Originally from Buenos Aires, Sofia Rei is grounded in traditional South American rhythms and merges jazz harmonies, electronic sounds and rich improvisations. Her ensemble produces a range of textures as diverse as the cultural roots of its members, an international cast that includes some of the most exciting young talent from North and South America.
Building on the success of her Independent Music Award-winning sophomore release Sube Azul, vocalist Sofia Rei returns with her spellbinding new CD De Tierra Y Oro (“Of Earth and Gold”) set for release on Oct 29th on her own Cascabelera label via Lilihouse Music. Rei describes the album as a series of “philosophical wanderings” — songs that draw on a wide range of South American folkloric influences and bracingly modern jazz sounds, with Rei’s powerful voice in the forefront. Rei produced the album with her longtime bassist and collaborator Jorge Roeder and co-producer Fabrice Dupont.
The textures run the gamut of contemporary to traditional: from layered and effects-treated vocals, electric guitars, loops and drum machines to Bolivian charangos, Paraguayan harps, Colombian marimbas, Argentine bombos, Peruvian cajones and more. Rei’s vibrant multi-tracked vocals and use of reverbs, delays and harmonizers make De Tierra Y Oro a bold departure from her previous work. Singing in Spanish, Rei tells stories that reflect her diverse travels and experiences: a cockfight in Cartagena, a nightmare in Buenos Aires, a love letter in New York, a haunted man in the Andes. In De Tierra Y Oro we encounter Latin American myths and icons, loneliness and laughter, religious doubt, political protest, true love.
The seeds for De Tierra Y Oro were planted thanks to a 2009 commission from the Jazz Gallery, one of New York’s most respected jazz performance venues. Rei and three fellow vocalists were invited to create new music for the Gallery’s New Voices concert series, and Rei’s installment — titled De Tierra Y Oro — featured many songs that would end up on this album.
As was evident on Rei’s 2009 effort Sube Azul, not to mention her 2006 debut Ojalá, Rei takes inspiration from traditional South American idioms but doesn’t simply replicate them. Rather, she molds them, like a potter with clay. On De Tierra Y Oro we hear South American-based grooves, but according to Rei, “a lot of these grooves are made up, they’re not necessarily preexisting styles of music. In certain songs you can hear recognizable styles such as chacarera or huayno, but in other songs I’ve made up new grooves depending on the needs of the composition.”
“La Gallera,” (“The Pit”) the electrifying opening track, recounts an unplanned visit to a cockfight in Cartagena. “I was in Cartagena,” Rei recalls, “and got invited by a boat captain to to see what he called ‘the real Cartagena,’ where all the workers live, and to witness a cockfight. The song captures the feeling of being there: ‘My luck started in Boca Chica and got lost in the eyes of a captain. … The town lights up in the afternoon and in the spurs I can feel the fear that’s present.... The roosters are the only hope around here, to the ones that never had, never will, the ones that only lay claim to a small illusion.’”
“Risa” (“Laugh”) is a unique blend of huayno, a rhythm shared among countries of the Andean region, with saya Boliviana, a groove created by African descendants in Bolivia. Rei explains: “The song is kind of an ironic take on the traditional music from this area. A lot of the themes are about carnival season, and about how the devil presents itself, impersonated by somebody. The lyrics say ‘I have lost my laugh, it’s always hiding somewhere, and even if I looked for it I wouldn’t know where to go.’”
Rei reimagines the famous Mexican ranchera “La Llorona” (“The Weeping Woman”) as a Peruvian lando and dedicates it to two great Mexican singer-songwriters, Lila Downs and Chavela Vargas. (Vargas, who made this song famous throughout Latin America, passed away shortly after Rei recorded the song.) “Chavela’s singing is raw, pure and haunting emotion, like a scream from the earth,” Rei says. “The song itself has about 20 possible verses — in Mexican music different interpreters would add their own verses, and they’d get passed around and added to. Of all the songs on the album, this was one of the least planned — we never had a written arrangement. The lando style we play it in has this sensual pulsation, very mysterious, pushing the groove forward and backward at the same time.”
The title track, “De Tierra Y Oro,” featuring Moroccan jazz singer Malika Zarra on background vocals, “is about all the contrasts you go through as a performer,” says Rei. “You have to incarnate all these different situations and feelings. That’s the idea of the whole record: through all these different moods and characters you inhabit when you’re performing, this very deep connection to the audience is born.”
A native of Buenos Aires but now based in New York, Sofia Rei (pronounced “RAY”) received her Masters at Boston’s New England Conservatory and is currently on the faculty of Berklee College of Music.
Sofia toured Europe with the Grammy-winning Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra in the premiere of the acclaimed “Cerulean Skies” and with vocal giant Bobby McFerrin in Instant Opera at Carnegie Hall. She was the vocalist in Geoffrey Keezer's ensemble Aurea, whose self-titled 2009 release received a Grammy nomination. Sofia also appeared in the Carnegie Hall premiere of Ljova Zhurbin’s Niña Dance, inspired by the unsolved murders and disappearances of women in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. She is currently working with John Zorn’s MyCale project.
The songs of De Tierra Y Oro, steeped in poetry, are brought to life by Rei’s phenomenal working band, bassist Jorge Roeder, guitarists Eric Kurimski and Jean-Christophe Maillard, and percussionist Yayo Serka. Among the numerous talented guests are percussionists Facundo Guevara and Samuel Torres, vocalist Malika Zarra, trumpeter Josh Deutsch, trombonist Ryan Keberle and harpist Celso Duarte.
“Arriba” (“Above”), the closing track, is “dedicated to the idea of God,” Rei says. “I don’t know if I believe or not, but truth is that when hardship comes, I have to grab onto something.” The legato, echo-enhanced vocals, and the startling blend of harp, acoustic guitar and bowed bass, give a strong sense of the limitless sound palette that Rei is pursuing in her art.
Infusing traditional Latin elements with the experimental spirit of jazz and improvised music, Sofia Rei continues to set herself apart with a bold new vision in the global music scene.