The Nature of Sound: An Interview With Manongo Mujica & Terje Evensen

Left: Manongo Mujica, Right: Terje Evensen. Photograph: Pauline Barberi, courtesy of buh records

Manongo Mujica and Terje Evensen have been occasionally in contact for a few years now, joining forces till now in order to make the breath-taking soundscapes of Paracas Ritual, which was published by Peruvian avant-garde label buh records earlier this year. Mujica has been a key musician for the Peruvian experimental scene since the 1970s, while Evensen has drawn praise for his electroacoustic approach to improvised music in his native Norway and elsewhere. Through an email exchange, we managed to talk to both musicians about how they met, their respective artistic practices, the Peruvian landscape, and of course, Paracas Ritual itself.

This interview was edited for clarity and readability.

David Murrieta Flores (ACL): Hello, Manongo and Terje! As first question, I would like you to tell our readers how your collaboration came to be. Of course, I’m talking about how you met, but also what it is that you hear in each other’s work that makes you go “let’s do something together”.

Terje Evensen (TE): Manongo and I met back in 2003 during a 6-week long tour I did with the Peruvian guitar player Andrés Prado. Some of the gigs we did with Andrés’s trio involved different collaborations with various artists, and that’s how Manongo and I met. We did a lovely concert together in a club called Jazz Zone down in Miraflores. I was blown away by his great energy and all his sounds. Manongo is very particular about his sounds and the timing of it. It’s like nature talking. I’ll never forget that night.

Manongo and I didn’t have much contact after that until I went back to Lima in 2015. I was told about Manongo’s fascination with the Paracas desert, and that made me really curious about it. So when I was to return to Peru in 2017, I rang him and asked how I could get there. He said; we can go there together Terje, I’ll invite you. On that trip we discovered we had a lot in common when it came to music and that was the very beginning of Paracas Ritual.

We stayed in a beautiful little hotel called Inti-mar on the coast, which is also a scallop farm. So we had delicious fresh scallops every day, and after breakfast we drove into the desert and stayed till darkness arrived.

We visited lots of different parts of the desert, did a lot of field recordings, some of which we used on the album. We were listening to what Paracas had to tell us. Every new place had its very own special uniqueness to it – atmosphere, vibe, smell and sound. It all changed with every new place we visited.

Manongo Mujica (MM): My best guess about how we first met is that it happened in a parallel universe during a drumming trance — who knows really? Perhaps this is why, the minute Terje and I entered into the ancient and remote Paracas, a deep feeling of gratitude and respect came into being before we even conceived of this album. It was like we both were predestined -without knowing it- for this situation to take place in our lives. It is not usual to find two musicians, one from Norway and the other from Peru -out of the blue- walking together in silence, just listening to the landscape as if they were collecting what the spirit of Paracas has put there for them. Once there, it is like being in a sacred space, experiencing the NOW. Some would refer to it as ‘entering the unknown’.

That precise moment of quiet contemplation in which both of us coexisted while discovering ourselves, was for me the signal that we were being called to “do something together”, as you say.

Photograph: Pauline Barberi, courtesy of buh records

ACL: Manongo, you are a crucial figure of Peru’s avant-garde musical scene, having worked with figures of the stature of Arturo Ruiz del Pozo throughout the years. What do you think that scene looks like today?

MM: The musical scene in Peru is very rich and complex. This country has many countries within itself.

First there is the Andean tradition. Music way back before the Inca empire. Then the Shamanic music from the Amazonian communities. Along the coast of Peru, a very strong and creative Black community keeps alive the Afro-Peruvian tradition. In addition, we find the European influence that came with the Spanish conquest. As a result, this scene 

is not a common one because Peru is like a melting pot of different cultures. Many different influences from various sources. And yet your question is related to the avant-garde. Therefore, the scene today depends on what side you are on. One side invites us to take a fresh look to this culturally rich traditional music, this time appreciating its real value and also highlighting its real dimension and sophistication. The other one shows us a new generation of explorers or experimental artists on their way to find their true musical voices, sometimes connected to our traditional roots and also a new generation of creative artists totally distant from and against tradition…it is a tough question to answer.

