Mas Aya is Brandon Vldivia, a Nicaraguan-Canadian producer and percussionist. His album Máscaras is out now via Telephone Explosion.
Lido Pimienta is a Colombian-born, Toronto-based artist; her partner is Brandon Valdivia, a Nicaraguan-Canadian producer and percussionist who performs as Mas Aya. Mas Aya’s album Máscaras is out today via Telephone Explosion, so to celebrate, the two sat down to talk about the evolution of their collaboration, being “outsiders” in the Toronto experimental scene, and more.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music
Lido Pimienta: You remember what year we met?
Brandon Valdivia: I think it was 2013, must have been?
Lido: Was it at the Music Gallery? That was the first time we saw each other, when I went to see a show at this venue called the Music Gallery in Toronto. I was with my kid, and then I see this guy that looked like he was Middle Eastern — I go up the steps, and then that guy starts talking to me and it was Brandon. He was like, “Oh, I just came back from the Amazon, you’re Lido Pimienta, people love you in Colombia!” and stuff. And I’m like, “Of course, yeah, I know, I’m amazing.” But low key I’m like, Oh, my god, he’s so cute! But then his girlfriend came in to say hi, so I was like, Oops, OK, well, that’s not gonna happen.
But then I started playing my own shows in Toronto, and he had all these fantastic bands, so I was always see him playing. Then I would ask him to just come on stage for my shows. Then we started being really good friends, and I realized that, “Oh, you’re actually Nicaraguan,” [He was like], “I’m not Nicaraguan, I’m Canadian, but my father is from Nicaragua.” And I’d be like, “But that’s such a big part of who you are. You know, that’s where you come from.” And I think that opened these other conversations about identity.
He became my official percussionist in my project, and then whenever he had a project, I always lent him my voice — but always just keeping in mind that we do feel like we don’t belong. And I think that because we felt that way — like, we were a part of this scene, but what does that scene even really represent? So when we started becoming friends and going to more events that were for the Latinx community, we started realizing, OK, we could even feel like we don’t belong in a space that is, quote-unquote, considered “Latinx.” So we just started experimenting. I feel like for my project, it’s all about experimentation, and for his project it’s all about experimentation. So when we work on stuff now, it just comes out very natural, like when he asked me to sing on his last record.
Brandon: Yeah. I felt like when we first met, the thing that I thought was interesting about you and your practice was that it felt like you were a freak, but in a good way. Like you were from Colombia, but your music doesn’t necessarily sound like, “Oh, she’s Colombian.” Because a lot of bands around that time especially were doing the kind of new cumbia thing, which I love and is amazing. But I thought was interesting how you were kind of in between that.
But also we were both in Toronto and part of the sort of electronic experimental music scene, but I definitely felt in Lido a kindred spirit, even just because she was from a Latin background, and I just felt like most of the people that we were performing with, it was more of a white Eurocentric kind of background.
So I felt definitely a kindred spirit with you and the fact that it was coming from a different place — not that that necessarily means that we’re the same, but there was something that could be similar. Around that time, I was also became exposed to a lot more Colombian music and other musicians that you knew, and even part of the experimental music tradition, which is unique and different and not that common.
So the fact that you knew a lot of these people that were in the experimental music community in Columbia, and that I had just come back from a Colombian trip meeting some of these people, was super interesting to me. I thought that was a really powerful meeting place, even though I didn’t know that you necessarily thought anything about me — I had no idea.
That’s kind of what attracted me to your artistic process and all that kind of stuff. And then also the fact that we started jamming and it was improvisational.
Brandon: I’d be like, “Oh, I have a song, [you’ve] never heard it, you’re going to come and play with me.” That was a big part, I think, of our initial connection. That, again, is very unique and very different and experimental, but also was fed by folk traditions or ancient musical traditions.
Lido: Which doesn’t necessarily mean that in the context of the experimental or avant garde or noise scene in Toronto — because people that are, quote-unquote “trained” or people who are jazz artists are the ones that get to be called improvisers. I don’t come from any of those backgrounds. I didn’t go to school for music. Everything that I do in music is empirical — I proudly name myself as a student of the YouTube tutorial school.
