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Willy González


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“The Sound Of Mother Earth”

                              by Sebastián Caffini

                Argentine bassist Willy González surprises the listener in more than one sense. Those who don’t know him and let themselves get carried away by his look in the photos, for instance, may expect to find some kind of John Patitucci emulator onstage, especially considering Willy exclusively plays the Yamaha six string model named after the famous American bassist. But Willy will surprise them with a style that owes much less to international bass heroes than it does to the most visceral musicians from this corner of the globe, and not necessarily bass players.

                First time listeners could also expect to find a music style rigidly molded after the dictation of Berklee or a reflection of the latest trends of foreign instrumental music. But Willy will surprise them again when, armed with his Yamaha, approaches chacareras, zambas, chamamés, festejos, marineras and other typical Latin American rhythms with the authenticity and the honesty of someone who knows he’s expressing himself in his native language and has his own story to tell.

                Finally, casual listeners will surely be afraid to find a selfish and arrogant musician who will overwhelm the audience with a deafening volume level and a storm of merely gymnastic instrumental prowess. Once again, Willy will surprise them showing that, even though it’s clear the center of the stage belongs to him, the talented musicians who accompany him live find enough room for expression and brilliancy. And he will surprise them once again showing that, even though he possesses an enviable technical dexterity, he understands music always comes first, and knows how to put the former in service of the latter.

                Our conversation with Willy took place a few days after an intimate an emotive show in Buenos Aires, through which González showed why he is one of the most personal and interesting bass players this side of the world. He sounded good and made everybody else sound good. He took the spotlight when it was called for and shared it with the other musicians with humility and conviction. He alternated various instrumental settings and in all of them he shined and made the other musicians shine. He especially touched the audience when he approached two vidalas in a duo setting with singer Laura Peralta, a moment when, using a volume pedal, he extracted fascinating sounds from his bass, which Peralta defined as “ancestral”. And rightfully so. At times, Willy’s sound is more than just a bass sound. Throughout the show, the listeners understand what they hear is not a bass but the sound of Mother Earth.

                Willy received us in his apartment after an intense day of teaching, both privately and in one of the most prestigious Buenos Aires music institutes. And even though it was late at night and he was visibly exhausted, he had no problem in telling us, extensively at times, his musical story and the meaning of his permanent search for his personal and unique sound and language.


Is it correct to say you’re a musician with a background in the jazz-fusion school?


WG: Relatively. To me, “background” implies also the music you listen as a kid. And as I became a musician I just played the music I came across. The music that left the deepest mark on me as a kid was the music of (Argentine folklore singer) Mercedes Sosa, (tango musician and composer) Astor Piazzolla, the Beatles to some extent, some things from (Chilean singer) Violeta Parra, you know, mostly Latin American popular music, which was the music my parents listened to. And also, something very significant to me was traveling all over the country listening to that music. I saw lots of landscapes as a kid. And when the playing thing began, which was something fortuitous since I began playing because my brother asked me to do so, I began playing the music from the records my brother’s buddies brought home, which was mainly symphonic rock: King Crimson, Yes, Gentle Giant, Premiata Fornería Marconi which was an Italian group, some things from Argentine rockers like Charly García y La Máquina de Hacer Pájaros, Crucis I told you, I played the music I came across. If I had someone in my family or circle of friends who played folklore, then I would have started playing that music a lot earlier, because I always liked it. But for people from my generation, and in Buenos Aires, that wasn’t usual at all. My appreciation for that music grew as years went by. For example, when listening to (Argentine bandoneón player) Dino Saluzzi with (bassist) Matías González and Quique Sinesi, or the Jorge Cumbo Trio, or the Astor Piazzolla quintet. I saw these musicians live and they became an important influence in my background. And my earlier teachers were somehow niggardly in that aspect –with the exception of Francisco Rivero, who taught me a lot about this music. The things I learnt the most from were those I saw live. And I learnt from studying a lot too, obviously. Everything I saw in a concert I went crazy trying to pick up, or get the concept, the next day. Fortunately, I could complement all of that with a thorough learning of music reading and writing, and with a little from this and a little from that I somehow substituted the lack of a guide or a mentor.


