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Interviews Scarlet Island. Design: Pepe Menendez. Scarlet Island. Design: Pepe Menendez.

Flowers dry on Isla Escarlata

The duo was born in quarantine, from the need to break with inactivity — Javier Sampedro, one of its members, explains to me, moments after sitting down at a table in the 21 and 12 café. an escape route to the statism of that time, both for us and for those who came to listen. 

In the first instance it was that —adds Samuel Delgado, the other member— to create a place to take refuge from everything that happened outside. Then, the project's reason for being changed, and so did the place. 

Why that name?

Samuel: It wasn't the first thing we thought of for the group. We considered many options and none of them seemed to add up, until we reached a point where I told Javier: you choose one word and I put the other. He chose "escarlata" (scarlet) and I added "isla" (island). We liked the combination at the moment, we felt that that name could not have belonged to anyone else, that it was always there waiting for us.

Javier: Then came the second part, looking for a meaning. Our scarlet represents rusty red, what has been left over from the intense red of other generations.

Samuel: It is a lackluster island, increasingly dark, but it is the one we have inherited and we have to assume it.    

Javier, what instruments do you dominate? Did you already have a musical career before getting involved in this project?

Javier: I dominate the guitar, I defend myself on the piano and on the tres. I had played as a guitarist in some groups, from amateurs to professionals, and had also worked as a producer. But apart from a picketing in high school I had never had a project of my own, I wasn't even interested, I don't like the idea of exposing myself. It was Samuel who convinced me.

What is your musical training? 

Javier: I haven't had any formal academic training, but I have private guitar, music theory, music theory teachers. I remember that my first approach to music was when I was less than five years old, before that I had wanted to be a baseball player and then a police officer, until I heard Polo Montañés and it became clear to me that I was going to be a musician.                 

A little over a year ago they made themselves known with the EP Cerrar los ojos. What is this album about? What is your common thread?

Javier: Cerrar los ojos It was the clash of two people with different tastes and life stories. It was the way that Samuel and I found to get to know each other, to show the other his abilities and references.   

Samuel: It happened to us like when you are relating to someone for the first time and you want to impress them and you tell them I listen to this, this and this, and I know how to do this too and a little of the other.

Javier: The only thing that could come out of that was a highly eclectic product, where there was the same thing as a guajira, as a trap song, as well as a conga.

How was the recording process? What format did they go to the studio with?

Samuel: We didn't go to the studio, we lived in it. Cerrar los ojos We recorded it at Javier's house, I went to live there at that time and we did nothing but compose and record. Except for the strings and the lute (performed by Eduardo Corcho), Javier played all the instruments heard on the album. We both assumed production and arrangements, while Bosito was in charge of mixing the tracks.

Javier: We ourselves set a fixed day for the release of the EP, as if we had signed with a label and they were demanding a date from us. If we wanted a professional job, we had to act like one.

Samuel: We hardly slept, we went to bed at one in the morning and at seven we were already on our feet. The last song to be recorded was Isla Escarlata; we had tried several arrangements but none convinced us and Bosito was hurrying us to deliver the tracks. We told him that it was almost ready, that the next day we would take it to him, and when we got home we erased the entire song, we kept only the lyrics and we started looking for new music for that text. I remember that it was already night and we had tried 20 different things until the riff that today is heard on the subject. We liked it right away, the next day we recorded it and took it to him to mix it.

The stress was so much that I lost my hair; our families did not understand what was happening and the neighbors even less, they complained about the music at all hours.  

Javier: And it wasn't just us in the house, but the parade of musicians who helped us. My grandmother froze when she saw Duo Iris or Roxana Broche —artists she normally watches on television— at home, singing a song by her grandson's stranger. 

His music stands out for having a contemporary sound, while showing a clear debt to national identity. What elements of Cubanness does he appropriate? Cerrar los ojos?

Javier: I think that beyond the obvious -that the poem Isla of Virgilio Piñera opens and closes the EP or that we have used some other typical Cuban rhythm-, Cerrar los ojos It tries to be a trip to rural landscaping. We wanted to sound like a deep mountain, to achieve, through music and lyrics, that the listener feel immersed in the beauty of the Cuban fields.

How has the process been of taking the recorded work to the live performances? 

Samuel: We put together a band with drums, bass, choirs and violin. I rap and Javier is in charge of the guitar, the keyboard, some other voice support and managing the sequence through Ableton Live from the computer.

Javier: I think our sound has been quite enriched in this transition. Playing our songs with other musicians has helped us find new arrangements and made the concert experience very different from listening to the EP.

What topics have been better received? Are they what you expected?

Samuel: Not at all, songs like Guajira, Espiral and Cerrar los ojos We thought they would get more attention. And although the public has received them well, it is not comparable to the strong reception they have had Despertar

Javier: It was a tremendous surprise, in our first performance they sang it from beginning to end, verse by verse. After that it became one of the ones we use to close concerts. 

Samuel, in your speech you can see a distancing from the theme undergound and sometimes marginally present in hip hop. Do you run away from her?

Samuel: I'm not running away, it's just that that's not who I am. I did not grow up in a neighborhood of Cerro or Centro Habana. I was leaving the house and the first thing I saw was the mountain. I grew up in Jaruco and my town is top to bottom in my lyrics. Life there is very different, in my house we slept even with the front door open because we knew that no one was going to break in to steal. 