So you were one of the few people that recognized those chops in me, and you did not really discriminate. Because a lot of those, mostly men, in that scene just saw me as this 17 year old that doesn’t know what she’s doing, just like a cute little… And you just never felt like you were welcomed in space. But that also never really stopped me, because I was going to school at the time and I had to take care of my son, so I didn’t really spend too much time worrying about being accepted by a bunch of like white men that—
Brandon: Are playing for four or five people in a crowd.
Lido: Yeah. But they all walk around with this like grandiose aura about them because they can play, whatever, syncopation. And for me, that just removes you from reality and people and it just alienates you. Music should be about celebration and it should be about connecting. So when I go into a situation where you’re playing and I’ve never heard it before, but I feel it, we were connecting and people were connecting with us too. Not a lot of people can do that. I wish that I was more disciplined, because I don’t really rehearse and I like to just feel it. So every time it feels very different and you don’t really know what’s going to happen.
Brandon: Yeah, I definitely think that’s the case. A lot of people, especially in improv and experimental music worlds and quote-unquote, the “free” improvisational worlds — like people are saying it’s free, so what does freedom mean? Obviously that has all these implications now, and bad connotations as far as the United States is concerned, the way that they use the word freedom. But what it actually means is it comes from all types of music.
So for me, I was definitely inspired by musicians who were using different types of music, like Hamid Drake and Ed Blackwell and Don Cherry. They were referencing folk music traditions, but also adapting that to the free world. So it’s like, OK, well, if all music is available, all music is available — so that means that pop is available, R&B is available, hip hop is available. It doesn’t have to be this experimental, weird ass stuff — which I love, but it can be alienating for people. And it’s more about the players than it is about the audience.
Lido: Exactly. And it’s like in those rooms, you’re not even allowed to say the word Rihanna.
Brandon: Yeah, exactly. Like one this one drummer in in Toronto — who I will definitely not name — I remember it really bothered me because he’s an incredible musician. But once when I bartending, I was playing the music in the bar, and it was Erykah Badu. And at one point, she has these sort of jazz, complicated 7th and diminished 5th and also 9ths and 13ths, and all these extensions and the chords. And I remember I overheard him go like, “Oh, this is pop music?” And I was just like, what the fuck is that? What kind of arrogant attitude—? Of course it’s pop music. It still bothers me seven, eight years later. And I respect this musician so much but that attitude — like only jazz is the music that’s intellectual.
Lido: But who’s more jazz than Erykah Badu?
Brandon: Well, that’s exactly it. But all because it doesn’t necessarily have a swing pattern, or the typical sort of things that make it be jazz. But also I think that’s what sort of — not that jazz is dead, but jazz went into academia and killed a lot of the creative spirit, which I do think does exist. There’s a lot of bands doing it. A lot of people are moving forward in jazz.
But anyways, that that really bothered me. So I think the fact that Lido was kind of coming from this place where, maybe she was referencing, say, Colombian folk music or cumbia or whatever it was, but then there was also some weird ass drone in the background. I loved it.
I hate the attitude that only certain things are experimental, like, “Oh, this is real music, and that other stuff is pop music.” I went to music school and I always hated that. I also participated in, and still do in a way, the free improv experimental music scene in Toronto. But I felt like a lot of those people, if you take them to a concert where other people are singing and dancing, it’s like, “Oh, this isn’t this isn’t real.”
Lido: It’s not classical, this isn’t trained.
Brandon: “This isn’t art.”
Lido: It’s confusing, because most of the time in those trained musician circles — when I first started playing my shows in Toronto, I was confused that I was expected to do cumbia and make people dance. But there’s so much more depth. When I listen to music that’s traditional to me, it has so much depth to it — there’s so much range and poetry and nuance that they would never catch, because it wasn’t something that was obvious to them. Or it was something that wasn’t taught to them in school, so therefore it doesn’t exist, therefore it’s not as important as the music that [they] are playing or interpreting, because [they] went to school for four or five years to learn how to play like this person.
But in my journey, I was just like, Well, I feel like I have this voice that has the capacity to go very high and it also can go very low; it can be very soft, but it can also be very strong, which comes directly from cantaoras. And it’s interesting to me, because a lot of these people that went to school would make me feel bad because I can’t read music, and even in in the Latin community that happened to me. There is a big artist that I would be in the same circles with, and they would see me with my laptop and with whatever program that I was learning to produce music, and they would just frown upon it. Like, “That’s not real music.” “What do you mean?” “Well, it’s just a little machine. You can’t read music, you’re not a real musician.” And I’m like, “Well, are you trying to tell me that Petrona Martinez is not a real musician? Like, I beg to differ.”