How do you see your work with jazz-fusion group Monos con Navajas (“Monkeys with Razor Blades”) from today’s perspective?

 WG: I think it’s a group that sounds very good. The problem is, now I hear it sounds too much like Yellowjackets or Weather Report, especially in the second album. The first one was more influenced by the music of the ‘70s. In the second album the influence of those bands I named was clearer, except for a couple of moments, with the last lineup especially, in which the band had something more of a personal identity, although not completely. In some pieces written by (keyboardist) Pollo Raffo you could notice some tango influence, and in some of my own pieces there was some influence from folklore or candombe music, but those were very few pieces.


I was listening an old song from Monos con Navajas, “P.G.”,  in your website, and it reminded me a lot of Weather Report’s “Teen Town” that what you were talking about?

 MG: Right, the music sounded too much like “someone else”. Yes, the influence was strong. I believe in jazz-fusion music you need to be very, very personal and very good to avoid sounding like Jaco.


Did Jaco’s ghost chase you back then, so to speak?

 WG: At times I listen to those albums, now that I believe I developed other language which allows me to be more critical of myself, and I think I was obviously very influenced. And lots of current bass players, like Gary Willis, sound like Jaco somehow. Gary is a great player and he has his own sound, but the concept is the same –it’s a development of the same thing. And it’s very hard, in jazz-fusion music, to get rid of it. It’s like playing the trumpet and not being influenced by Miles Davis. It really is very hard.


After that group came La Banda Latina (“The Latin Band”), which was a different musical and group concept...

WG: I go back to what I was telling you earlier about how I always played the music that I came across. The beginning of La Banda Latina was parallel to Monos con Navajas, actually. By that time I had traveled a lot to Center America, and the music from there started to grow on me. My interest for that music coincided with an increasing interest in developing my own language, somewhere around my early twenties. By that time, in a jazz seminar I met Peter Sprague, a guitarist who had played with Chick Corea, and he was quite impressed with the music I was writing, which had more of a Latin flavor to it, not so jazzy. That gave me more self confidence as a composer. It was also very meaningful to me the experience of playing with Gustavo Moretto, who had the ambition of creating a personal language in the context of tango music.


And by that time, when you discovered the music from Latin America and started to develop your own language, did you have any bass player as a definitive influence, or did you feel more influenced by musicians who don’t play bass?

 WG: Most likely I was influenced by musicians who don’t play bass. For instance, I once saw (Argentine accordionist) Chango Spasiuk playing in a trio setting with two guitarists. They played traditional music from the northeast of Argentina and the way Chango phrased on the accordion really touched me. Next day, that was still stuck on me and I started stealing phrasings from his accordion, to the point I wrote a song called “Chango del río”, which is dedicated to Chango, and called him to play on it. He came enthusiastically even though what he knew about me was that I came from a different place, I mean, he knew Monos con Navajas. And when it was time to play I perceived I was drawing from his accordion the very things I was playing on my bass. The same thing happened to me playing with (accordionist) Néstor Acuña, with (pianist) Raúl Carnota or (harmonica player) Hugo Díaz, whose style made a big impression on me. Besides, I was lucky enough to play with the same guys I listened to. When I decided to play folklore I called the guys I enjoyed listening to, and by sheer luck they said yes! (laughs). I have a great respect for Argentine music, I always had, and at first I really felt kind of like an intruder, because even though it was music I felt deeply, I didn’t have neither a background on it nor any experience playing it. I think a big mistake among jazz musicians is believing they can play any other kind of music easily because they play jazz. To me, nothing can be further from the truth. I spent plenty of time trying to find my language. Now, I’ve been feeling quite comfortable within the genre for some time, and I feel uncomfortable playing other things. Now it’s more natural to me, just like it should have been in the beginning. But that took some time, and I started from scratch, hanging with the guys who had a handle on that idiom, and with great respect for it, because it’s easy to cop that attitude of believing that just because you studied harmony and counterpoint and you know more complex harmonization concepts than those used by (Argentine accordionist) Raúl Barboza, for example, you’re a better musician than Barboza. That’s silly. But, sadly, it’s a belief that’s very much extended.


