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Cote Calmet: Cultivating Afro-Peruvian Rhythms

Courtesy ohJELL

Ian Patterson BY

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The only way I was really able to understand Peruvian rhythms was when I studied African rhythms… I am always trying to see where things come from…
—Cote Calmet
What do a dead donkey, a Seat Alhambra and Led Zeppelin's John Bonham all have in common? Whatever images your mind's eye may conjure, these three clues, in fact, all lead to Phisqa, the contemporary jazz band of Afro-Peruvian bent, formed by drummer Cote Calmet in Dublin, Ireland, in 2010.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Phisqa means five in the Quecha language of the Incas. It is the name that Lima-born Cote Calmet chose, not because there were five members in the band at the time, but in honor of the five senses.

For without any one of the senses, Calmet might not be able to appreciate the brilliant colors of an Amazonian macaw, nor savour a cocoa tea from the high Andes. He might not be able to enjoy the aroma of a pit-roasted feast or hear the indigenous chant of shamanic song...or play the drums.

Phisqa, is a celebration of life itself, an apt name for a band whose music is so vibrant and uplifting. After a hiatus of eight years, and Calmet's relocation to Granada, Spain, the all-new Phisqa is back with its cracking second album,Pachamama (Odradek, 2021), titled after the Inca name for Mother Earth.

Mother Earth Fights Back

A lot has changed on Mother Earth in the intervening years between Phisqa (Self Produced, 2013) and Pachamama, but if we have learned anything from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is that the health of the planet is inextricably linked to our actions.

This truth was vividly demonstrated during the first lockdown, when the massive reduction in human activity brought clearer skies at day and night. The absence of traffic also turned up the volume on birdsong, while animals across the planet came undisturbed into urban areas, as though reclaiming what was once theirs—a vision, perhaps, of a future where homo sapiens no longer rule the roost.

"It was quite amazing to see how, when we as humans stopped for three months because of the pandemic, Pachamama, the Earth—who is such an intelligent creature—made us see how 'It really doesn't matter if you guys exist or not, I'm going to continue.' says Calmet, in his best impersonation of Mother Earth.

"I know that they say we are in the year 2021, but we're not, for Pachamama, Mother Earth, it's the year 4.5 billion or something around that. Just the fact that we're alive at this moment in time—it really inspires me. This album is like a tribute to everything, to absolutely everything, because we never stop to think, as humans, how lucky we are to be alive at this moment."

¡Viva Peru!

Calmet's compositions on Pachamama are inspired by the nature, culture, cities—both ancient and modern—and the belief systems of his native Peru.

His distinctive brand of jazz draws on diverse Peruvian folkloric roots, from the Andes and Amazonian jungle to the Afro-Peruvian rhythms of the coast. It embraces the celebratory rhythms of festejo, zamacueca and cumbia—of the psychedelic variety—and explores the more subtle rhythms of panalivio and landó.

Growing up in Lima, Calmet was surrounded by these song forms. "When you get on the bus that music is there. That music is just injected all the time. It's like, you know it without really knowing it. So, when I started playing, I was like, 'Yeah, I know these rhythms. This is a landó, this is a festejo, this is a zamacueca...When I started Phisqa the compositions started coming."

Remembering Nicomedes Santa Cruz

The omnipresence of these rhythms and song styles in contemporary Peru is due in large part to the pioneering fieldwork conducted by Peruvian singer and ethnomusicologist Nicomedes Santa Cruz. His research into folk music the 1950s and 1960s led to a popular revival in Peruvian song styles and rhythms whose historical roots are not always easy to pin down, at least not with certainty. Calmet dedicates the beautiful "Lullaby for Nicomedes" to him.

"As an artist and someone who researches Peruvian rhythms, I think we Peruvians owe a lot to what Santa Cruz did, his research. Especially in the 1950s, no Google, no YouTube, you would really have to do a lot of work. I would say he did a lot of travelling to unearth all the histories of all these rhythms."

The Mother of all Mixapes

From a young age, music was always around Calmet. His father and an uncle were huge fans of rock and progressive rock. They weaned the young Cote on Genesis, Pink Floyd, Supertramp and Led Zeppelin. The first album he ever owned, and one which had a lasting effect on him, was Led Zep's Physical Graffiti [Atlantic Records, 1975].