How do you approach rap then?

In 12th. grade, when I listened to Canserbero. Until then, my day-to-day was unloading with my colleagues, shooting a young girl from high school, cutting grass for the rabbits. I didn't have any cultural background, I swear I didn't even know what a poem was, but listening to what that man said made me write my first song.

Some friends put me in contact with the rapper Elokuente so that I could show him what I had written. He, far from telling me that the subject was on fire, —that it was— gave me a beat and filled me with references. He recommended rappers, poets, film directors, etc. In a very short time it gave me a basis to better understand this world I wanted to enter. It is very gratifying to talk to him now and for him to see that I have followed this path, to show him my project and for him to accept me as an equal. 

Scarlet Island. Photo:

Scarlet Island. Photo: @hell.brooks. 

Javier, when did you intend to get out of the often typical rap scheme of a background looping?  

Javier: I've always liked rap but I've never been able to listen to an album of that type in its entirety, I end up saturated by the repetition of the loops. It is a genre that blends very well with others and to which you can add almost anything. That's why I prefer to join those who use it as a point of union with other sonorities.   

How is Isla Escarlata's relationship with the Cuban hip hop movement? Do they consider themselves part of it?

Samuel: No, neither do we consider ourselves part of the movement nor do the rappers believe that what we do is rap. 

Javier: It is a culture that we respect, but it is very closed. Almost all the artists, national or not, who have mixed rap with other genres, are taken out of the framework of what they understand by hip hop. 

Samuel: It's even ironic. The Americans invented the genre, they experimented with it, they got very hard jazz players playing on their records, they took the culture they themselves created to another level, and you come and say that they are wrong, that this is not hip hop.

As for the foreign, what sonorities do they absorb??

Javier: Several tributaries come together there. On the one hand, the author's song and Latin American folklore mark us a lot: Violeta Parra, Drexler, Caetano, Mercedes Sosa, Natalia Lafourcade, Silvana Estrada, Lido Pimienta... On the other hand, the sound experimentation of Bon Iver, James Blake, Tyler the Creator , Kanye West or Kendrick Lamar.

Samuel: And finally there is the most urban part: Bad Bunny, Anuel AA, Ñengo…

In May 2021 they were among the winners of the First Base contest of the Havana World Music festival, achieving he popularity award. How was your experience? What changes did it bring to the band?

Samuel: Everything happened in a rushed way. We showed up for the call a month after releasing the EP, we hadn't even played live as a group. When we came out among the three chosen, the euphoria passed when we realized that we had a week to prepare the repertoire. We only had three rehearsals before the showcase.

Javier: Obviously we are not satisfied with what we did, but luckily now comes the main thing, which is the concert, and we already have more mileage. In addition, the HWM work team has helped us a lot to outline the presentation. It's going to be an incredible experience to go from being in the audience to being on stage at that same festival. It is something that we are still assimilating. 

Does HWM get the opportunity to record the single Respira, with the collaboration of Yoyi Lagarza?

Javier: Yes, that has been another rewarding experience. Since the age of 15 I have gone out to concerts and seen Yoyi play. That someone you've been admiring for years likes your work to the point of wanting to collaborate with you is something that doesn't happen every day. His way of working, his perception of music and his production ideas not only helped the growth of Respira, for us it was a tremendous learning, everything we could get out of it. 

Respira it was accompanied by a video clip, in which you yourselves took care of the direction and the script. Why have you taken on these tasks?  

Samuel: Initially we hired a director but we had to do without him. We were short of resources and we were forced to choose what we invested them in. We had the ideas and the vision of how we wanted to approach them, so we put together a team and went to shoot. Javier is a sound student at FAMCA and had already been involved in audiovisual production before, we weren't going blindly either. 

How was the filming process? Do you think you managed to capture the aesthetics of the duo? 

Javier: Yes, we managed to make the video we wanted. It was a small team, made up of friends, but where everyone did whatever it took to make the clip come out. 

Samuel: It was really a difficult task. We even had to borrow money to finish it. But we felt that our lives depended on that, that Respira I needed a video clip at any cost.

What changes did the video clip bring to the band? 

Samuel: We were able to reach a lot more people, as well as gain the respect and admiration of people we respect and admire. 

Javier: On the other hand, I think that those who already knew us could have noticed that we were changing, that Scarlet Island would not always sound like Cerrar los ojos.  

Before starting the interview you told me about a new EP that you plan to release in May. What is this job about?

Javier: It's going to be a break with everything we've done. We want it to be an outlet for what is happening in the country. We are working on a more aggressive sound, in the songs there is a roughness that was not there before, there are no pretty songs because the times are not for pretty songs. 

How do you think the public that knew you for generating leafy landscapes and a more gentle lyricism will react? 

Samuel: I think that if you connected with the previous work, there is no reason for you to stop doing it with this one. Both are equally sincere, we are the same at another time, with other emotions to channel. Scarlet Island is not a sound, nor a rhythm, it is not a word or a way of writing. They are two people who respond to their environment and who need to be consistent with the piece of history that they lived through.

Camilo Marino Camilo Marino Empirical harmonica player, collector of sad songs and aspiring poet at the risk of a monogram that says buffoon. Trying to reconcile with the reality as an angel advised me. More posts

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