Photo by Talia Andrea
As soon as the hands of the clock reach 7:30PM, the stage of the Barbican Centre’s main hall becomes submerged in blue light. The overhead lights go down, and the five members of Gustavo Santaolalla’s ‘SantaBanda’ take their seats, each of them surrounded by instruments. A yellow lampshade on four of these podiums, and patterned carpets underneath them, make the vast space feel almost homelike. In the distance, you can hear the pre-recorded sounds of birdsong.
An arresting performance of ‘Inti Raymi’ heralds Santaolalla’s arrival, Javier Casalla’s plaintive flute and Barbarita Palacios’s stirring guttural vocals sweeping over the stage as he enters, hobbling forward to his seat. He’s supported by two young men on each elbow and a long silver cane, looking for all the world like a revered village elder. Indeed, the “Inti Raymi (Quechua for "Inti festival") is a traditional religious ceremony of the Inca Empire in honor of the god Inti (Quechua for "sun"), the most venerated deity in Inca religion”. This impression lasts until they launch into one of the most modern pieces in Santaolalla’s oeuvre, ‘Abre Tu Mente’, which leans more on chilled-out indie rock than on the traditional songs of worship I might have expected to follow such a dramatic introduction.
This choice of setting and opening encapsulates exactly what Gustavo Santaolalla aims to achieve with his music. In an interview with Oumar Saleh ahead of the performance, he speaks on the “temporality [...] [the] timeless quality which every artist should strive for”. Using the Beatles as his reference point, he expresses the importance of reinventing oneself while never losing one’s identity: “They incorporated so many genres into their music. But while they moved away from their comfort zone, they never left their original sound behind. That was the secret to their success,” he says. It is therefore fitting that his ‘Desandando el Camino’ tour (loosely translating to ‘Unwinding the Road’), should incorporate works from across his career spanning over 50 years, a variety of genres and a host of cultures.
His 90-minute performance weaves in and out of Andean folk, rock en español (a genre for which Santaolalla was a pioneer), swaggering blues-rock (‘Todo Vale’), and downbeat ballads (‘Canción de cuna para el niño astronauta’). It also touches on instrumental performances of Santaolalla’s award-winning film and video game compositions, including ‘All Gone’ and ‘The Last of Us’ from the beloved video game, The Last of Us, ‘De Ushuaia a la Quiaca’ from The Motorcycle Diaries, ‘The Apology Song’ from animated film The Book of Life, and a medley from Brokeback Mountain, which Santaolalla lauds as being a movie that “celebrates diversity and difference”, just as anyone in the audience can see his music does.
Speaking of instrumentals, it would be a disservice not to mention the virtuosic skill of the other five in his band. Over twenty instruments are split between the six performers — just when you thought you’d already seen them all, they’d pull another one out of nowhere — and five of them contribute vocals. They deftly navigate all of the scheduled tone and genre changes, their hold over the audience almost hypnotic; the audience quieten down as if by magic during the setlist’s emotional moments (‘The Last of Us’, ‘No existe fuerza en el mundo’), just as they get up to dance and clap along with the more upbeat, playful ones (‘Mañana campestre’, and the encore, Bajofondo’s ’Pa’bailar’).
“They say you should surround yourself with people who are better than you,” Santaolalla says humbly upon introducing the five members of the SantaBanda collective, near the end of his performance. “These are not only band members; these are my friends.” As an internationally-acclaimed artist who has “helped launch the careers of ground-breaking alternative acts such as Cafe Tacvba, Molotov, and Juanes[, as] well as mentoring talent from Mexico and South America to this day, [and forming] groups as diverse as Arco Iris, 70s punk outfit Wet Picnic, and Bajofondo” (Oumar Saleh), you get the feeling he isn’t giving himself, and his lasting influence on the international music scene, enough credit. Thankfully, the audience who soon get to their feet for a standing ovation are there to do so for him.
Gustavo Santaolalla - artist, vocals, guitar, ronroco
Javier Casalla - violin, electric guitar, flute
Nicolás Rainone - double bass, bass, vocals
Barbarita Palacios - percussion, guitar, vocals, bells
Andrés Beeuwsaert - piano, keyboard, vibraphone, vocals
Pablo González - drums, kettledrums, percussion