Something that amazes me is the fact that you incorporated the folklore elements to your music without any bass referents, since the bass is not used at all in traditional folklore music...

 WG: Right, almost everything I do was taken from other instruments.


Do you feel you’re something of a pioneer, like making room for the bass in a musical context where it didn’t have it before?

 WG: (remains silent, like the question surprised him)


I’ll ask it in other words: are you conscious you’re opening new roads for the bass with your work?

 WG: I hope so the last couple of years I’ve noticed in my students a growing interest in what I do. In fact, we get e-mails in our website asking for material, sheet music, etc. I really don’t know if I’m opening any new road. What I do know is that I play in a particular way, and if I had to find someone else who plays like me, I couldn’t. But I don’t devote my time to it, really. I’m pretty self critical and I think I have a million of things to improve, and I’m more worried about that. Let’s hope I could have a place in the sense you mentioned, like “this guy did this”. I’d love that, and I’d be a liar if I told you otherwise. I’d really like to open new roads, and also contribute something so here in Argentina we could have  contemporaneous, modern folklore music, like they said in an interview I did recently, which was aptly titled “today’s folklore”. I think there’s so much to do in our music, and it’s so abandoned, everybody around here is looking up so much to Mike Stern, John Patitucci, Dave Weckl ...who are guys I respect a lot, but I’m sick of paying tribute to musicians from the U.S. They’re certainly very talented, but we have some very talented musicians around here as well, like (guitarist) Ernesto Snajer, Quique Sinesi, Francisco Rivero, Jorge Cumbo, Liliana Herrero ...there’s a lot of really valuable people, and yet we’re not willing to pay $30 to see them play, but we do pay that money to see, for example, Jack DeJohnette, who maybe after the second song would say he can’t keep playing because of a tendinitis or something and people wouldn’t complain. I’m tired to see that kind of thing happening and I hope my work could contribute something to make young musicians strive to achieve a language of their own and not being so pendent of what Michael Brecker plays, for example. I mean, that’s no denying of Michael Brecker, who is great; I’m not stupid and I realize these guys are really great. In fact, I studied their stuff for a long time and I have a folder full of Branford Marsalis solos transcribed, but that doesn’t put me in any kind of pedestal within the folklore environment. However, I do believe folklore musicians should be more knowledgeable.


Is that too common? Are musicians more on the intuitive side?

 WG: It’s like (folklore pianist) Cuchi Leguizamón says: out of one hundred folklore musicians, one hundred and ten should sit down and study for real (laughs). The man is very knowledgeable, and what he does is really very good. To me, Cuchi is the Thelonius Monk of folklore music, and yet most Argentine musicians don’t know his work. They might know some of his melodies, perhaps, but not his entire work. In fact, he never had an album seriously produced. He never had a grand piano correctly tuned to record an album. I think there’s lots of things to do yet.


And how do traditional folklore audiences receive your work? Do you play in front of that kind of audiences often?

 WG: I did in some opportunities. One particular time we played a chamamé festival here in Buenos Aires with Néstor Acuña, and the guy says to me “I’ll leave you alone onstage and you just play”. Then he steps up to the mike and says to the audience “well, I’ll let Willy González keep you company”, and leaves me there with the house packed with Northeastern people who just wanted to listen to their kind of stuff. And there I was, with this six string bass these people never had seen before ...and yet we did all right, even though I thought they were going to come onstage and kick our asses. People liked it and to me it was a surprise, because I was really expecting to have some knife thrown at me or something, but everything went down well. After that we went to the Northeast and we did even better.


And the musicians? How do the most traditionalist receive a guy who comes from other musical area and plays a non traditional instrument?

