You kind of have to see it to get it. That is to get how people make great music out of objects like matches, basketballs and toilet plungers. The Colombian experimental percussion group is as much theater as anything, but their also highly trained, talented and creative musicians.
You'd be forgiven for confusing Tekeye with STOMP the Anglo-american international sensation. Tekeye's leader, Tupac Mantilla, was heavily influenced by STOMP - even saw the show three times. But Tekeye's philosophy, rhythms and origin are all its own.
Tupac Mantilla was born 31 years ago in Bogota, Colombia
along with expectations that he would carry on a family tradition of
excellence in classical and traditional music. His grandfather, uncle
and father had been a prominent composer, conductor and clarinetist
respectively. Mantilla started piano at age 4 and entered the National
Conservatory of Colombia 3 three years later. It was not a childish
MANTILLA: "I can't say that I really liked the piano, but I was in the best possible sense kind of forced to do it. I spent a lot of years, you know, running from the high school right to the Conservatory to make the lessons and everything right on time and then leave and go back home at PM and do my homework - it was a really busy life as a kid. Of course my mom wanted me to be the best pianist ever."
Until one day in his mid teens, Mantilla made a discovery. He and his brother and cousin decided to start a rock band and his cousin traded some roller skates for a drum set.
MANTILLA: "I saw it and I felt something different. It was like, 'That's a nice instrument, I like it, It's cool.' And my cousin was trying to play, but he really didn't know much. Neither did I. I was like, 'OK'. But I sat down and I don't know why or how I was able to play a beat. And we all were pretty surprised. Even myself. I was kind of like, 'What?' And I'd never done that before, ever."
Mantilla convinced his cousin to be the band's singer even though he had a terrible voice so that Mantilla himself could play the drums.
MANTILLA: "And after that I started playing with everything. Like literally everything around. We had these pillows in the house that were destroyed after a week. I bought myself a couple of drum sticks and since I didn't have a drum set, I started playing, you know, around my house which is the typical kid that loves the drums. And my parents of course were really mad at me. The way to solve all the damage was by just giving me a drum set for my birthday when I was 15."
But in Colombia at that
time the path for those wanting to study percussion was narrow. There
were a lot of people like Mantilla interested in learning rock and roll
or jazz drums, but with no one to teach them, he says, so after high
school he enrolled in a university classical training program.
MANTILLA: "So we started studying snare drum, timpani, cymbal, marimba, vibraphone, which was really cool, but that wasn't quite what I wanted, so that made me kind of start exploring a lot with percussion, you know and rhythm, especially rhythm. Everything that sounded and had a rhythm in it - I was into it - you know and I was walking on the street and listening to the cars and saying, 'hey you know that car - check that out, that car just made that noise, that's nice and then, you know, this person is walking... I started becoming really aware of my environment".
And then there was that casual encounter.
funny because someone showed me showed me a little trick with a tin can
and I loved it. So I learned it and I started to show it to people. I
showed it to my friends, my peers, and they loved it, they learned it.
The next lesson I came up with a little trick that I wrote with a
rhythm based on a traditional Colombian rhythm. We put it together. It
just kept developing."
"My friends started telling me,'Why don't you do a group. Why don't you do something else and it to the next level.' And I decided to do it. So I started to talk to people at the University. I had a lot of percussion friends who were into it. So we just got together and I started to compose music for them based on things like little objects, like small objects, like a tin can or a basketball."
This was the nineties. STOMP had recently come out in England and crossed the Atlantic. Mantilla loved it. And before calling the band Tekeye, he called it 'the Percussion Group based on the STOMP Idea'. Still, Mantilla insists that Tekeye is rhythmically distinct from its Anglo American predecessor.
MANTILLA: "STOMP is really, like, North American back beat kind of thing. You hear that it everything they do. Even though they are really creative, that's what you hear most of the time. But we have such a variety of different rhythms and grooves. So that's probably the difference."
The band was renamed Tekeye because the made up word contains a range of sounds the group likes to generate. Although Mantilla likes to joke that it comes from a tribe from his country's upper coast. In any case the Colombianess of Tekeye, the name and the band is central to its identity.
MANTILLA: "I would say, not because I'm Colombian, but because I'm a musician, that we are probably one of the countries in the world that has more influences from different parts of the world. We are in the center. We have the Pacific coast.All the African influences came.We have the Caribbean, up in the upper coast. Then we have the plains, with Venezuela, which is a totally different music. Of course we have influences from you guys. Then we have in the Center of Colombia it's a totally different thing that came from the Andes and all the way from the South. You know a lot of things happened and a lot of things got to Colombia from different places."
Creating these rhythms using different objects has made Tekeye a huge hit in Colombia Mantilla says. This has led to success in the world of advertising.
MANTILLA: "You know we've worked with IBM doing the keyboards and then cell phones. Red Bull, technology related companies, car companies, the French company Renault, and you know with the car actually closing doors and doing stuff and moving the car and, you know, grooving to the car and everything. In ten years we've done a lot."
This has been great, Mantilla says, but it's not what Tekeye's dozen band members want to be doing. The're more interested in live shows and that's what they're trying to do more of in the states as well as Colombia. They are also hoping to expand the Tekeye foundation which teaches experimental percussion to under privileged children in Colombia and Panama.
MANTILLA: "This is just the beginning of it because right now we are doing programs to entertain them and to show them that, you know, there's a lot to learn and that a lot of, so-to-speak 'bad things' that they could be getting into could be replaced by the act of doing art and playing and exploring objects. Besides the fact of, you know, teaching them how to recycle, for example, how to find instruments anywhere."
Taking Tekeye to the next level, that is more and bigger live shows, poses a particular challenge because Mantilla is the one band member now based in the US. He came to Boston four years ago to study at the New England Conservatory and now plans to move to New York. Still, he wants American to experience the Colombian-based band. Tekeye will be in Boston in September and they're working on a global themed show for December. They're thinking big with a crew of 50, but not at the expense of the group's trademark accessibility. Tekeye is all about interacting with the audience.
MANTILLA: "I stand in front of everyone and start clapping things for people to repeat. People are suddenly smiling and they are doing it. So then by the middle of the show we just go down the stage to the actual audience and start playing with them and, you know, doing the same thing. By the end of the show after four or five times, you get to see people that get to do really nice things. And people that didn't know that they have a little rhythmic essence hidden in them - then they notice that they do have that - that it's part of them."
Though Mantilla sees having rhythm as an essential part of being human, American and Colombian audiences are quite different. That is Americans can be hard to please at first Mantilla says, but they are often blown away by unfamiliar Colombian rhythms.
MANTILLA: "We use a lot of off beats. If I play something different it's going to call your attention a little more. It's more of a Latino type of groove. People are like 'Wow I haven't heard that'. People really liked what we did last time here. So we'll see what happens next time."
Interview by Microfundo correspondent, Amy Bracken
Tekeye is coming to Boston from Colombia to perform at the New England Conservatory in September, 2009. They need your help to get there! You can help microfinance their U.S. tour with a microloan and get repaid once the tour is complete. For more information: http://microfundo.mymondomix.com/tekeye/tour