A Q&A with Los Angeles based musician Gabriel Reyes-Whittaker

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The Daily Californian recently spoke to LA-based musician Gabriel Reyes-Whittaker via telephone about his most recent album Boleros y Valses y Mas, which features Reyes-Whittaker covering the Latin American boleros and valses on his Oberheim synthesizer.

Reyes-Whittaker has previously released music under the names Gifted & Blessed, Julian Abelar and Abstract Eye, among others, and Boleros y Valses y Mas was released under the name of Frankie Reyes — a combination of his middle name, Franklin, and his mother’s maiden name, Reyes.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Daily Californian: What did you want to get out of making this album?

GRW: My main intention was to draw attention back to the work of these composers that I loved, because it feels like we’re kind of in a music climate now where so much of the music that has come before is being forgotten … because there’s so much music out there … so much music to be made.

… In particular, something that’s important to me is my heritage. Being half Puerto Rican, I initially wanted to draw attention to some kind of Puerto Rican musical form, and even though boleros are not exclusively Puerto Rican, they took shape in (Puerto Rico). They came from Spain, originally, but in Cuba and in Puerto Rico, they really took shape in its current form. And so, it’s kind of centered around me paying homage to a couple of my favorite Puerto Rican composers first and then looking at the rest of Latin America for other contributors to the genre. So that’s really my intention.

DC: Absolutely. And you’ve spoken about how music has to have an emotive value for you to really have an interest in it — what do boleros and valses emote for you?

GRW: … Most of these songs all have lyrics, but since I’ve made them instrumental, unfortunately you do lose all the power of the emotional quality in the lyrics, because all of these lyrics are so beautiful and so poetically written. They’re all pretty much all love songs, and just the way love gets written about and sung about, in that style of music, it’s very poetic and sophisticated, and just the poetry of it I really appreciate.

But even the music itself, … similar to how in classical and jazz music, I feel like you can explore such a wide range of emotion with that whole style of music. … I think the boleros — and the other song forms that I explore on the record, too, they show good examples of how to really explore the emotional possibilities (of music) — on a synthesizer in particular, because that’s what I’m playing. Most times when we hear a synthesizer, we’re listening to the quirkiness or the coolness of the sound versus the integrity and the art of the composition, (but) that’s what I wanted to really look at here. The music’s not really about what I did with the synthesizer — my part in it is really simple and basic. It’s about paying homage (to) and highlighting the awesome work of these composers.

DC: But one thing you have done with your work though is you provided a live soundtrack to a presentation at UC Berkeley, at the Anthropology Department for a presentation about a sacred body of water at one of the Mayan ruins in Mexico, right?

GRW: Yeah, I did do that.

DC: Was it that the department had heard about your work and they asked you? That intersection of academia and music is fascinating to me, in the cultural sense.

GRW: Yeah, it did come about that way: They’d heard my music and invited me there to share it for that presentation… And I happened to do a record around that time that also focused on that part of Mexico where those Mayan ruins are … so it was just kind of a fitting thing.

DC: Do you see your work intersecting with academia more in the future: ethnomusicology, perhaps, or anthropology like it did at UC Berkeley? I know you studied sociology in school …

GRW: Yeah, I did!

DC: … which is definitely different but shares concerns with social structures and culture. … There’s a lot of overlap. And your concept of techno-indigenous music — you could definitely see that through an academic lens.

GRW: I’m definitely open to it, for sure. … I think that I’m also open to academia feeling more open, as well, as far as how the arts can integrate into education.

DC: You spoke about playing your boleros y valses for Cuban elders while you were in Cuba (for the Manana music festival) — have you played it for your own family in Puerto Rico or elsewhere?

GRW: … I’ve played it for both my relatives here (in the mainland United States) and there (in Puerto Rico), but it’s cool. … (It’s) kind of breaking the generational gaps. And in some ways, I can play this for the elders, like my grandmother, and she’ll get it, because she knows all these songs and it has a special meaning for her, so that’s beautiful. But I can also play it for the kids in my family, because it almost sounds like lullabies or something that you’d hear on a carousel. It’s a great generational bridge, and I’ve seen that in my family.

DC: And what role do you think music — yours, others’ — plays in preserving cultural experience? Do you see your work here as translating cultural traditions? Continuing them? Preserving them? All of that? Something else?

GRW: It’s all of that. I don’t know about the word “culture.” Sometimes that word … I don’t really like it as much. I think that’s because … I don’t know if you’re familiar with Terrence McKenna: He was a scientist … and he used to talk a lot about culture is not your friend, and in some ways, culture can stunt you, or stunts humanity, you know? Sometimes I think we hold onto certain things that are related to culture that I don’t know that we necessarily need to. … There are many beautiful things about a culture that I am hoping to preserve by paying homage to this music. …

I think we’re creating culture, too. It’s both. It’s not necessarily about preserving as much as it is about maybe contributing and hopefully giving it our best, whatever that looks like. I’m definitely interested in what’s next for us culturally, but I’m also really interested in approaching that with a certain level of integrity that I think was more prevalent in earlier times.

Tyler Adams covers music. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @tylrre.