But [she’s] not writing for the New York City Ballet Orchestra. Maybe if [she] knew how to use MIDI and use these electronic programs, then [she] could, because that’s what I did. You just learn how to produce and then your world expands.I know that because I didn’t go to school and because I didn’t allow for the system to mould me into something, that’s why I come from such a far out, strange place, that somehow it makes sense and resonates with many different people. It resonates with people that are doing the classic stuff and doing the pop stuff and doing the experimental stuff. It just means that I can tap into all these worlds because I have zero expectations. I have no bar. I just go with my heart and what feels good. I just do feel good music, I guess, and it works. I’m going to be performing at the freaking Lincoln Center! I’m going to be playing with the NYCB freaking Orchestra!
Brandon: You can add that to the list of all the different things that you’ve done in your career so far, which is not just beginning, but it’s very much still—
Lido: It feels like a beginning.
Brandon: You’ve done a lot of the things that that other people wouldn’t do. It’s not just the Lincoln Center, New York City Ballet stuff. It’s performing in different venues from all over the place, having people listen to you from all over the place. It’s amazing.
I did go to music school, so I studied Western classical music. I was initially into it at first, but then I got alienated by it, especially as a percussionist. It didn’t speak to me at all. I was like, I don’t want to play a 30 minute piece and wait 15 minutes to play, like, two notes on a snare drum, have to walk over to play a note on a symbol. I was a drummer, so to me going to play that stuff was like, man, obviously this is really interesting and this is amazing to be able to do it, but I didn’t want that to be my artistic practice.
I was like, I’m going to hear music where there’s percussion. This was before YouTube, of course, so I would go to the school library and make my composition teacher be like, “This is gamelan music, listen to this gong music from Indonesia.” And I’d be like, “What? This is incredible.” “Listen to this Balinese stuff, listen to this Korean gong music, listen to this music from Mali, listen to music from New Guinea, from Morocco, from Ethiopia, from Botswana.” You can just keep going. I would also listen to Bartok and to R. Murray Schafer, Morton and Feldman and John Cage.
But definitely as a performer, I was definitely missing that. I felt there was this arrogance, and of course it’s Eurocentric. So I’m like, OK, well, I’m European, my mom’s from Europe. But I was like, I actually have a lot of roots in Central America, too. So how does that pertain to me if I’m listening to Beethoven from, like, three hundred years ago, this music that speaks to Romantic Germany or whatever?
Lido: And for us in Canada, it’s only accessible if you have money for a $100 or $200 or $500 ticket to the theater.
Brandon: Yeah. I definitely felt that there was this arrogance that ignored so many other things, and that’s definitely what drove me to study a lot of different types of music. And then even go back into the pop music — one thing that really changed me was hearing Final Fantasy, which was Owen Pallett. I loved how it was this classical music which was smart, intelligent, and had complexity, but it was also songs and was also pop. It was also beautiful.
I kind of feel like like in some way that we’re similar, because in my practice, I like to reference things that sound pretty. Like on my album, I want things to be beautiful — not just beautiful, but it’s also inviting and welcoming for people. But I also want to push people. Artists need to push, they need to try to expand society and expand consciousness and expand what the possibilities are as humans.
Lido: Owen is great, too, because he’s my transcriber for my piece. When we started integrating the percussion, I was teaching him about all these different styles, and I was showing him all this music. And the reaction was just happiness, openness. I think that maybe if more people in classical music were like Owen, then I would like it more. [Laughs.] It was like a really beautiful exchange of knowledge.
Also with Owen, it’s great because when we talk, a lot of it is just about life. I really enjoy that, and I think that’s what music is all about. If we think about all the artists within these different genres that are considered to be very serious, the best of the best, to me they’re the ones that actually have a connection with people and with reality. To me, that’s very important. So I think that in my quest, I still want to be able to utilize all the tools that are available to me in terms of musicians and all the various skill levels, but at the end of the day, the song needs to be able to be performed with only the voice. And if you need all of these external other things to make it happen, then you don’t have a good song, and there’s no way that you’re going to be connecting to anybody.
