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Peruvian Band Kanaku Y El Tigre's 'Quema Quema Quema' Burns With a Hunger for Life

Kanaku y El Tigre
Tigers Milk/Strut
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In English, “Quema Quema Quema” means “Burn, Burn, Burn.” For the Lima-based Kanaku Y El Tigre, it’s less a destructive burn than one reflective of burning passion — for them, the desire to break out of the restrictive confines of their home city; the churning, fevered sound of the song itself; or even the dichotomous creative relationship between its two principles, songwriters Bruno Bellatín and Nico Saba.

It’s a sentiment laid bare in the colorful, fun video for the band’s song “Quema Quema Quema,” infused with ‘80s pastels, in which Saba sings almost quivering with energy and the band sways back and forth.

In fact, “burning” is a sentiment that extends to the band’s latest album, also titled “Quema Quema Quema,” an album crafted in Peru that looks to American folk for the basis of its sound, but that brims with a distinctive open-heartedness, not to mention a particular rhythmic and melodic approach grounded in Saba and Bellatín’s surroundings.

"'Quema Quema Quema' feels a big melancholy and a big happiness, a big emotionality and a big sadness," says Saba. "Everything is big and emotionally intense. It’s about feeling however you’re going to feel intensely. It’s not going to be restrained."

Saba and Bellatín joined me on Skype from their Lima studio, where a John Lennon poster hangs behind them, just in view. They are a classic musical odd couple: Saba talks a lot about breaking free, about Lima as a kind of steel cage; Bellatín talks about inhabiting the freedom of childhood, a big, hungry yearning. Together, they write and record the songs. Saba sings them, and Bellatín makes the recordings. (Another core member, Marcial Rey, joins the duo on guitars, ukulele and darbuka, along with Gisella Giurfa on drums and Rafo de La Cuba on bass.)

Take “Si Te Mueres Mañana,” an unmitigatedly uplifting song whose chorus, in Spanish, exhorts: “If you die tomorrow, you should have done everything you wanted to do."

“For me,” says Bellatín, “[the song] brought me back a bit to childhood, that feeling of no worries and just being free with your time. I think it's about... holding your inner child to the light and keep your inner child alive."

Saba, for his part, recalls a thread on the band’s Facebook page, in which the duo held a sign in support of gay marriage.

“We had a mixed reaction,” says Saba, appearing to put it mildly. “People started fighting — discussing. Some people really disagreed, and were saying really bad things to us.

“But it kind of served as an inspiration, because you kind of think, ‘How do I explain to all these people in a way that everyone understands it? That if you die tomorrow, you should have done everything you want?’” He adds that the song is principally, for him at least, is about breaking out one’s confines — “leaving,” he says, whether that's leaving one’s state of mind, or their home state.

“The Lima that I live in, that we live in — it gets a little claustrophobic,” says Saba. “It does, man. And repetitive. It feels like Groundhog’s Day sometimes. You’re always in the same situation, again and again."

“Lima can be claustrophobic, but also it has lots of sports,” counters Bellatín, who adds that he likes to kayak and surf.

Kanaku y El Tigre
Kanaku Y El Tigre vocalist Nico Saba in the video for “Quema Quema Quema.” |  Tigers Milk/Strut

Bellatín and Saba met as teenagers living in the same Lima neighborhood; Saba recalls hearing Bellatín playing guitar in his house from blocks away. Later, they played together with Rey in a punk band called Ritalin.

The pair split up for college — Saba to L.A. and then Toronto; Bellatín to London — then both returned to Peru, where they recorded Kanaku Y El Tigre’s debut "Caracoles" in Bellatín’s bedroom. The album owed a clear debt to the pair’s recent time abroad, with a bright, earnest acoustic sound that recalled early ‘10s American folk bands like Mumford and Sons and the Avett Brothers but made more gentle by Saba’s delicate, papery delivery.

But that particular sound wasn’t having the same breakthrough in the Peruvian music scene, which is dominated by tropical dance music like salsa and reggaeton or by more straightforward rock, according to the duo.

“When we made the first album, everybody was saying, ‘where the f— are you going to play that? Who the f— is going to listen to that?’” says Bellatín. "It wasn’t understood here. Not at all."

“When we made the first album, everybody was saying, ‘where the f— are you going to play that? Who the f— is going to listen to that?’” says Bellatín. "It wasn’t understood here. Not at all."