"I still have that album," enthuses Calmet. "John Bonham is my hero. His sound, time feel, his technique, which I later discovered is like hard bop. I think that really made me make a connection between jazz and rock."

You can hear a little of Bonham's edge-of-the-cliff adventure in Calmet's more effusive playing, particularly on Pachamama's dynamic opening track, "Guacamayo"—whose punchy three-horn attack and electric guitar riff weave an exhilarating discourse between jazz and rock—and in his extended polyrhythmic solo on the driving "Foli." Like Bonham, Calmet is essentially a groover, but there are many other influences in his playing.

"Every single day I would have one type of music or the other around me. There was this huge mix in my head, for as long as I can remember really."

Calmet relates how his mother, and another uncle, were big salsa fans, while his paternal grandfather was into jazz, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Cole Porter. His mother's family were fans of Afro-Peruvian music, with Calmet's grandfather on his mother's side playing guitar and cajon with the important Peruvian musicians of the day.

"He was a big party guy," says Calmet of his musician grandfather. "There are stories of him saying, 'I'm gonna go for a cigarette' and he would come back after three days. It was like, 'Where have you been?' And he would be like, 'Oh, I was playing.' The Afro-Peruvian part really came from him because he had the cajon and he would always sing folkloric melodies to me."

Little wonder then, that Calmet is equally at home playing Brazilian music, rock, big-band jazz, Frank Sinatra—he toured Spain in a Sinatra tribute show, as the drummer, he stresses—or Afro-Peruvian rhythms.

Calmet's first instrument, following in his father's footsteps, was the guitar. "My dad used to have a band called Grass," Calmet laughs. "He would play guitar and sing —mostly Supertramp covers. I think a lot of my melodic part, when I create melodies, I always think of Genesis and Supertramp and stuff like that, combined with jazz, now that I think about it. I always try to make my music melodic. I like people to be able to listen to it and go, 'Ah, I remember that melody.' That's what Genesis do and that's what Supertramp do. That's the feeling I love about melodies."

Drum Heaven, Brazilian Adventures

The lure of the drums came to Calmet at the age of fifteen. "I was very lucky that one of my dad's friends is a musician/producer. He writes jingles in his studio in Lima. I remember he had these Premier Signia—same brand used by like Nicko McBrain from Iron Maiden—and he had loads of Zildjian cymbals. I was just in heaven. He was like, 'Yeah, play away.' Oh my god was I happy!" laughs Calmet.

Calmet recounts learning some basic harmonic and rhythmic principles with drumming teacher Rodolfo Alfaro, but more formal studies were to follow in Brazil, at Souza Lima, Sao Paolo.

There, Calmet studied jazz, with an emphasis on Brazilian jazz. "I was really, really into Brazilian jazz," says Calmet. "One of the teachers was Hermeto Pascoal's drummer Nene. I wasn't able to have direct lessons with him, but he was doing some of the ensembles and I would be there. He would tell you how to do this or how to do that."

During his time at Souza Lima, Calmet mainly studied with Bob Wyatt, a Baltimore drummer who had moved to Brazil in 1981. "He's a killing jazz player. Up to now he is one of my favourite drummers," Calmet acknowledges. "Amazing feel."

Within a year, Calmet had learned Portuguese and was hanging out in Odoborogodo, one of Sao Paolo's most famous samba bars. "It was amazing," recalls Calmet. "You really are inside the living creature which is samba. That has actually got me loads of gigs. Just the fact that I lived in Sao Paolo and I was able to play all these types of music, especially in Dublin, with a load of Brazilian people. And here in Granada as well because it's a certain type of scene."

A significant musical turning point came for Calmet when he encountered Dafnis Prieto, who was giving a masterclass at Souza Lima.

"Thanks to Dafnis and his way of playing drums I stared getting more involved in Peruvian music. What I wanted to create was what Dafnis was creating with the Cuban drum set, the same as Ray Barretto, or Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez—you know, a drummer sits down and you go, 'Oh yeah, that's Latin music.' I wanted to create the same thing but with Peruvian rhythms.

