ANDRES MARTORELL is a man on the move. Sunday night found the singer in Carna, where he was taking part in a traditional singers circle. The following morning comes this interview. An hour later he is en route to Dublin to catch a flight to Denmark.
“I’m giving a vocal workshop in one of the leading music schools in Copenhagen,” the qualified speech level singing instructor tells me. “I’ll be there for two days before coming back to Ireland again.” No sooner will his feet have touched the ground, then Andres will be making his way to Galway to play a concert in Monroe’s Live with Baile an Salsa. It’s a hectic life for the Uruguayan, but one he is clearly enjoying.
The man from Montevideo
Andres is originally from Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, the smallest country in South America, nestled between Brazil to the north and Argentina to the south.
“I grew up in the Villa Española neighbourhood of Montevideo,” he says. “It’s a big neighbourhood, very traditional, very community orientated. It’s not a slum, but it’s quite a poor area, but that has given me a strong set of values - when you grow up without much, you appreciate what you do have. It can be tough for some people, and difficult to have material things, but you also come to see that material things are not the most important in the world. Despite the poverty, Villa Española is a very happy area, people are always smiling. Being poor doesn’t mean you are sad or violent, and there is very little of either of that there.”
Music dominated the neighbourhood. Andres remembers “a place where people are always playing, one trying to be louder than the other”. It was the same in the Martorell family.
“My grandfather was very musical.” says Andres. “He always had a guitar with him and sang bolero, Latin music, and Uruguayan folk songs. My grandmother was very musical as well. We would have family gatherings, with wine and everybody singing. My grandparents also brought me to shows and to the Uruguayan carnival, which lasts 45 days. That was the environment I grew up in.”
However Andres’ decision to pursue music as both a career and a way of life was not sparked until his teens, when he began listening to Mexican bolero singer Luis Miguel and salsa singer Marc Anthony. “Following them, I knew that that is what I wanted to do,” he says, “but I was a terrible singer. I had to learn the hard way how to sing, but it helped that I had the passion.”
In his late teens Andres joined a rock band with whom he recorded an album. When that band broke up, the record company kept Andres on and he found himself a member of a boy band. “It was totally different, but it was worth it,” he says. “It didn’t last long but it gave me great experience in training and being on the stage. It’s something I don’t regret.”
Trad, salsa, and Che Guevara
Andres has beenliving in Ireland for 12 years. “One out of every three days of my life I have woken up in Ireland, a third of my life I have been here,” he reflects. During that time he has established himself as a successful speech level singing instructor and professional singer. When in Ireland, he divides his time between Galway and Dublin, and it was in Galway he hit upon the idea for a band that could fuse Irish trad with Latin American music.
“I am a person who loves roots music,” he says. “I listen to a lot of gypsy music, African music, I’m passionate about it. One of the first things I did when I came to Ireland was to go to The Crane Bar to listen to Irish music. For me, when you arrive in a foreign country, a way to get close to a place that is not your own is to listen to its music. There are many ways in which you can connect - for me music is the one - but if you don’t find that something you will stay disconnected.”
It did not take Andres long to settle into Galway life where he quickly became one of the main figures in the city’s Latin American community. He also was part of a band who played salsa music every Wednesday at Massimo.
“The band did well, we always got large crowds,” he says. “During the interval we were outside having a drink, and I just went up to The Crane to see Michael Chang [Chinese-American violinist, trad musician, and member of Tradiohead] and somewhere in the 40 metres between The Crane and Massimo, hearing trad on one side and playing salsa on the other, those musics met, and the idea for Baile an Salsa was born.”
Baile an Salsa is a true ‘melting pot’ band. Its 10 members hail from across Latin America, Ireland, Italy, and the USA, while their music fuses Irish folk, trad, and sean-nós, with salsa, rumba, and flamenco. as heard on their impressive debut album, Tribu - released late last year. Here, Irish standards like ‘O’Neills March’ and ‘Over The Moore To Maggy’ are woven seamlessly, even naturally, into salsa rhythms and Spanish language song. Throughout, each form remains distinct, yet also sounds harmonious and complimentary, allowing Baile an Salsa to have ‘the best of both worlds’ - the embracing of the native culture without the sacrifice or abandonment of the heritage from which you came.
The album also finds Andres singing as Gaeilge on standards like ‘Mo Ghile Mear’, and making it sound effortless. “I have a sean-nós teacher who is also my Irish teacher,” he says. “I’ve been learning it for two years. For the respect for Irish music, it needs to be done. The goal is to play Irish trad and put salsa on top of that.”
A notable song on Tribu is ‘Che Che Cha Cha’, which commemorates the occasion in 1961 when Che Guevara stopped off in Kilkee, County Clare, en route back to Cuba, and took some time to have a drink with locals.
“Our bass player Antonio Aguilar mostly wrote this one,” says Andres. “There was a Latin festival in Kilkee Antonio and I were playing at, and it was great to think Che had been here and there is a plaque in the hotel about it. For many people in Latin America, including myself, Che represents freedom. Some find it difficult because of the Communism, but the Communism we associate more with Fidel than Che. Che is much more about freedom. Towards the end of his life, before he went to Bolivia, Fidel and Che remained personally close, but politically they were drifting apart, not sharing many of the same ideas, so for us, Che is more about freedom than Communism.”
‘We want to make people dance’
In the two years Baile an Salsa have been together they have enjoyed a fair degree of success. Their debut EP was a hit in Columbia, they have appeared on The Late Late Show, headlined the Temple Bar Trad Festival, and played the Guinness Live and Cork Gathering festivals, been praised by members of Clannad, and have had tracks from Tribu achieve radioplay. “It’s going amazingly well,” says Andres. “Now we’ve been invited to play the Kansas Irish Festival. Playing America is huge for us. Things are moving on.”
Andres, and the rest of the band, however have no intention of resting on their laurels, but instead have their sights set firmly on the future. “We want to record more music,” he says. “I believe we are only at 50 per cent of our full potential. We want to perfect our fusion of Irish and Latin music. That goal is our number one priority so we want to record another album as soon as possible. I love at our gigs when I see people dance - it could be Irish dance or salsa dancing, or just jumping around. It’s happy music and we want to make people dance.”