Sofia Rei, a singer and multi-instrumentalist born and raised in Buenos Aires, remembers the rising feeling of indignation when a New England Conservatory classmate asked her sing a nueva canción standard at a concert. She had grown up hearing her mother’s Mercedes Sosa albums, “but I never had any interest in performing that music,” says Rei, who makes her Berkeley debut Friday at La Peña with two New York colleagues, Peruvian bassist Jorge Roeder and Colombian percussionist Tupac Mantilla.
“When I moved to Boston I was very interested in vocal improvisation and jazz, and wanted to learn more about that, but people here see you in a different way than you see yourself,” says Rei, who initially performed and recorded under her full name, Sofia Rei Koutsovitis. “When somebody at school said why don’t you sing something from Argentina? I thought, the same old story, you ask the Argentine to sings an Argentine song. I want to be a jazz singer, come on!”
After getting over her pique, Rei not only collaborated with her classmate, she put together an entire program of Latin American songs. After years of crooning American Songbook standards and Jobim’s bossa nova classics, the experience of performing in Spanish was an epiphany.
“For so many years I was singing in English, Portuguese and Italian,” Rei says, speaking from her apartment in Harlem. “But there’s something that comes so naturally singing in your own language, something you live in that moment. You connect with a whole era of music and all it represents.”
In a twist she hadn’t anticipated, Rei has made her mark by merging the sounds of her homeland with jazz and an array of South American musical currents. Possessing a voluptuously full voice, comprehensive command of Latin American rhythms, and encyclopedic knowledge of folkloric forms from Argentina, Peru, Colombia and Uruguay, she’s become an essential creative catalyst on a scene teeming with musicians eager to blend jazz with its southern hemispheric siblings.
While Buenos Aires is a cosmopolitan capital with a diverse community of musicians from across South America, New York City offers a very different kind of Latin American melting pot. As Rei discovered, the immigration experience can heighten awareness of one’s culture, while simultaneously breaking down walls between rival nationalities. In many ways, the crucible of New York forges a distinct Latin American identity, a hothouse environment in which she thrives.
“Hanging out and sharing music, this exchange creates that idea of Latin America,” Rei says. “Each of us has knowledge of the music of our own countries, connected by the thread of what is common in the culture, and we’re sharing it together in the same place. I really got really drawn to all that music, particularly the rhythms.”
Initially Rei assembled a pan-Latin American repertoire. On her breakthrough album, 2009’s Sube Azul (World Village), she focused on her original songs developed with a diverse cast of musicians, including players like Bay Area-raised cellist/trombonist Dana Leong, Israeli clarinetist Anat Cohen and pianist Geoffrey Keezer, non-Latin players who have immersed themselves in Latin American music.
On Friday, she performs with a new trio featuring two longtime collaborators. If the names Jorge Roeder and Tupac Mantilla look familiar, it might be because they were part of an extraordinary band led by Santa Rosa-raised guitar star Julian Lage. While Roeder is now a highly sought after New York accompanist, the Lima-raised bassist credits Rei with easing his transition to a new life in America.
“I met her my first week at NEC, and she really helped me out,” says Roeder, who co-produced Sube Azul and Rei’s latest album, 2012’s De Tierra y Oro (Cascabelera). “Then she moved to New York before I did, and working with her introduced me to a lot of musicians. The thing about Sofia is that it’s not like accompanying a vocalist. She’s more like one of the band.”
Since moving to New York in 2005, Rei has delved into the city’s increasingly visible South American music scene, performing with Folklore Urbano, a 12-piece Colombian ensemble, and the Afro-Peruvian quintet Alcatraz. Perhaps more importantly, she’s served as a conduit for other artists, inspiring an eclectic cast of composers such as Geoffrey Keezer, Maria Schneider and John Zorn.
Keezer, a prodigious pianist who got his start with Art Blakey, was already exploring Latin American music when his path crossed with Rei. She ended up playing a pivotal role in developing the tunes for his project Áurea, which mostly features his original compositions inspired by Peruvian and Argentine folkloric music. Released on ArtistShare, the 2008 album earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Latin Jazz Album.
“Sofia is a walking encyclopedia of South American folkloric music, and was a tremendous resource in choosing material for Áurea,” Keezer writes in an email. “The project couldn’t have happened without her involvement.”
Rei returns to Berkeley on November 19 for a very different kind of role in pianist/composer Myra Melford’s ambitious multi-media production Language of Dreams at Zellerbach featuring her award-winning band Snowy Egret. Inspired by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire trilogy, Melford included passages of his text, and wanted a bilingual narrator to deliver the words.
“It’s a very interesting project, with music, dance, video and narration, these four parts,” Rei says. “Myra did a great job. I’m not singing one note, and it’s the first time I was in a gig doing whatever else beside singing. But she made a good choice to call a musician rather than an actor. I have to be in sync with what the band is doing all the time. Myra’s music is rhythmically challenging with a lot of odd meters. I think an actor would have been pretty lost on how to fit in.”
Always juggling half a dozen different projects, she leads a sextet and is honing a new project Five Cynical Poems using a looper, effects pedal, and pre-recorded beats. She’s got several duos with distinct repertoires, including a Violeta Parra project with guitar Marc Ribot, a duo with pianist Leo Genovese, and a project with Roeder she’s ready to record.
“Things keep evolving and changing,” she says. “My interests were always pretty diverse in terms of style. Now I’m in a big transition to something I’m hearing, this really big combination of so many different worlds, but not able to exactly put together. I like that. It’s a huge challenge. Jorge and Tupac are the right people to play my music. We share so many things, background and culturally. Not that I’m getting together with two South Americans so I can play folkloric South American music.”
Recommended gig: Aram Shelton at The Back Room
When alto saxophonist Aram Shelton arrived in the Bay Area in 2005 to do graduate studies at Mills College he was already a veteran of Chicago’s fecund improvisational music scene. He didn’t waste any time in stirring the Bay Area pot, forming a series of striking ensembles like the raucous sextet Marches, which extrapolates on the music of Sun Ra, Archie Shepp, and Albert Ayler, and These Are Our Hours, a quintet showcasing a bevy of highly promising young players. He’s relocating to Copenhagen on Nov. 3, and plays a farewell gig Sunday at The Back Room with Berkeley saxophone explorer and composer Larry Ochs, bassist Scott Walton and drummer/percussionist Kjell Nordeson.
Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.
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