"Peruvian music can be very happy a lot of the time, and that's great, because it comes from African music, but sometimes I wanted to go a bit darker, to create some dark harmonies, more modern harmonies, before coming back." Prieto's album Taking the Soul for a Walk (Dafnison, 2008) was, Calmet acknowledges, a particular inspiration.

"When I was in Brazil, I didn't know how to manipulate harmony or rhythm as much as I know now obviously, so Dafnis was my gateway there. I remember going to Nene's apartment, with Dafnis, and just sitting with them and hearing them talking about how they open up their music was, for me, just absolutely mind blowing," shares Calmet.

"There's Nene, who completely opened Brazilian music, with Hermeto Pascual, and here's Dafnis Prieto, who completely opened Cuban music with his music, so listening to what they were saying and what they were doing—that's when Phisqa kind of rose in my head."

Two other important people who appeared in Calmet's story around this time were Venezuelan pianist Leopoldo Osio—who was also studying at Souza Lima—and the great Irish bassist Ronan Guilfoyle , who came to Souza Lima to give a masterclass in association with Dave Liebman's International Association of Schools of Jazz.

Guilfoyle, the founder and Director of Jazz at Newpark Music Centre in Dublin, was so impressed by Calmet and Osio that he offered them both places in the third year of Newpark's jazz programme. It was an offer that neither could refuse.

The Rise and Fall of Phisqa, Mark I

. Calmet arrived in Dublin in October 2010 and shortly afterwards formed Phisqa. The band boasted a truly multinational line-up, with Osio on piano, South African saxophonist Chris Engel, Irish double bassist Cormac O'Brien and Italian guitarist Julien Colarossi. Within a couple of years Phisqa's eponymous debut was released to positive reviews.

Phisqa's initial journey, however, proved to be short-lived, due to the take-off of another project involving Calmet. CEO Experiment brought together Calmet, Hungarian electric bassist Peter Erdei and, once more, Leopoldo Osio. The trio soon expanded to a quartet with the addition of the brilliant Irish tenor saxophonist Michael Buckley. A well-received debut CD and a high-profile gig with Kurt Rosenwinkel at The Sugar Club were auguries of a very promising future for the trio.

"I was so invested in CEO Experiment, I really thought we were really getting it, that I forgot about Phisqa," admits Calmet.

But just as CEO Experiment seemed set for bigger and better things, a bombshell dropped in 2018 when Calmet received a letter from the Irish immigration authorities saying that he had to leave Ireland or face deportation. "Even though I had done nothing illegal, I was like, 'You know what? I'm ready to leave,'" Calmet relates.

But where to? Whilst studying at Newpark Music Centre, Calmet had given some lessons on world rhythms, including Peruvian rhythms. One of the students in attendance was Spanish guitarist Gon Navarro, from Granada. He suggested Calmet move to the Andalusian city, most famous for the spectacular Alhambra.

As Calmet mulled over his options, the move to Spain seemed weirdly predestined.

"Man, it's funny, I had so many signs. The funniest 'sign' was when I saw a car in Dublin, a Seat Alhambra. I have never seen a Seat Alhambra in my life" Calmet laughs. "In Dublin! Okay, I have to go," he laughs again.

Phisqa, Mark II: An Andalusian Odyssey

You might think that there would have been no language barrier for a Spanish-speaking Peruvian in southern Spain, but as Calmet recalls, the transition from Dublin to Granada wasn't all plain sailing.

"I remember when I arrived and I thought, 'I don't have to speak English anymore,'" he laughs. "But a lot of verbs and words that I would use in Peru they wouldn't use here, so I had to relearn Spanish, you know, and I was like 'Oh my god!'

"When I came here, I initiated a jazz school in partnership with the Ool Ya Koo association. It was the same concept of school I did in Dublin, so I basically brought that over here. They were like, 'Man, this is great. Could you write us a paper to show us how it will work?' So, I did this big paper, and they were like, 'Uh, this is not correct Spanish.' I was like, 'Oh my god! Oh, man, not this again!'" laughs Calmet, recalling his frustration.