 WG: There’s a little of everything, just like in tango or in jazz. There’s the sectarian guys and the guys who just want to enjoy the music, to share it. To me, people whose only interest is to determine and codify which things are “right” or “wrong”, or who are the artists who can do things well and who aren’t, in any style ...well, that’s kind of stupid. Within the folklore environment there’s a lot of very enthusiastic young people, who are waiting for us to go there and play, they’re people who pick things up from our albums and walk into us to ask questions. In clinics, for example, there’s a great interest for our work, especially for what I’m doing with percussionist Mario Gusso. I notice a great interest, really. Even in the school where I’m teaching, one of the classes with more students is the Latin American music workshop, and it’s not an obligatory class to obtain your degree. That class, which started with very few people, is full of students now. Young kids are enthusiastic about it, and I think a new generation is emerging, one of twenty year old kids who have a different mentality, fortunately, because my generation, and the ones before mine, have carried the stigma of being Argentine. Like being Argentine means being second class. It’s a strange complex we have, like nothing ever created here could be any good.


...Unless we get recognition abroad, like Piazzolla...

 WG: But Piazzolla’s case is a big exception, because he was so great a genius he breaks downs any boundaries. There isn’t a lot of people in their thirties who have listened to the great Argentine musicians, and I think the new generation is somehow more willing to listen to that stuff. For example (tango pianist) Horacio Salgán, who has the expressive value of a Keith Jarret. The same with Raul Barboza: the people who listen to him are either guys in their fifties, who listened to him early on, or kids in their twenties who are starting to search for something different. And something we always see when we play all around the country is that younger listeners are the ones who get shocked the most, surprised by the things that can be done with folklore music. They perceive the two things they want to hear: folklore and balls.


Now that you mentioned Latin American music, it reminded me of some of the music you played the other night. That music wasn’t from Argentina, like the marineras and festejos.

 WG: Right, that’s Peruvian music. Actually, Argentine folklore music has a Peruvian root to it. And Peruvian music has an African root to a great extent. From that fact we deducted Argentine folklore has an African origin somehow. Argentine zamba, for example, is derived from Peruvian zamacueca, which when arrived to the North of Argentina evolved into zamba and cueca. The latter also played in Chile, although it’s interpreted differently. Even some traditional Argentine instruments have an African origin. And that information is not propagated at all; anything that has an African or native American origin is denied, as if it were a second class culture. Anything related with dark skin is denied. Before the World War II, Argentina always looked up to Europe, culturally speaking, and what was socially accepted back then was classical music and the dances that came from Europe. After the War, the United States became dominators of the cultural scene and anything that comes from the States is “right”. This phenomenon is most likely typical in Buenos Aires, not so much in the rest of the country. Buenos Aires natives also think they’re arbiters of the public taste for the people in the rest of the country. And these people have a tremendous pride in their music, but they also have this complex, like they will only be considered good if they adopt elements of other music forms. This happens even to musicians who have recognition, and they personally admitted it to me. It’s like B.B. King thinking about playing some vidalas so the public won’t think he can only play the blues. Ridiculous.


So, how did you discover that Peruvian music?

 WG: Through Raul Carnota. He was playing a song, a marinera actually, that floored me. The festejo, which is a Peruvian style of African origin, and is played with guitar and (percussion instruments) cajón, quijada and campana, was something I heard from (Peruvian percussionist) Bam Bam Miranda, who used to sing it while playing the cajón. With Carnota I learned the harmonic side of that music. In his album “El Reciclón” there’s a marinera with lyrics about (legendary Peruvian singer) Chabuca Granda, so after hearing that I went directly to listen to Chabuca Granda. And that’s how I had my connection with traditional Peruvian music. After that I became aware of Perú Negro, Susana Baca and other artists that connected me with the “black” Perú. I stress that notion because Perú has two big cultural roots, the inca root and the black root, although those two never did mix with one another. Only in very few occasions, and only at dance level, the two cultures influenced one another –for the most part they went separate ways. In Center America I also saw native dances that were very similar to those of the (Bolivian) coya indians. In Panama, for instance, I’ve seen rounds of indians playing native wind instruments, and I videotaped that since that music made a big impact on me. But when I wanted to reproduce those melodies on the piano, I couldn’t do it, because their tuning is different from ours. Something similar happens to me when I play with (singer) Laura Peralta: she sings in the same tuning the coya indians sing, ant it’s not the same Western tuning we use. Sometimes I have to bend the strings of my bass to approximate the tuning she sings to.


