Golpe Tierra strikes a blow for a diaspora

The Madison-based Afro-Peruvian jazz band celebrates a new EP on May 13 at Art In. | By Scott Gordon, translated by Francisco Velazquez (En Español)

Golpe Tierra are, from left to right: Tony Barba, Richard Hildner, Juan Tomás Martínez, and Nick Moran. Photo by Paddy Cassidy.

Golpe Tierra are, from left to right: Tony Barba, Richard Hildner, Juan Tomás Martínez, and Nick Moran. Photo by Paddy Cassidy.

The “Spanish” word “golpe” can indicate a lot of different things depending on context, including: a physical blow or beating, a political coup (“golpe de estado”), even a percussive guitar technique in flamenco music. Madison band Golpe Tierra makes Afro-Peruvian music that embodies that variety of meanings. The band’s name roughly translates to “beating the earth,” which obviously suggests vigorous dancing, but has rabble-rousing political shades to it as well. The title of its new EP, Golpe Con Golpe, which the band will celebrate with a May 13 show at Art In, is a Spanish idiom meaning “blow for blow,” as in matching someone blow for blow in a fight.

Guitarist Richard Hildner and bassist Nick Moran formed the band in 2010 with percussionist Juan Pastor, who later moved to Chicago. Juan Tomás Martínez joined the band in 2013, and like Pastor, he plays the cajon, a box drum the player sits atop while striking its front with hands or mallets, creating a range of distinctive sounds that span from rumbling lows to, as Hildner puts it, cutting highs. Martínez also added to the mix his vocals, which on the EP range from somber and graceful (as on the ballad “La Despedida”) to throaty and raffish (“Golpe Con Golpe”). Saxophonist/bass clarinet player Tony Barba joined in 2015, just in time for the band to take an eight-day trip to Cuba.

The EP’s driving title track is at once a celebration and a fight song. Hildner essentially says it’s about “class warfare,” and Martínez’s lyrics, in Spanish, speak of the need for a “golpe musical,” or musical coup — a popular resistance that draws strength from music and dance. Here’s one verse:

Es momento de alcanzar un acuerdo éntrelas masas,

Que la tierra ya no esta verde, todo esta en llamas.

Es momento de alcanzar un acuerdo éntrelas masas,

No es posible cambiar el mundo si tu no bailas.

Roughly translated:

It is time to reach an agreement between the masses,

That the earth is no longer green, everything is in flames.

It is time to reach an agreement between the masses,

It is not possible to change the world if you do not dance.

Three of the band’s members are Madison natives with roots in the Latino world and African diaspora. Hildner and Moran are of Peruvian descent. Martínez was born in Madison, but mostly grew up in Venezuela (where his family is from) and Spain. This gives the group a unique vantage point from which to combine various forms of music from across the Hispanic world, from Peruvian música criolla to flamenco. Martínez and Hildner liken the musical traditions of Latin America as essentially dialects of the same language.

“All the folk traditions in Latin America are like brothers,” Martínez says. “It’s different accents and maybe different words, but it’s almost the same concept.” Hildner adds: “each country has its own accent, but we can all understand each other perfectly.”

Given the changes in membership over the years, Golpe Con Golpe’s original compositions sound a bit different from the band’s starting point, but they still reflect its initial goal of combining Afro-Peruvian music with the improvisational instincts of jazz. Especially in Hildner’s guitar leads and Barba’s saxophone phrases, the band often unifies aggressive rhythm with fluid, lyrical melody. The song structures can feel unusual, which is partially a product of letting the songs evolve in the live setting before they were recorded. Hildner jokingly likens the band’s writing and arranging process to the UW-Madison motto of “sifting and winnowing.”

“We take a song and transform it,” Martínez says. “I call it destroying the song.”

In 2015, Golpe Tierra became the first Madison band to travel to Cuba since the Obama administration announced that the United States would normalize relations with Cuba. The trip, organized through Madison’s “sister city” partnership with the Cuban city of Camaguey. Over the course of eight days, the band performed at least six shows and collaborated with a number of Cuban musicians. They were at first unsure of how Cubans would receive Golpe Tierra’s particular mix of Latin and jazz sounds, but it ended up being very much a mutual exchange.

“Nick was wondering how the Cubans would react to what we were doing, and when he saw the reaction, he was, I think, very happy,” Hildner says. Hildner’s wife Guisella Medrano, who performs Afro-Peruvian dance, also came along for the trip. “They were showing her Afro-Cuban dance, and then she was showing them Afro-Peruvian dance, and they were sitting there learning Afro-Peruvian dance, and they loved it,” Hildner says. “Many Cubans didn’t know about that little aspect of the diaspora. I think a lot of people are often surprised. They think of Peru and Bolivia and Ecuador as Andean, indigenous countries, panpipes, flutes, but there’s [also] a very monumental African culture there.”

In addition to wanting to go back to Cuba and bring some of their new friends from there to the U.S. to play, the members of Golpe Tierra have been thinking a lot about the need for Latino space and visibility in Madison. For much of its existence the band held down a regular gig at the Cardinal Bar, owned by Ricardo Gonzalez, a Cuban immigrant and one of Madison’s most prominent advocates for the local Latino community and open U.S.-Cuba relations. Gonzalez also started the Madison-Camaguey Sister City Association in the 1990s.

When Gonzalez sold the Cardinal earlier this year and the new owners turned the place into a Madison branch of Milwaukee’s Nomad World Pub, it motivated the band to look for other spaces and opportunities. They’ve been branching out to new venues like the recently renovated Ohio Tavern on the east side, and shot a music video there for “Golpe Con Golpe.” Their show at Art In — a combination gallery space and music venue — will feature visual art from Eloise d’Estienne, a set from Chicago-based, Venezuelan-American DJ Bumbac Joe, the screening of a documentary about Golpe Tierra’s Cuba trip, and food from the Caracas Empanadas cart. Gonzalez will even be on hand to MC the event.

While they’re still interested in playing the Nomad, where locally based trombonist Darren Sterud is now booking jazz, Hildner and Martínez still felt the loss of an important institution for the Latino community.

“We want to create a space where culturally we can feel at home. And in Madison, there’s a lot of difficulty in doing that,” Hildner says. “You could say it’s the demographics, but it’s not just the demographics. If you go downtown, you’ll be like, ‘I don’t see too many Hispanic people or Mexicans downtown.’ Dude, there are thousands of Mexicans downtown! They’re all there…it’s a question of visibility and space and who dominates that space.”

But what happens with that dynamic when the band plays a place like the Ohio, a nice but very white-dominated space? “That’s not the problem,” Hildner says. I” think that’s a beautiful thing when people come in, because then that’s a space on our terms all of a sudden. We transform the space.”

The band’s embrace of cultural complexities is also embodied in Martínez’s custom-made cajon. The first people to develop the cajon were African slaves in Peru who were forbidden to use their traditional instruments. Later, flamenco musicians in Spain adopted the instrument, and added in strings that create another distinctive dimension of sounds for this incredibly versatile percussion instrument. Martínez’s cajon has strings on one side and not on the other.

“So I have the roots and the evolution,” he says.