences that have led him to where he is today.
Prieto was born and raised in Mexico City. He’s been living in Rotterdam since 2016, first studying, now teaching at the city’s esteemed Conservatory – but always playing. In fact, he’s been making music since the age most of us are still learning to string two sentences together; he was five years old when he began taking drum lessons. From the drums, he leaped to the guitar, to the piano and a myriad of other musical instruments, including typical characters of traditional Latin American music such as the gaita colombiana and the marinbol. Aged ten, Prieto was composing his own songs; at twenty, playing in his own band, Son de Aquí.
Twenty years later, the group is gearing up to release their third studio album, the first in five years, Del Otro Lado Del Mar; on his own, Prieto is preparing to venture into solo territory, with Sembrando. Both records are due for release in 2021; first will come Son de Aquí’s, set to come out next month, with the hip-hop infused ‘Deja El Celular’ and the sunny cumbia ‘Ella Me Encerró’ already out as singles. His solo record’s release date is a little shakier, but he dreamily wishes for it to come out “sometime in the spring”. In either record, Prieto designs to do what he’s been doing for more than a decade now; to blend old with new, stirring folklore, classical and popular together until he comes up with a fresh, unique sonic flavor. In his own words: “I want to blend sounds, and compose to be somewhere between.”
“Normally, we would get together and everyone would bring their own ideas” Son De Aquí is a distinctively international project, with members nowadays split between Mexico, the Netherlands, Germany, and Spain, a result of the many encounters their ringleader harvested throughout his life. Prieto is used to recording in the socially distant way more and more musicians have been forced to last year, due to the surge of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing worldwide lockdown. Distance has always been a part of Son de Aquí’s history – and it was once more this time, given Del Otro Lado Del Mar was recorded throughout different cities, countries and continents, and finally sent to Mexico to be produced. But even if communication between the thirteen members of the project would always mostly occur behind a computer screen, in a pre-pandemic world, getting together with a few closer musicians to rehearse would be a priority. “Before I would compose the music, I would send it to them, but then we would get together and everyone would bring their own ideas”, Prieto explains. But what he misses the most is playing live – and he hopes to do it again very, very soon.
It is only natural that Prieto longs for the stage; that’s exactly where Son de Aquí was born back in Mexico City – at the time, a much smaller group of local musicians who simply wanted to get together to play for people and make them dance. When their first record, Traigo Sabor, was released in 2004, they were more conventional; wearing their influences on their sleeve, they began by riding the coattails of other Latin American acts, such as Buena Vista Social Club, whose popularity in the late nineties revived interest in traditional Cuban and Latin American music worldwide. “On that first record”, recalls Prieto, “you can listen to it and say: alright, this is timba, this is son cubano. It was all very clear”.
According to Prieto, it was only ten years after they first began playing together that the band truly found their sound. Many sounds, in fact. “We found the best way to express our influences”, he explains. Convention was put to rest to welcome all the other styles musicians were previously leaving at the rehearsal door. Suddenly, Son de Aquí was introducing son cubano to reggae, rock, and classical music. On the phone, Prieto acts out the kind of conversation that could be heard in rehearsal: “If you like Metallica, let’s try to use that information. But if you’re more of a Mozart guy, let’s try and use that too”. It was this very spirit of adventure, this openness to embracing traditional and contemporary in one fell swoop, that led to 2015’s De Aquí Son.
But the encounters born from Son de Aquí’s work are not only musical in nature. When hearing Prieto speak, one quickly becomes aware he’s not only a musician but also an academic – and it is with this very scholastic curiosity that he approaches music too. Besides collecting Bachelor’s degrees around Mexico, England, and the Netherlands that served to hone his musical and composition skills, he also graduated with a higher education in Sociology.
“I think that, in a way, I’m kind of a nerd”, he laughs. But he then asserts, more seriously: “My studies are not something I did and then forgot”. Indeed, it was precisely his Sociology degree that inspired much of his work with Son de Aquí. At some point, Prieto had become enamored with the concept of identity – focusing his studies on son jarocho, a regional folkloric music style that originated from the Mexican state of Veracruz. “I started to see how music is always linked to cultural identity, environment, nature, animals, religion”. After that realization, he decided to dedicate his life to coupling different ways of playing and listening to music in projects such as Son de Aquí, and, this year, his very own.
And it’s not just about connecting different instruments, styles and traditions; Son de Aquí’s records go as far as including non-musical elements which, as Prieto came to learn from his studies, are just as important to the musical experience as melody, rhythm and harmony. This knowledge was explicitly reflected in their most recent live shows, upgraded from simple concerts to full-on performances including lights, visuals and dancers. With venues shut, Prieto and his peers still wanted to bring all of these elements into a record, because, after all, they all interlink. “We said to ourselves, if we have tap-dancing on stage, we will have it on the record too. We will record the dance steps.” For Prieto, it couldn’t have happened any other way. “In cumbia, for instance, when the dancers move, the drummer reacts. All these relationships between dance and song are represented in the record.”
“I like to see the technical limits of musical instruments”
2021 will not only mark the release of Del Otro Lado Del Mar, Son de Aquí’s first record in six years, but also of Prieto’s first venture into solo territory. Sembrando, the project’s title, translates into the art of sowing. Just like the title of Son de Aquí’s new album (which’ name translates to ‘From The Other Side Of The Sea’), its name tells the story of how the music came to be. As with his previous ventures, Prieto continues to build bridges between sounds, worlds and eras, and, in the process, discovering something new, uniquely his.
Just as he can’t decide between a favorite genre, Prieto can’t pick a most treasured instrument. In his first solo album, which was recorded in three days, in Rotterdam and in between lockdowns, he constantly switches between the guitar, the piano and musical instruments seemingly belonging to another time and place – like the jarana jarocha, a guitar-shaped stringed instrument endemic to the musical tradition of Veracruz. “I like to see the technical limits of these instruments, which are not usually being used to play with extended techniques, or any other kind of textures”, he reasons. And, by this, Prieto doesn’t mean offering new interpretations of age-old Mexican songs; in Sembrando’s tracklist, there is only one cover. The rest, even though made up of bits and pieces of different musical traditions and techniques, is one hundred percent his. I was first surprised to learn of Prieto’s age, having pictured him as a buoyant starter, given how much his voice beamed when he discussed his first and latest encounters with music. But looking back, it’s easy to see that it is precisely this youthful inquisitiveness that has set Prieto on a fruitful path towards discovering his very own sound. It’s made up of all the years he spent listening to all sorts of music with open ears and an open heart, never letting go of his adolescent passion. With both Del Otro Lado Del Mar and Sembrando, he has found it once more.