Interview: Malamanya

Minneapolis-based group Malamanya draws on Cuban, Latin and Central American influences as well as their own original compositions to craft their vintage, Afro-Cuban sound.  The eight-piece band performs at The Cedar Friday, August 26th in celebration of their first full-length album, with TUFAWON and DJ Espada opening for the group; tickets are still available online.

I had the opportunity to speak to pianist Victor Johnson, timbales player Jesse Marks, and bassist, percussionist and tres player Tony Schriner about the band. We covered their history, their influences, and their inspirations before they headed to their red-lit practice space in the basement to rehearse for Friday’s show.

Anna Schultz, Marketing/Content Intern

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Q: How did Malamanya form?

A: Schriner: The group formed about six, six and a half years ago. Me and a friend started sounding out old songs, Cuban songs, songs from Puerto Rico, old salsa songs. We started sounding those out together and eventually met some other people. We met Jason the trumpet player, and we one by one assembled through a love of learning old, forgotten salsa songs, folklore songs, Cuban music, classic stuff into the 70’s. We then just started hanging out, downstairs [in the practice space] once a week. We listened to and studied music together and learned it song by song, together as a group.

Marks: To add to that, it’s almost that everything that Tony talked about happened and by just word of mouth, we booked some shows, and just from audience reaction and from further word of mouth it became a thing.

Q: Can you explain the process of recording your last album?

A: Marks: Just for some context, we recorded our first EP almost exactly five years ago, and we have since had another EP but this is our first full length album, and that’s what we’re really excited about. Tony, maybe you can talk a little bit about the recording process?

Schriner: The thing that’s really unique is that we all kind of learned the music together, piece by piece. We spent a lot of time taking the care to listen to something over, and over, and over again and really work together, as well as writing some original music too. The process that we decided to record this, I was able to acquire some old recording equipment that has a certain sound, a classic sound. We used 1-inch analog tape, which is essentially a giant cassette or a giant reel-to-reel. We tracked it all live in the studio, and then added minimal overdubs at the end. We all played together in the same room, essentially with two tapes, and then we mixed it all on the analog mixing desk without putting it in the computer at all. So we did all of the mixes and eventually it ended up in the computer, as all things do, but the whole recording process was very organic. Aside from the very end when it goes to digital, everything about that was the way that they would record records.

Marks: Coming from doing a lot of recording, this process was very limiting in a way because we were using older technology, but in the same way, those limits created all of the opportunities. That we were able to create this album, and give it that sound, that feel, that rhythm because we were limited.

Q: How did you come to a Cuban influence? I had read somewhere that none of your members are Cuban.

A: Marks: Which, that should be updated, that fact still exists in some previous interviews.

Schriner: We’ve had some changing members, originally Malamanya was two people in a house, learning and listening to CDs. Then it became three, then it became four, then it became six, and then we lost our tres player Trevor. So then I learned to play the tres to replace him, and then we lost our singer Adriana. So a lot of our press that is older and outdated is featuring our older members that used to be in the group. The really great thing is that you think you lose your incredible, talented lead singer, that the band would fall apart, but we just kept getting together. Eventually we were introduced to a singer who had just moved from Miami to here, who is from Cuba and grew up in Cuba. She was literally dropped off at our practice space, right here, and said “Hi, I’m Zusel, I’d love to sing.” She knew pretty much every song, no problem, and blew us all away.

Marks: She took us to school.

Schriner: She did, she schooled all of us. And it was really interesting to learn all of this stuff without the direct Cuban influence and then suddenly, after years, we have a singer from Havana show up. It was awesome, very serendipitous.

Marks: She’s unique in her own talents and voice, she’s a real powerhouse. But you were originally asking how we came to Cuban music, I think it’s a complex question because when you say “Cuban” a lot of people just think of salsa, or they think of this style of Latin music which is an amalgamation of, an influence, and a melting pot of different musics from the Caribbean, South America, and Central America. I think that in a lot of the classic old-school salsa, and even Latin American music in general, there’s a lot of influence from Cuban music in general. Folkloric Cuban music is especially an influence of a lot of that music, and it spreads very quickly. We definitely now, especially with our singer, we play Cuban music but we also play some cumbia, we play salsa, which is very heavily Puerto Rican influenced.