With his gift for language acquisition, however, Calmet was soon speaking like a native, as his family back in Lima would teasingly remind him. "Sometimes when I talk to my mother and my brother they say, 'Man, you sound so Spanish' I'm like, 'Come on, give me a break, will you?'" laughs Calmet.

Navarro, who had persuaded Calmet to move to Granada, also convinced him to relaunch Phisqa.

"Maybe a month before I came to Granada Gon called me and said, 'Why don't you revive Phisqa, man? People here have amazing rhythm. It was a great band, you have great music, I think you should revive Phisqa.' So, I said to myself, Why not?"

Calmet's initial thought was to replicate the formation of Phisqa that had recorded the first album in Dublin, but Navarro thought it might be difficult to find a pianist capable of handling the complex chord changes. Calmet got to thinking and went down the path of what he describes as "a more Peruvian root" of guitar.

"Peruvian music is guitar, voice and cajon, that's it. What happens is that it gives a more Andean sound if I want it, or more of a coastal sound, or a selva [jungle] sound."

To this end, Calmet brought in guitarist Mario Alonso, who performs an almost exclusively rhythmic role on Pachamama, with just one solo, of subtly Andalusian character, on the driving "Suspension." "I love the fact that Mario really works for the music," says Calmet.

The same could be said for bassist Alejandro Tamayo, who doubles on acoustic and electric. "For me, he's one of the best bass players I've played with. He's unbelievable," enthuses Calmet. "And him being from Cadiz he has all the natural rhythms, like the tanguillos and rumbas down!

To complete the jigsaw, Calmet brought in three horns: soprano saxophonist Miguel de Gemma, tenor saxophonist Carlos Ligero, and trumpeter/flugelhorn player Alberto Martín. The three form a dramatic spearhead on Pachamama, alternating between punchy unison motifs and more subtle harmonic textures, while delivering some smoking solos.

Impressively, it was Calmet's first time writing for horn parts, though he is reluctant to bask in any praise.

"It's easy for somebody who plays guitar. I play guitar and I compose on guitar. The trick is when you play a chord on the guitar it already has inversions, so you just go soprano, trumpet, tenor saxophone. Cool!" Calmet laughs, as though it were child's play. "And everybody is like, 'Man, the horns, the lines!' Yeah, guitar," he laughs again. "I really went for it, which is how I am, and in the first rehearsal I thought, 'Wow! This really works.'"

All six musicians play significant roles in Phisqa's rich rhythmic layers, and Calmet is clearly delighted with the grooves he has encountered in these Andalusian musicians. "People say here that we are living in the north of Africa, and you can hear it in their rhythm."

¡Qué burro!"

Yet for a band whose musical foundations are based upon Peruvian/Afro-Peruvian rhythms, it perhaps comes as a surprise that the typical Peruvian percussive instruments are very sparingly used on Pachamama. As Calmet explains, his vision from the outset was never simply to place a cajon beside the drums, but instead, to transpose the rhythms of the cajon—that most emblematic of Peruvian instruments—onto his drum set.

The cajon does feature prominently on "Moche," an intoxicating zamacueca-based percussive vignette of layered rhythms, featuring a cracking bass ostinato, and overlapping horn motifs that rise spectacularly. Alongside the cajon, Calmet interweaves cowbells, checo (squash) and quijada—a donkey's jaw.

A donkey's jaw, believed to have been introduced as an instrument to Peru by African slaves, is an instrument common to a number of Latin American countries. The mechanics are simple; one side of the jawbone is struck, causing the teeth to rattle. Calmet's donkey jaw is unusual in that it has no teeth. Very unusual.

Calmet recounts a gig with the first incarnation of Phisqa in Dublin's Bello Bar. Arriving home after the gig, it dawned on Calmet that he had left the donkey jaw in the venue. "I left it in Bello Bar for about three days. I came back to pick it up and there were no teeth! I was like, 'Why the fuck would you take the teeth of a dead donkey?'"

Gigging in Granada

Life in Granada for Calmet is good. "The lifestyle is very nice. It's kind of home-ish because there's a lot of sun, the food is great, and the ocean is just thirty minutes that way. I feel that connection, which is very important," recognizes Calmet. "When I arrived, things were really booming, especially in Andalusia."

