Honoring Afro-Colombian Women: Interview With Singer Irka Mateo

By Tio Louie
Louis E. Perego Moreno

primeWhen Prime Latino Media first launched on the East Coast four years ago we were solely devoted to Latino multimedia-makers. Six months later we expanded our network to include actors. Three years later, because of a concert this lady gave at Joe’ Pub at the Public Theater in NY that blew us away, she tore open the floodgates motivating us to weave into our monthly networking events musicians who now also comprise an integral part of our network.

Irka Mateo is a lady known for weaving Dominican folk music from her native land fused with Afro-Brazilian-Gypsy-European roots. On Friday, March 11th in a Latino locale located underground New York’s trendiest neighborhood of the Meatpacking District is, Subrosa where she is destined to rock “la casa” by turning the spotlight for Women’s Herstory Month on Afro-Colombian Women from Cartagena. I had to sit down with Irka for a fireside chat during an unseasonably warm 77-degree weather to find out what shaped her life to create this mélange of musical fusions that absolutely strike a universal chord high and wide.

Tio Loui: Born in the Dominican Republic, describe how your life’s global musical evolution started?

Irka Mateo: I left the Dominican Republic at 17. I went to live in Connecticut where I learned English and went to Spain to study languages, such as French, English and Portuguese, because like music, I was also drawn to languages – after all, they’re undeniably related. When in Madrid at 19 I heard that there were Gypsies picking grapes and on their breaks would sing and play instruments. I then signed up to pick grapes just to hear the music played and sang. So as not to go alone, I asked someone that I sang with who played the guitar to come with me and pick grapes. There were two Brazilian and Dominican fellow-students who came along for the experience. After two days of hard labor, little by little they bailed and I remained alone experiencing this wonderful flamenco. This was my first musical research as a closeted ethnomusicologist. When I first lived in the Dominican Republic, I was recruited to be a gymnast for the Olympics representing my country with seven to eight hours of daily training. It was hard work in the fields. But since my body was adept from years of grueling physical training as a gymnast, I was ready for the backbreaking work entailed. I even drove tractors just for the musical experience that enriched my soul.

TL: How did you become exposed to Brazilian music and weave it into your music as a core principle?

IM: When first studying in Europe, I was especially drawn to the Portuguese language due to my love for Brazilian music that I wanted to sing, so I had to learn
the language in order to speak it better. When in Madrid, I went to Normandy to learn French before transferring to Strasbourg to learn French and French Literature. During the summers I would go to England to perfect my English. While at the University of Strasbourg I received a degree in Portuguese, then I went to Madrid and eventually to a school of jazz in Barcelona. During those years I would sing with a trio in Strasbourg, in restaurants and on the street. I also got involved with a theater group and in between sketches I would sing with a Latin American group. When I returned to Madrid I would sing Brazilian music, as well as in Barcelona, such as Bossa Nova, samba, and regional music from the Northeast of Brazil that ranged from maracatu, xote, afoxe and forro – that is now very much in vogue internationally. I met in Madrid, Tadeou de Marco who became my partner and professionally we formed a group where he played the acoustic and electric guitar playing in bars as a duo or in a quartet. From then on I sang Brazilian music for 14 years. We went to Brazil and we formed a group with his friends. We played a lot in Rio Grande do Sul and from there went to the Dominican Republic. We were together for 14 years and had two children.

afro colombian

TL: How was it after living abroad when you first returned to your home country?

IM: When I returned to the Dominican Republic, I felt like a foreigner who spoke four languages and the people that I knew were more academics and I now was a musician. Then I started connecting with local musicians who were exploring and investigating the diverse genres of Dominican and Haitian folk music. Shortly afterwards my partner and I played Dominican-Brazilian jazz with a large group. We realized that the music we were really playing was Caribbean-Brazilian and this fusion launched us. I wrote the lyrics and sang. My partner was a great composer. We merged, for example, maracatu (from the NE of Brazil) with merengue. Then while performing throughout the Dominican Republic we met a French-Canadian who would come to the north coast of the country in Cabarete, a beach region known for sports and fitness and he discovered us. He contracted us to play in Quebec to play at his music festival, Festival du Jazz y Blues Hull and to play at other festivals, such as Festival de Jazz in Montreal and in Canada’s capital of Ottawa, as well as an extensive tour throughout the province of Quebec. My Brazilian partner and I had amassed a group that we performed with in Montreal with some of the best emerging local artists, a group in the Dominican Republic and one in Brazil (Rio Grande do Sul). We traveled a lot performing in all three countries.

TL: What was the match that first struck incentivizing you politically as a musician?

IM: One of the most memorable trips that caused some controversy took place in the Dominican Republic after I came back from Brazil for the 500th anniversary of the Discovery of the Americas when there were lots of celebrations, as well as political protests. This was during the presidency of Joaquín Balaguer, who was in former President Trujillo’s government and his protégé. He was seen as a racist of Spanish stock and spent millions of dollars creating a tribute to Christopher Columbus rather than deal with the island’s severe poverty. I was so incensed that upon arriving, in the course of one night, I composed “El Faro a Colón” (The Columbus Lighthouse) in response to a President who was being so reckless undertaking such a luxury when the people’s most basic needs were not being met. It grew in popularity and became the populous’ anthem. In one concert when we played the song with the military and leading government officials present, we were interrupted and told to leave. We became persona non-grata and were barred from playing. My husband and I luckily had a gig in Montreal and were able to leave two months later, plus I pregnant with my second child. I feared for her safety, as well as being able to leave the country and board a flight. Upon arriving to Canada, I applied for political asylum.

TL: Describe how being in Quebec defined your musical evolution?