Schriner: From my perspective, I feel like I was introduced to a lot of this music by Tony, and it opened the faucet a little bit, I just heard some cuts, and then I realized there’s so much more when you realize this folkloric Cuban music, or rhumba, guaguanco is just one drum pattern over so many things and you can appreciate that. It’s part of the journey, just discovering that.

Johnson: Also, there’s just such a wealth of great Cuban musicians in town. You’ve got Nachito Herrera playing at The Dakota, you have Viviana Pintado who’s from Miami, who’s from Cuba too. She’s even given us lessons too, that’s something we have in common, it’s being passed down from people who are from Cuba and as they share it it’s enriching our community, which is awesome.

Schriner: It’s all happened within the friend circle, that’s what’s really wonderful. Viviana is a teacher, an incredible musician, a comrade and a friend. Once that spark of hearing, especially folkloric, Cuban music, that really inspired me. When you start to seek out, who here has grown up in that tradition, who here in Minneapolis or in the Twin Cities is from Cuba or is experienced in that tradition, and then you start to get to know them as a friend and a person, it’s really an amazing exchange. There is often a big language barrier if you’re not a native speaker. I mean, Viviana basically taught me to play the tres, playing the notes on the piano and I would sound them out and it was amazing. And Victor has taken lessons with Viviana, the old tres player Trevor has too.

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Q: Much of the music that you draw influence from has a history in dance, does that play any role in your performance?

A: Marks: It’s a certain fact that one of the reason why Malamanya has gained a following or popularity is the energy of the shows, which includes the dancers. I think there’s definitely an exchange that first off, the dancers listen to us and dance to us, but there comes this moment where we’re all in sync, where we’re all watching the dancers and everyone is having a good time and it just works together.

Schriner: It’s a truly symbiotic relationship between the musicians and the dancers. Because even if you don’t consider yourself a dancer, to be a spectator to seeing awesome live music and awesome dancing that’s passionate and genuine, that’s an event in itself. I think that those two things compliment each other insanely well and they feed off of each other, and that’s something that we’ve been really lucky to have.

Marks: It’s important to note the accessibility though, regardless of whether people can dance certain kinds of styles, to what we play to, we definitely just get an enthusiastic, music-loving audience that dance in their own way. People of all ages, from wherever, come out to Malamanya, and that will for sure be the case at The Cedar, there’s always a great mix.

Q: What’s inspiring you as of late?

A: Marks: Definitely getting this album out, we’re super excited. It’s definitely a pinnacle, we’ve been climbing for a while and with all the elements of change and moving forward, we’ve reached this point, and it’s happening this week.

Schriner: I think the thing that inspires me the most is bringing the style of music that we play, bringing that energy. It’s almost like people tend to forget their problems and just let it all out. Whether you’re 60 and come from the suburbs or 12 and you grew up in the inner city, the music itself, just rhythmically does something to anyone that’s in the room. What inspires me is being a purveyor of that music, to people who maybe have not heard it or have forgotten about it, or maybe they were used to hearing it in their house when they were a kid and they haven’t heard anything like that in years. Making people remember the past, and really appreciate the aesthetic of that at least, is something that really inspires me.

Johnson: For me, it’s like the music we play has a certain feeling to it, and it’s like that feeling makes me play the way I do when I’m playing piano. And that same feeling makes dancers that are dancing right in front of us look a certain way when they dance. When I watch them, it makes me feel that same Cuban music feeling. Even though we’re doing totally different things, it’s all kind of pointing to that same feeling. Maybe you know some of the people, maybe you don’t know them. But you’re all together, almost on the same stage, sharing the same thing.