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Pedro Aznar: Body and Soul

Pedro Aznar is an icon of the generation of Argentinean artists who embodied the golden age of rock in this country. He dazzled audiences with his talent in Serú Girán; he was a key influence in the careers of Soda Stereo, Fito Páez, Charly García, and León Gieco; he earned several Grammy awards with Pat Metheny; and he bowled over Víctor Jara and Mercedes Sosa. In recent years he has moved away from rock and closer to folk music. He successfully adapted his art to the times, but he has also been burdened with helping us forget the sad passing of Gustavo Cerati, who departed on that journey of no return on September 4th, joining Luis Alberto Spinetta.

By:  Jacobo Celnik
Photos: Oliveira Producciones

We music lovers are not prepared for bad news: we always imagine our idols are immortal and will always be here to brighten our lives. But not even the most pessimistic among us imagined that two blows would drastically alter the landscape of Latin American rock in such a short time.  Luis Alberto Spinetta succumbed to cancer in February 2012, and any hope of a recovery for Gustavo Cerati was snuffed out last September 4th. The leader of Soda Stereo died of respiratory failure after four years in a coma. “Dear Gustavo: I embrace you in the light and I thank life for having given you to us. Your music and your presence are a joy that transcends time. May your spirit rest in peace and continue pulsating in the ether. All my affection, respect, and admiration forever,” was how he was eulogized by Pedro Aznar, a great survivor of a golden generation of Argentinean rock, along with Andrés Calamaro, Fito Páez, and Charly García.

When Luis Alberto Spinetta died two years ago, no one was prepared to lose him, Aznar certainly wasn’t, but he did not hesitate when invited to pay tribute to his friend. The city government decided to hold a concert in memory of the leader of Almendra and Pescado Rabioso, and it was celebrated bassist Aznar, one of the musicians most familiar with the work of “El Flaco” (the skinny one), who was chosen to lead the tribute. A somber and majestic Aznar opened the recital with Almendra’s “Tema de Pototo” (Pototo Theme), followed by Pescado Rabioso’s “Puentes amarillos” (Yellow Bridges) and an additional twenty-four memorable songs from Spinetta’s forty-year career. Fifty thousand people shed tears of happiness that day. “Covering another artist’s work is difficult and complicated. It took several weeks of work, study, and rehearsal, since Luis’s work is quite complex. And it was a very difficult time emotionally; we had known that Luis was ill, but we had hoped he would recover. When the sad news came, I knew I had to do something to honor his memory. He was not only a key figure of Argentinean music, but also a great friend,” recalls Aznar in his Buenos Aires studio, just before departing on a trip inland to promote his album, Mil noches y un instante (A Thousand Nights and a Minute).

To remember Luis Alberto Spinetta is to connect with Aznar’s past. The two were united by a love of The Beatles and tango and a deep admiration for national folklore. When Spinetta formed the group Almendra in 1969, Aznar was ten years old. For a boy who loved music and was passionate about it, it was significant that someone with his same roots could create music similar to that of his heroes from Liverpool. The two were closely connected, and one day fate put them together to work on the album Madre en años luz (1985) by Spinetta-Jade, a jazz rock band formed by Luis Alberto in the late 1970s. “‘Flaco’ Spinetta changed the face of Latin American rock. He opened the door to poetry that was surreal and dream-like, more a product of the unconscious, while giving popular music a larger measure of sophistication. He set a precedent and it was an enormous honor to work with him,” says Pedro.

Aznar’s passion for music was sparked by listening to Revolver by The Beatles. He was seven years old when he first encountered the album; this exceptional young man growing up in the Liniers neighborhood enjoyed music more than any other art. His father was very influential in his musical development since he essentially forced the boy to take guitar lessons. Despite the boredom of music theory, he was motivated to spend hours playing the chords of “Taxman” over and over. In 1982 fate once again brought the Liverpool quartet to the fore of his story when he decided to make one of the songs on his solo album a wonderful cover of “Because,” the Lennon song included on Abbey Road. “Listening to The Beatles satisfied a yearning of the spirit. When the White Album came out, I remember perfectly how ‘Blackbird’ made me feel: that day I understood the importance of melody in creating songs. The challenge in covering The Beatles is to be true and get it just right. True, in understanding when you don’t need to change anything in a song; and getting it right when you do make changes: be objective and see if it works or not.” His teacher, Elba Vignaldo, not only motivated Aznar to study, learn, and practice, but she was also largely responsible for opening a world of musical possibilities to him and guiding and molding his talent.