Actually, your duo with Laura Peralta impacted me as one of the strongest and most emotional moments of your show the other night...

 WG: Yes, she hypnotizes me. It’s a very visceral singing style. That night she made a remark about my bass sound that petrified me. She said “that ancestral bass”. I never thought one single word could knock me down in such a way.


How do you get that sound? The bass seemed to grow, but you couldn’t hear the attack.

 WG: With a volume pedal. It’s kind of like emulating the sound of an upright bass played arco, although it is different, since the upright sound is a little raspier. I think the singer feels very comfortable with that sound. What’s good about this current period, I feel, is that we can play Northern music, or Peruvian Music, or Northeastern music, because (accordionist) Néstor Acuña knows that idiom very well, and we have great respect for those musical forms. What we do is different yet respectful at the same time, and I think we add our own vision of tradition by approaching it this way, because in traditional songs we do harmonizations that are different from the original ones.


Do you feel that contemporary reading of folklore music brings new audiences to your shows? 

WG: It’s what I have to offer, but I don’t want to make the same mistake many other people did, which is believing they can play folklore music just because they play something in 6/8. That has nothing to do with folklore and there’s a lot of that kind of experiences. This is something I often discuss with jazz musicians who think they play folklore music. They would take traditional songs and play them with the same rhythmic feel they play jazz standards. I won’t name any names, but there’s a current crop of jazz musicians who want to do something personal yet they don’t respect the original forms at all. The same thing happens when they want to play tango. There are jazz musicians who think they can “play a little tango”, but to “play a little tango” you have to bust your ass the same way you did to learn all those Bird solos. Only then you may have something new to say. It just doesn’t happen overnight.


It’s the same thing you talked about earlier. That arrogance of some academically well trained musicians...

 WG: Right. The same thing happens with a lot of classical musicians, who think playing popular music is cake, and that’s not true at all. Some classical musicians have an incredible command of their instruments, yet they can’t play even two notes of popular music. And the same thing happens to a lot of jazz musicians who want to play tango. Rhythmic subdivisions aren’t the same, and it takes a long time until you finally learn to breath those rhythms. In the meantime you make lots of mistakes, so it’s better to keep a low profile (laughs). I did fuck up a lot, but I always tried to be aware of people who I could learn from, some of whom even younger than me, and some who didn’t even read music.


All right, back to bass again: I saw you playing with La Banda Latina once, years ago, but you were playing another bass...

 WG: Yes, around that time I had a black ’67 Fender Jazz four string, which was marvelous, and also a Precision that was heavily modified: I had it converted to fretless and to five string, with a Wilkinson bridge which was quite new at that time, and it was a real rarity because it had an extra tuner in the bridge and it came with a string post that had to be attached to the headstock. The problem was the strings were too close together and that limited me a bit.


So how did you finally ended up with the six string?

 WG: When I first saw Anthony Jackson, his instrument impressed me a lot, but it didn’t catch my interest until I began to play folklore music. The first time I saw Anthony Jackson was at a clinic around ’84. At that time, I didn’t think the instrument was viable for the music I played with La Banda Latina and Monos con Navajas because back then I was more into groove playing than into soloing, and, to me, the highest string made more sense for soloing than for grooving. So I didn’t care for the six string for a while. But once a student loaned me a six string bass just to try it, I started to take advantage of its harmonic and chordal possibilities, and I started to pick up some things from (folklore guitarist and songwriter) Atahualpa Yupanqui on the bass. Since then, I went crazy for the six string bass and Francisco Rivero, with whom I was playing at that time, encouraged me to buy one.


And you sacrificed the Fender to buy it?