A network of jazz associations, Sedajazz in Valencia, Ool Ya Kool in Granda, El Musicario in Cadiz, and so on, means that bands are able to secure gigs over a wide swathe of the country. Calmet was up and running in no time.

Shortly after arriving, Calmet undertook an extensive Spanish tour with a flamenco-jazz band run by Sicilian multi-instrumentalist, Ermanno Panta, which also took in Edinburgh, Scotland. The aforementioned Sinatra tribute tour also took Calmet all over Spain, including gigs on the four Balearic Islands and Tenerife. "2018 and 2019 were absolute madness with loads of touring and gigs. I was very, very happy," says Calmet. "And then 2020 hit, you know, and everybody knows how difficult it was."

Currently, Calmet has two regular weekend gigs. Ever the optimist, Calmet petitioned the sceptical owner of Misifú to book him for a one o'clock slot on Saturday afternoon. "He was like, 'Ah man, you think it's gonna work?' And I'm, 'Ah, it's gonna work great, man!' We do blues with a great singer and guitarist from Granada called Fernando Beiztegui—he just has the blues in him—and on bass David Martín."

On Sundays, Calmet, Miguel de Gemma, Alejandro Tamayo and guitarist Antonio Molina play straight ahead jazz—anything from John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock to Keith Jarrett and Bill Frisell. With the gigs selling out every weekend, Calmet's conviction that a lunchtime start would prove popular was bang on the money.

"The audience doesn't have to wait until 11 pm or midnight for us to play," explains Calmet. "They can eat a pizza, watch the gig and go home. For the musicians too it's great. You don't have to wait around all day thinking, 'What time is the gig?' It's very fresh and people are very happy. We are all very happy."

Following in Santa Cruz's Footsteps

A true musician's work is never finished, and Calmet continues to explore the rich world of Peruvian rhythms, an undertaking he began in earnest while studying for his Master's degree in history and rhythms in Dublin.

"The only way I was really able to understand Peruvian rhythms was when I studied African rhythms. Africa is such a huge place with so many different claves and patterns that when you really hear those claves and patterns, they are a bit different to the ones in South America. When somebody tried to put an African pattern into a South American rhythm it just becomes a completely other rhythm. It's so crazy, just these little things," Calmet explains.

"I researched the slave trade channels that went from Africa to Peru. Once I found from where the slaves were taken, I listened to the African rhythms from those particular towns and compared them to ones in Peru.

"The closest place I was able to create a connection was a place called Wassolon, the area that [djembe griot] Mamady Keita grew up in. It's a rhythm called N'Gri also known as Wassolonka or Kirin, and that was the only one I was able to find where the power was in the end of two just like Peruvian festejo—a lot of the African rhythms are more accenting the upbeat of one. I am always trying to see where things come from, you know."

More than half a century after Nicomedes Santa Cruz's trailblazing research into Peruvian rhythms, Calmet, in his own way, is doing what he can to preserve and promote the folkloric culture of his country.

It is not, as Calmet explains, a straightforward task.

"One of the biggest problems in Peru is registering music. So, what did this musician do? Nobody knows. There's no registration in Peru as there is in Brazil, or the States. So, between two friends, one who lives in Dublin and one who lives in France, we thought, 'This can't be happening. We really have to do something about it. Right, we start now.'"

One a month, with a band called Peruvian Jazz Project, Calmet and his fellow rhythm farmers transcribe a typical, folkloric Peruvian song and arrange it for a jazz trio format. "I actually have to learn all the percussion parts, so that's why I say I'm still learning every single day."

Never one to shirk a challenge, Calmet's ambition is to release the first ever Peruvian Real book some time this year. "Our dream is that someday we can go to a jam session and they'll say, 'Hey, let's play this Peruvian song.' 'Thank you! We don't have to play 'So What,'" laughs Calmet.

Calmet may be a romantic at heart, one who loves the allure of adventure and the buzz that comes with a challenge, but he is also a pragmatist who understands that our earthly endeavors do not always bear fruit in our lifetimes.

"All we can do is the best we can for the next generation. Just plant the seed—that's what we're trying to do with Phisqa."

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