Mas Aya’s Music Keeps Quiet Riots

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Brandon Valdivia’s “Momento Presente” is like a subpoena. In the remarkable track of the September album “Máscaras”, an unusual, not quite legit rhythm rumbles under the whirlpools of a tin whistle. A bell rings, and soon an elder’s divine voice calls out a call to action. “Right now the oppressors and the oppressed are separated,” he says in Spanish. “We will not wait 2,000 years for the good to be on one side and the bad on the other. We are living that moment now.”

This is the type of militant magic as 38-year-old Valdivia is better known. Mas Ayacalls in his music. “I try to incorporate a political approach in addition to a very spiritual take,” he said in a video interview from his studio in London, Ontario. “You have to act; you must be in the moment; You must be in the world.”

This sense of quiet urgency pervades “Máscaras” (“Masks”), his first album since the 2017 LP. “Nikan.” At times, the project makes direct references to revolutions in its homeland of Nicaragua. (The example in “Momento Presente” is taken from a guerrilla meeting led by liberation theologian Ernesto Cardenal in the late 1970s.) But “Máscaras” is not simply based on explicit references to power. It also considers the small rebellions embedded in gripping moments of stillness.

Valdivia said the title of the album describes the masks used in political marches and Indigenous ceremonies, as well as her own composing practice. “The instruments hide themselves in the tissue cloud,” he explained. The songs of the album are like impressionist sketches, shifting their focus with cold fluidity. Quena and bansuri flutes hover above drum loops. The clatter of guides or maracas transform into waves of punchy synths and unbalanced electronic beats, transforming into sweet, shape-shifting flurry of harmonies.

Valdivia grew up in Chatham, a small Canadian town about an hour’s drive from Detroit. He was one of the first Latino families to arrive and often missed his comrades in music, society and the arts.

In Nicaragua, his father was a long-haired hippie who listened to Black Sabbath and cumbia, smoked marijuana and quit acid. Valdivia fell in love with music at the age of 12 and learned first the recorder and then the drums. He watched MuchMusic (Canada’s MTV) and listened to Detroit public radio. He recited French poetry and ordered a copy of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” from the local record store. It took a ridiculously long six months to arrive.

“I knew I was a weirdo,” he said of the conservative world surrounding him. “I wanted to get out as fast as I could.”

He fled to college, studied composition at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, and found “creative, people interested in pushing the boundaries.” “Like weird. I use that word a lot.”

In the years that followed, he became a respected multi-instrumentalist and percussionist in Toronto’s experimental and art-rock scene, playing in bands such as Valdivia, Not the Wind, Not the Flag, and I Have Eaten the City. Furthermore, the Grammy nominee collaborated heavily with her genre-crushing partner. Lido Pimienta, who took part in “Máscaras”. In his early 20s, he went to Nicaragua, where he visited Esteli and his family in Managua, his grandmother’s hometown of Masaya, and studied the country’s folkloric musical traditions. After returning to Canada, she decided to embark on a solo project, partly inspired by her disappointment in the Toronto art scene.

“No one was talking politics. “Everybody was basically making weird nihilistic experimental music,” he said. Mas Aya takes its name from her grandmother’s house and the Spanish phrase “el más allá” meaning “beyond”.

Valdivia described her practice as “harmelodic,” a term she borrowed from jazz musician Ornette Coleman. This is a type of music where melody, harmony and rhythm serve each other.” A vision that captures Valdivia’s true musical approach, but also evokes the spiritual undertones of the album as a whole.

On the track “Quiescence” Valdivia uses the mbira dzavadzimu (a type of thumb piano) as percussion, although it is typically an instrument played with metal keys. On feathery flutes and shimmering synths, the sound of mallets hitting the mbira melts into a peaceful ripple of fluid. In “18 de Abril,” he samples the voice of a protester at a 2018 university demonstration in Nicaragua, relates today’s resistance efforts to movements from decades ago, and presents political struggle as a continuum. The result goes beyond mere fusion or ancestral homage. It expresses a prismatic, poetic language that shows that political expression is not always clear. It can also come in moments of quiet contemplation and connection.

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