 WG: I sacrificed everything and bought this one. At first I was about to buy other model, the standard TRB, but when I saw this one (makes a gesture of astonishment) really is something else, definitely better than the other. It’s not that much more expensive, but the sound is something else. And now I can’t go back. It would be like going from the house with three bedrooms and a garden back to a one-bedroom apartment. The four string bass feels a lot more limited now. I use the lowest string a lot and I also play lots of chords –all the time I’m taking advantage of the six string thing. Sometimes I even use the lowest and the highest strings at the same time. It’s not that I don’t like soloing. Sometimes I play solos, but they’re not an end in themselves. Bass isn’t so much an instrument to solo on; even guys who play it well bore me. Patitucci, even though he plays so well, is boring to me. It’s like Santana said, who can be interested in watching a guy building muscles? The cool thing is to have someone tell you a nice story.


For what I saw, your playing is pretty much guitar-like.

 WG: Yes, the technique I developed is derived from Spanish guitar. In the right hand I use a technique to which I’ve come in a funny way. One particular time I saw (Argentine bassist) Marcelo Torres play, many years ago, and I noticed he plucked octaves with his index and ring fingers, and I went “that’s killing!”, but then I thought, why not using the middle finger as well? And I started playing lines, up and down the strings, using the middle finger as well, and then I applied that approach to everything I played. After that, in ’86 or ’87, when I started studying Bach, I started incorporating the thumb to play arpeggios. Now, when I play I phrase with all four fingers: index, middle, ring and thumb. It’s deeply incorporated now, and that technique has a lot to do with Spanish guitar technique. And when I attended that Anthony Jackson clinic I told you about, I saw he was using the same technique, and since I was using it for quite a few years then, I though, well, if I can ever play like Anthony, I’m on the right track.


Are you very obsessed with instruments and gear?

 WG: No, I’m not, perhaps I should be a little more. In fact, right now I have a new six string bass being made and I had no idea about the influence of the scale length until you mentioned it off the record before. I never bought a bass magazine, for example. However, I think when I choose this instrument (points to his Yamaha) I wasn’t wrong. I think there’s a growing belief according to which you only sound good if you own certain gear. And that’s so untrue! If someone sounds good, he’ll sound good in any instrument. Obviously, he’ll sound better if the instrument is good, but the incidence of gear is low, really. If you go from a $2000 bass to a $4000 bass it won’t be twice as good way! But if you play an instrument the proper way, that will make a difference. In clinics I get lots of questions about this bass, but I think that has more to do with the instrument being visually attractive. The importance of gear is too much overemphasized. I get bored by conversations among drummers, bassists or guitarists who wouldn’t talk about anything other than their instruments. Although, of course, I like good instruments.


(Intentionally insidious question) So, what amp do you use?

 WG: (laughs) I don’t use an amp. I plug directly into the PA, and actually the concept in the group is that everybody plugs into the PA and everybody listens to the whole mix. The idea is to listen and play that way. It’s the way chamber musicians play live, and tango and folklore musicians do the same. The other concept, the separate instrument amplification thing, is more of a rock thing. In rock, musicians generally even record their parts separately. I prefer to work in other way: the albums we made were recorded playing live in the studio. And I think our next album will be recorded live in concert, with an audience in front of us.


Our last question is a classic. We always ask the interviewee to give some advice to fellow bass players, especially those who are just beginning.

 WG: (thinks for a while) Have your curiosity awake and learn from your fellow musicians. Have curiosity for going to see concerts and learn from the guys who say something to you onstage, even about what not to do. And I stress the aspect about learning from your playing partners because I learnt a lot from my fellow players. I remember my first rehearsals. I was about eleven years old and I watched the drummer play a lot, and every time he brought a new rhythm, during rehearsal breaks I would sit behind the kit trying to pick up what this guy had just played. All that information will be incorporated to your way of playing bass.




© 2000  


Willy’s bio, his discography, information about his concerts, photos of his group and snippets of his beautiful music, are available at his very attractive website, at


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