Dictatorship, Underground Sounds, and the Argentinean Beatles

In the mid-1970s, with enough training to start a career in music, Aznar set out on the road to that world of possibilities. First, he played with underground bands on the Buenos Aires bar circuits, where shows by jazz-rock and experimental groups escaped the tentacles of the dictatorship. His first bands were Madre Atómica and Alter Ego, in which he honed his craft with top-quality musicians. His talent did not go unnoticed and he was known as an available up-and-coming musician. During this period, he had the good fortune to play alongside guitarist Lito Epumer, one of the masters of Argentinean jazz. Thanks to the good relationships he forged, in 1978 he was included in the progressive rock trio Alas and invited to play with them on the album Pinta tu aldea (Paint Your Village).

That same year, Pedro Aznar made a strong impression on Charly García. The Mozart of Argentinean rock had just dissolved La Máquina de Hacer Pájaros —the band that followed Sui Géneris—and he was planning a virtuoso project that would allow him to experiment with good musicians, expand his musical horizons to encompass other styles, and return to the roots of The Beatles. In late 1978, he recruited Aznar, David Lebón, and Oscar Moro to form Serú Girán, one of the most important Argentinean bands of all time, responsible for great songs like “Eiti Leda,” “Peperina,” “Seminare,” and “Viernes 3 a.m. (3 a.m. Friday),” among others. It was not just a great group; they were considered the Argentinean Beatles. “The years with Serú Girán were transformational for all four of us. We all learned a lot and we challenged each other to bring out the best in all of us. It is fascinating to work with Charly García, because we are very complementary and we enhance each other. It is not difficult to compose with him, so long as you don’t catch him in a difficult moment. If Serú Girán were to reunite, it would be a big challenge for us as musicians and as creators to reflect and comment on current times in Latin America and the world, like we did thirty years ago.”

Aznar left Serú in 1982. New projects beckoned, including studying at the Berklee College of Music and playing with U.S. musician Pat Metheny’s band, with whom he earned several Grammy awards. In 1986, he returned to Argentina to consolidate his solo career with the album Contemplación (Contemplation). Hits, awards, and fame were left behind. This was a time for Aznar to find his own voice, the same one that Astor Piazzolla took twenty years to discover. He was also able to share his knowledge with younger artists who were making an impact on Argentine rock. In 1990, he worked on the musical production of Soda Stereo’s album Canción Animal (Animal Song), and he and Charly García and Gustavo Cerati composed the song “No te mueras en mi casa,” included on Charly’s Filosofía barata y zapatos de goma.

During this new phase, Aznar could not help expressing his dissatisfaction with certain social and political events in his country. Several of his first solo works included songs that addressed his concerns. “My songs always reflect the topics I worry about. In recent years, I have spent more time exploring inner realities than social problems, and that reflects my personal circumstances, but that doesn’t mean I won’t go back to political topics. This is what I do, this is how I express myself and communicate my deepest feelings. This is true not only of composing, but of writing, poetry, and photography. Everything I say is born from the same creative force. It is something that expresses the passion, but at the same time, creates it.”

Early this year, Aznar released his most recent album: Mil noches y un instante, perhaps his most honest and personal work in more than twenty-five years as a solo artist. He performs as a one-man band, pays tribute to The Beatles, and indulges himself by inviting two greats of Argentinean folklore, Abel Pintos and Teresa Parodi, to work with him. “Having Teresa on this album is a great honor. Some time ago she told me she had some lyrics floating around in her head and wanted to pass them onto me so I could put them to music. I loved the idea, and that is how we started to compose together. I really like working with other creators; it is very enriching and you always learn something new.”

With the unexpected passing of Spinetta two years ago, and Gustavo Cerati last month, Pedro Aznar is on course to be the premier exponent of Argentinean popular music. Nonetheless, he prefers to take things easy, day by day, and not invent challenges. “There’s nothing I feel I need to accomplish because I am extremely happy with my career now. I am letting creativity flow and accepting whatever surprises fate offers me. That seems more enriching than setting goals or trying to reach new heights.” For the time being, he has a new album in the works as well as a possible homage to Cerati, in cooperation with several great Argentinean rockers like Fito, Calamaro, Babasónicos, and Charly. This is what the immediate future holds for Aznar, the great leader of a golden generation of Argentinean rock.

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