ACL: Did young Peruvian musicians and composers follow your generation’s mantle, did they break off, or something in between?

MM: Young Peruvian musicians and composers are doing some amazing stuff. My generation, which includes artists like Arturo Ruiz del Pozo, Douglas Tarnawiecki, Omar Aramayo, Julio “Chocolate” Algendones, David Aguilar, Miguel Flores, just to mention a few, was very much under the influence of the music exploration of the 1960s. Although it was difficult for us to get to know the work of peers and musicians from Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Bolivia and Argentina, we were somehow connected by the search of roots, cosmic sound landscapes, a new folklore, fusion and rediscovering popular music. All of this was the common ground for this quest, with different aesthetics, of course, depending on the place. Maybe it has to do more with telepathy, since we had no streaming services at that time!

So, as everything else, there are many aspects to consider. For many people my work and the work of other musicians of my generation are a big reference. But also, there are new voices completely apart from our search, which makes the musical scene in Peru even more interesting.

Photograph: Pauline Barberi, courtesy of buh records

ACL: What would you say, considering the history of the scene and your role in it, is said scene’s future?

MM: The future scene is a total enigma to me because in the very end, everything we do in art is fiction…so, only for the sake of the interview, let’s imagine one of the possible realities a folded space-time could bring up. First visualize a futuristic Peruvian sound landscape. Then include Inca ritual sounds, extreme noise, together with Shamanic healing chants, some Peruvian jazz brass section, all intertwined with Afro-Peruvian rhythms and on top of that, the supreme voice of the universal Inca Princess of kitsch art Yma Sumac…and voilà! Indeed, it is only a possibility, but if it happens to manifest, please don’t forget to give me credit.

ACL: Terje, what would you say is your relationship with the more experimental side of music-making history, and how has the music from contexts other than your own impacted your work?

I grew up with a drum teacher who was very much into experimentation, and was constantly looking for new, creative ways of making and playing music. That really piqued my interest at an early stage in my tuition, and has made experimenting with music very natural to me. Almost to a degree of personal necessity.

Then, much later, I started to take interest in the history of experimental music-making. I lived in London for a couple of years back at the beginning of 2000 while studying. There I met lots of musicians from all around the world, which really opened up my eyes and ears. Coming from a small country like Norway can narrow the horizon a bit, so to meet all these musicians and get to know about their music traditions and take on it onboard, was very developmental for me.

ACL: What lessons from musicians past do you think are most prescient, or most important, for making music in today’s context?

TE: I always come back to what Miles Davis once said: “If you don’t know what to play, play nothing.” That’s as important today as it was back when he said it.

ACL: I would like to get into Paracas Ritual, your collaboration. My first question is related to the landscape of this desert. There’s a markedly geographical strain in the Peruvian avant-garde musical scene since the 1980s, as in Ruiz del Pozo’s “peace works”. What is the Peruvian landscape for you? Why do you think it has had the significance it’s had, and why do you think it continues to be important?

MM: Listening to the landscape is a beautiful metaphor for expanding our musical consciousness and therefore, the Peruvian landscape is a gift from a Peruvian god to the world.

Now, while answering your question, a blast of silence explodes. Indeed, the external geographical landscape is a huge musical sheet lying there for us to listen to; with time and inner space we will be able to sense its personality, its spirit and then play its music. That’s exactly what I have been doing for the last 3,000 years, for the external landscape is a mirror to see and listen your own inner sound landscape. Hence, it is important because it represents the identity of Nature, of our own singular culture and most important, it is a call to learn how to translate its beauty into a “musical form” or even better “no-form at all”.

ACL: When making music about a landscape, do you consider it as a process of mirroring (of re-making the landscape into a soundscape) or of translation (attempting to capture the affects and meanings of seeing into listening form), or maybe something different?