The band’s notoriety in Lima grew, however, thanks to a few small performances in local art galleries and boutiques, video of which made its way to YouTube and caught fire. A significant fan base developed locally and beyond — one that waited as the band hammered out their follow-up.

But when the time came to make the record, Bellatín and Saba found themselves at a typical impasse.

“I wanted to do something different, much more experimental,” says Saba. "And he didn’t — he wanted to do something more like the old album."

“I said, if it works, why change it?” says Bellatín. "But, there’s a context for that. He might have been telling me, 'Let’s do trap.’"

The middle ground they ultimately found was inspired by Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” an album they both love. They appreciate it for the way it integrates different African musical styles while foregrounding Simon’s songs. The perspective of the record gave Bellatín and Saba a way to cater to each other’s impulses.

“[‘Graceland’] really meant something in our relationship, and helped us find something we were both interested in doing, at least in an abstract form,” says Saba. “Finding this middle ground, between luminosity and darkness, melodicism and noise — this balance. That album was the first step toward conciliation."

Kanaku y El Tigre
Growing up in Lima, Saba says he could hear Kanaku Y El Tigre’s Bruno Bellatín playing guitar from blocks away.  |  Tigers Milk/Strut

Bellatín and Saba insist “Quema Quema Quema,” which was released in 2015, sounds nothing like “Graceland,” but the influence seems obvious in some ways — for instance, both albums handle melody carefully, unfolding it in subtle, surprising ways. And while both revolve around typically “Western” pop music forms, they incorporate rhythms and sounds from the world outside its boundaries.

For Kanaku Y El Tigre, that mostly manifests in the rumbling percussion that gives the record its grounded, elemental sound, as well as guitar lines that nod somewhat to the melodicism of more traditional Andean music.

“The thing is, we’ve grown up with this music,” adds Bellatín. “It’s maybe not been there our whole lives, but it’s on the streets. There are a lot of things hidden here, and we try to bring them into our universe. It’s already there, so why not use it? It makes us more authentic to who we really are."

“A very characteristic sound of Kanaku Y El Tigre is the interpretation Bruno has with his guitar of this kind of melody, this ‘huayno’ kind of Andean melody,” says Saba, referring to the particular dance music that originated in the mountains of Peru. “It’s not huayno, it’s a very deformed version of it, mixed with folk, and Bob Dylan, or whatever."

If "Graceland" was wistful and circumspect, however, “Quema Quema Quema” (the album) is open-hearted, hungry for life while acknowledging its challenges. “Si Te Mueres Mañana” is full and bright, lifted by the nimbleness of the guitars, as well as Saba’s voice and the harmonies that rise beneath it. “Pulpos” is a melancholic but sweet duet with Spanish singer Leonor Watling that also features great, vaguely psychedelic guitar work, while “10 Años,” toward the end of the record feels indebted musically to older, ‘70s-era American folk, a song that muses on the passage of time and floats somewhere between nostalgia and anxiety. 

All the songs feel, in one way or another, enamored with life and its possibilities, nodding sometimes toward life’s more somber aspects without becoming somber themselves.

 Kanaku y El Tigre
Saba flanked by drummer Gisella Giurfa and bassist Rafo de la Cuba.  |  Tigers Milk/Strut

Meanwhile, the churning “Quema Quema Quema” — English and Spanish versions of which are both included on the album — while somewhat more of an outlier musically, encapsulates the album’s underlying restlessness.

"Do you know that feeling of —" Saba sighs. “That you’re missing out on something? That you’re always in the wrong place? You’re in this place where the anxiety of being there is excruciating, but there’s nothing that is really gonna satisfy it. Because you’re going to go out and do everything, and you’ll still have this feeling. 

“That’s what 'Quema Quema Quema' is about,” Saba says. “That burn, burn, burn."

Bellatín, characteristically, sees it a different way. “For me, it’s a search that doesn’t get to its conclusion,” he says, comparing the song to Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark."

“At the end, [the song] should add something to your life,” he adds. "You should take something good from it." 

Top image: Kanaku Y El Tigre, from left: Marcial Rey, Bruno Bellatín, Gisella Guirfa, Nico Saba, and Rafo de la Cuba. | Tigers Milk/Strut

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