So I think that in this journey over the past 10 years of living in Canada as an immigrant, as someone that doesn’t really even drink or do drugs or like to party — I just like to stay home and take care of [my] kids — it really has helped me to just live in my reality of being a mother, of being an immigrant, tethered to the world, to all these injustices, to things that really matter. So the last thing that I care about is that the syncopation is interesting enough, or that the production has to have this very interesting little thing that only, like, five percent of the world is going to pick up on. So, yeah, I mean, I am grateful to be a quote-unquote “outsider.” I am grateful to be a complete freak. I enjoy that people don’t know what to do with my energy when I’m in the room — I love that people are confused by me and a little afraid of me. But then I start singing and then everyone is just disarmed. People just melt, you know? So I would say that’s a superpower that I have, and that I wouldn’t have had I born here. The sense of humor wouldn’t been there, the style wouldn’t have been there.
Brandon: You would have been socialized in a very completely different way.
Lido: I probably would have been in a metal band.
Brandon: To be a “Canadian artist,” quote-unquote—
Lido: What does that even mean?
Brandon: That’s another thing when we talk about when I first met you — I thought that you were such a breath of fresh breath for our Toronto music scene at the time. I was trying to bring politics into my music, because I was kind of bursting at the seams with anger at the system and all of that stuff. And so when you came in and started talking however you would talk, I felt like that was such a big, refreshing thing for a lot of people, because at that time, nobody was talking about politics.
Lido: I was bringing the Canadian flag and I had it upside down at my shows. [Laughs.]
Branson: Yeah. You were one of the first people to really talk about it openly and without embarrassment or any shame. A lot of people were generally quiet, a lot of the music was, like, sitting on the ground with a pedal, just kind of looking down and not even talking — super alienated. Nothing to the audience, no lyrics, and if there was lyrics, it was just about some personal thing or whatever. Which of course is totally fine, but over and over again, that became boring.
It just kind of was this contextless, almost nihilist — that’s what noise music was around that time. I do love noise; I liked it then more than I do now, but I like the complexity that noise brings out. It obviously does have an anger and it does represent something — it represents industrialization, alienation from a lot of different things. But at the same time, over and over and over again, I felt like I was getting sick of it. I was just like, what else is there?
And so when you came along, I was like, Oh, this is super refreshing because she’s talking about these things, she’s this huge personality. It was a huge breath of fresh air with these Canadian artists, and, like, we’re living in the biggest city in Canada and people are still super shy. Obviously this a generalization, but I felt like a lot of people who were from Toronto were really shy people. And I was coming from a small town where, like, it’s a piece of shit, but people aren’t shy. People are outgoing and people are going to fight.
Lido: Very confrontational, in your face.
Brandon: Yeah, and more than likely they’re going to be these conservative pieces of shit, but they’re still going to tell you what they think. There were no mixed messages. So coming to Toronto, I guess I was expecting it to be like New York. Or even in Montreal — I feel like in general, people are more outgoing.
Lido: They have more culture.
Brandon: Maybe it’s because there is this more specific culture where it’s coming from. So maybe they’re more, “I can speak from this place and I’m confident in that.” Whereas Toronto is like, “Oh, no, we’re not New York and we’re not London.” I feel that is garbage. I think that people should be proud of being from Toronto. I love what Drake’s doing, being like, “I’m fucking from Toronto and Toronto’s awesome.” I feel like that about Toronto, even though we don’t live there now. Be proud and represent where this is, because it really is awesome.
I mean, there’s obviously messed up things about it, of course. But I felt that aspect of being super shy and super insecure — a lot of Canadians are like that, and you coming on the scene bringing your Colombian-ness, especially being from the coast—
Lido: Yeah, just being Caribbean, because the rest of Colombia’s not like that. [Laughs.]
Brandon: And you weren’t like, “Oh, I’m an immigrant, I’m a guest here.” You were like, “ No, I am who I am and I’m bringing that energy.” So I thought that was fantastic.
Lido: So, in conclusion, being an outsider is a great thing.
Brandon: But you have to be confident. Because you can be an outsider and let just let it kill you.
Lido: Yeah, just own who you are and be open to the new, be open to listening to each other. Be open to being uncomfortable.
Brandon: Don’t be arrogant to be here.
Lido: [Laughs.] Yeah, arrogance is not conducive to anything prolific. We’re very prolific in what we do because we’re open and we’re very grateful and we’re very excited about music, because it is a blessing to be able to do this. It’s a blessing to be able to play, to sing, to produce anything.