TE: I think I speak for both of us when I say it’s not about making music to mirror a landscape, it’s more about telling or, as you put it, translating the landscape’s story. So its important to listen to what the landscape has to tell you and then be more of a servant than a creator.

MM: I reckon is something more complex than simply mirroring or translating to put it into words, and yet it is as simple as letting it flow as a stream of consciousness. The only certain thing for me is that you have to be touched by the landscape. Emotionally, intellectually and physically. So touched as when you are in love with someone or something. Otherwise, it will not resonate with you. For me the desert of Paracas is the beauty before beauty…do you see what I mean? It is like being in front of something so ancient, so remote, so still, so silent, so deeply without words. It is like entering a temple, a myth of creation or Paradise.

And therefore, it takes a lifetime to fully understand the gift one has been given because it also demands you to commit with it. It is like being in a state of bliss. The Poem, the silent Poem of the Earth talks to you and thus you create music in response to that gift from heaven.

Photograph: Pauline Barberi, courtesy of buh records

ACL: What would the musical – and perhaps semiotic – differences between the Peruvian landscape and others be?

MM: The big difference between the Peruvian landscape and others is the metaphysical force. It gets you in a state of astonishment, of not knowing, of being in front of a question that has no answer. I remember it well when I returned from London to Peru, after many years of living in Europe. It was a cultural shock. I am now past seventy years old and the sound of that shock still resonates in me and it has become a kind of leitmotiv in my music.

TE: I think because of the extremely long history of humankind living in Peru, the country has got such unique musical and cultural roots that stick really deep. To me it seems like the Peruvians are really good at taking care of their own history, and its beautiful to see such a proud people. And when making music that tells a landscape’s story, the unique history and cultural awareness shines through.

ACL: What does the Ritual aspect of this music and this landscape consist of? Is the music an access to the transcendental character of the landscape or is it the other way around?

TE: It’s the other way around. The Ritual aspect is to access the landscape and get it to somehow talk to us, to tell us the story that creates the music.

Photograph: Pauline Barberi, courtesy of buh records

MM: Thank you for this question, it opens a vast opportunity to understand the true relationship between sound and nature. Or perhaps the nature of sound?

To be able to explain the Ritual aspect of this music I will have to delve into the very nature of Paracas and its relevance to mankind. Paracas, which comes from the Quechua word meaning ‘sand rain’, is located in the coast, east of the Paracas Bay in Peru. It does not only stand out for the beauty of the landscape consisting of desert, ocean and islands, but also has the status of National Reserve for its unique biological diversity and cultural heritage. Is in this sanctuary where one of the most important pre-Columbian civilization of South America developed 3000 years ago. The Paracas culture, discovered in 1927 by archaeologist Julio C. Tello, was clearly based on a set of beliefs and rituals reflecting a sacred relation with the surrounding nature. They reproduced it intensively in textiles and ceramic through iconography that later would be related to the mysterious Nazca Lines. Their connection with the afterlife and its mythology is evidenced in Cerro Colorado, a place where more than 400 mummies were found covered with huge mantles and textiles.

It is in this context that Terje and I felt this need to do a sort of tribute, to pay respect to Mother Nature and also to this ancient culture that is still so alive that you can actually feel it in the air. Therefore, it was by recreating the Ritual that we, as contemporary drummers, sound designers and electronic explorers, went back to the source. And the resulting soundtrack of this experience, our shared sound vision of this sacred place to come back to silence is Paracas Ritual.

ACL: Thank you very much for your time. As a final note, is there something you would like to say to our readers?

TE: Thank you so much for taking interest in Paracas Ritual. I hope you enjoy our music, and please feel free to share it. All the best and take great care out there.

MM: It has been a privilege to open myself and be able to share the experience with you. May you and your readers enjoy the tale and revive it through Paracas Ritual.

Thank you.

Paracas Ritual is out now on buh records’ Bandcamp.

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