IM: I established myself in Montreal, Quebec and lived there for four years. Several years later after the Dominican President left I returned to my country, divorced my husband and started to do my own personal research on Dominican folk music. I remained for ten years head-on in the countryside completely devoted to folk music. I also played music with a percussion group just solely devoted to Afro-Dominican drums experimenting with a trio and another group. It gave me an opportunity to merge all my influences along with flavors from Brazilian and North African music that I had picked up while in Paris. In Montreal in 2002 I got involved with the Festival Musique Multi-Montréal, merging all my musical worlds and I was brought on as emcee selecting different musical groups. This was where I realized that this was the music that defined me and that I would be committed to this musically and spiritually for the rest of my life.

Irka Indig Hands Up I Closed Joes

TL: How did you derive your musical specialty that I would describe as a craving passion for ethnomusicology?

IM: When I was a child we went town-to-town throughout the Dominican Republic whether there was a Carnival going on or whatever local music played. I was innately drawn to it and marveled in its beauty and origins. As an adult and especially after returning from Europe, I connected with a number of anthropologists and musicologists who would do field research throughout the country. Since I studied anthropology at the university, I knew how to undertake investigative research work. My mentor was Luis Diaz the father of contemporary Dominican music who through his anthropological work combined with musicology he fused Dominican folk music with rock.

TL: When was your “a-ha” realization with this folkloric thread that defines you musically today?

IM: When I connected with these people and my mentor, it ignited a passion that my mentor found in me as an innate ethnomusicologist and he nurtured it. He taught me the diverse genres, the varied drums and instruments. From there I went head-on into folkloric Dominican music that is not played on the radio, that is sang in the country and harks back to the days of slavery deep in the gold mines, sugar cane fields and when they were servants. There was this symbiotic connection between African roots and indigenous ones stemming from Caribbean Tainos. So you had this Mestiza-Afro-Taino music layered with European influences by the very colonizer who oppressed the locals. Then inject into this mélange, instruments, such as the accordion simmering with an Afro-Taino base.

TL: How did you come to New York City and navigate the stereotype that as a Dominican you were relegated solely to merengue?

IM: My music today does not come from merengue. It is rooted deeply in folkloric traditions. In 2007, a local Producer, Danny Bloom who heard my particular music and style, brought me to New York City. At the same time I started working at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Manhattan, where I am Lead Educator for children and adults about Tainos, an Arawak people who were the indigenous people of the Caribbean and Florida. My daughter, Jarina de Marco was already grown, singing and composing in Berlin. I arrived with my 14-year-old son. Then two years ago the same Producer came back to me and said let’s do a new album and he was ready to do it.

TL: Tell me about your latest music video?

IM: In October, I developed an accordion dance music project that produced a single and accompanying video, “Vamo a Goza” (Let’s Have Fun). It’s a musical fusion of bachata and tango. The lyrics are a tribute to “La Sarandunga,” a Dominican folk music genre played in Bani during celebrations to St. John the Baptist on June 24th (Summer Solstice). With the launch of this video I am recording my second solo album.

TL: What are you working on now that you will play at your concert?

IM: This is what I am doing now as a result of two years work by having premiered at a sold-out concert at Joe’s Pub in the Public Theater. And now my journey continues with this song-produced and recorded in Colombia called, “Palenquera,” which is a tribute to the Palenquera women of Colombia, cultural and historical icons of San Basilio de Palenque, the first free town of African descendants in America. Because of our participation in the Mercado Cultural del Caribe in Cartagena last November this beautiful story began and took its own life.


TL: What $0.10 worth of advice do you have for a musician who leaves their country to play music in another?

IM: In the U.S. the majority of artists have a day job. This is how I arrived in this country. Everyone knows me in the Dominican Republic within this genre. I arrived here without people knowing me and with $30 in my pocket. My advice: Don’t despair and do not fuel the angst by not having money. Get a job – compose, play and connect with other musicians, because if you’re truly committed to your passion and your art, your moment will arrive. When one is faithful to their own you will achieve something profound that will transcend to others. You have to be able to cover your bills, achieve inner peace to achieve your goals and sustain a good quality of life. My biggest advice is to network. When you do art that comes from the heart you will achieve success. It may not be monetarily, but it will be respected and embraced.

TL: I have always been turned off by foreign artists who translate their music into English to make it in the U.S. – the biggest music market in the world. What are your personal philosophies about keeping music to its native linguistic roots or do you feel that it should be translated?

IM: I don’t translate my music into English. When I sing in English, I compose a song in English. I sing in Spanish and Portuguese, because since I learned those languages so young, I am emotionally connected to the cultural nuances associated with the languages and I can compose in a language inherent to those languages with authenticity and emotional value.

TL: What is your ultimate goal musically?

IM: My dream is to take my music worldwide and to unify communities from throughout Latin America and combine it with the accordion that comes from Europe not only as a fusion of music, but as a form of healing for all the pain caused by slavery and the colonizers. I would love to spend the rest of my life doing this work.

For more information visit http://www.nuyorican.org/calendar/

Tio LouieLouis E. Perego Moreno is founder & Executive Producer of PRIME LATINO MEDIA, the largest network of Latino multimedia-makers and actors on the East Coast that hosts the PRIME LATINO MEDIA Salón, metro-New York's only monthly network gathering in which over 60 narrative & documentary filmmakers, programmers, casting agents, TV & digital media producers and actors have been interviewed. An interactive content producer and educator who for the past 34 years has owned Skyline Features, a bilingual (English and Spanish-language) multimedia and educational production company developing documentaries, television programming and advertising commercials featuring Latinos, Blacks, Women, Urban Youth and LGBT. Created a non-profit video training program with 1,500 Latino and Black Youth that over the course of ten years produced 70 documentary shorts on social, public and mental health issues.

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