Morat, the Colombian band that conquers the world to the rhythm of the banjo

Morat, the Colombian band that conquers the world to the rhythm of the banjo

Morat, the Colombian band that conquers the world to the rhythm of the banjo

From left: Martín Vargas, Simón Vargas, Juan Pablo Isaza and Juan Pablo Villamil de Morat, un group with painfully nostalgic songs.

“We can go as far as the instruments allow us”said Martín Vargas, the band’s drummer.

One of the bands with the greatest projection in Latin America He speaks to a generation with anxieties and problems that often lives in a context of great social upheaval.

The turning point for one of the fastest growing bands in Latin America came thanks to an unlikely instrument: a stolen banjo.

Morat, the Colombian band that conquers the world to the rhythm of the banjo

The Colombian band Morat during the concert at the Starlite Festival, in Marbella, in August 2021 (Photo: EFE / Starlite)
By: EFE Services

In 2014, the Colombian band Morat had a recording session in Bogotá. Its four members were still in college, childhood friends who played informal events, and some nights of the week performed in bars. While looking for inspiration, guitarist Juan Pablo Villamil picked up an instrument that he didn’t know exactly how to play.

“Back then we all knew we wanted to sound different, explore things”Villamil recalled in a recent Zoom call when his bandmates Juan Pablo Isaza, Simón Vargas and Martín Vargas got together to add their own contributions. They recorded a 12-string guitar and a mandolin, then someone saw a banjo hanging on the wall. They borrowed it and never returned it.

“As for the learning process, I would say it was mainly on YouTube”Villamil added. “Because there are not many banjo teachers in Colombia.”

“My new vice”, the song they were writing at the time, It ended with a simple but prominent banjo riff and caught the attention of the Mexican pop star Paulina Rubio, who quickly recorded it with the band.. The song became a sensation in Spain and hit the charts in Latin America and the United States. Musicians were invited to Europe to record more music, and the banjo was taken with them.

“We couldn’t be a one hit band, the song with Paulina and that’s it,” Villamil said. The song they wore as their “ace up their sleeve” was “How dare you”, which now has more than 200 million views on YouTube. With its fast-paced banjo, image-filled lyrics, and upbeat “road trip pop” vibe that has become the sound of Morat, the song marked the group’s flamboyant arrival on the Latin music scene in 2015. Since then, They have not stopped growing.

In July, the group released their third album, Where Are We Going ?, and last week began the US leg of their tour that will take them to theaters and stadiums in California and Texas, with stops in Chicago, New York, Atlanta and Miami. . With songs that address heartbreak, longing, and infatuation, the band have forged powerful connections across borders and oceans by speaking to a generation of young people whose personal anxieties and concerns, large or small, often unfold in the context of social upheaval.

Morat, the Colombian band that conquers the world to the rhythm of the banjo

Days ago they began the US leg of their tour that will take them to theaters and stadiums in California and Texas (Photo: The New York Times)

“What Morat is trying to do is use simple words to explain complicated feelings”said Pedro Malaver, the band’s manager. “We are not trying to be Neruda. We just try to tell people: you are not alone. “

The characteristics of what Villamil defined as the band’s “sound signature” include hurt and nostalgic lyrics about unrequited love reminiscent of classic boleros; choirs sung in unison; and the use of instruments (such as the banjo, electric piano, or steel guitar) that are rarely heard in Latin pop. They’ve released powerful ballads, funky R&B tunes, and country-inspired rock songs. “We can go as far as the instruments allow us,” said Martín Vargas, the band’s drummer.

Musically, the band is a bit atypical in an environment where reggaeton receives the most attention. Morat’s influences include Coldplay, Bacilos, Mac Miller, Spanish poet and singer Joaquín Sabina, Dave Matthews Band, Colombian rock band Ekhymosis, and of course the Beatles. Villamil and Isaza are also country fans (they write and record often in Nashville), and the Vargas brothers were metalheads before they dabbled in folk-rock.

“In 2021, there is no single sound that defines pop in Latin America”Kevin Meenan, YouTube’s music trends manager, wrote in an email. “In a way, Morat is a microcosm of this trend that incorporates a wide range of sounds and genres in his music, and in his case, they tend to use influences other than the more popular reggaeton and Latin trap moves.”

Leila Cobo, Vice President and Latin Industry Leader at Billboard, said: “There are a lot of assumptions about what Latin music is right now, but it’s very broad territory.”

And he added: “Morat shows that Latin music is not necessarily what you see on the charts at any given time. They write great pop songs with good lyrics. They are true to themselves, and they constantly expand their fan base. “

Morat started when they played in elementary school; its members have known each other since the age of five. As they neared the end of high school, Isaza, Villamil, Simón Vargas, and Alejandro Posada, the group’s original drummer, formed a band. After the release of his first album in 2016, Posada left to focus on his studies and Vargas’ younger brother joined.

At first, the members of Morat (which was then called Malta) They distributed their records in the bars of Bogotá until they managed to perform regularly at a place called La Tea, where the group’s fans were security personnel and the same musicians mixed and arranged live performances. Soon, his audience began to emerge. “I remember we had a game: every time we played at La Tea we tried to guess how many people were going to see us”Simón Vargas said. “And usually more people came than we expected.”

But not everyone saw the potential of the group. Villamil recalls that in the first meeting they had with Malaver, who at that time was beginning his career as a young artistic representative, he rejected them after listening to one of their first songs. “He told us, ‘I think you guys are talented, but you will never have a song on the radio. They should have been born in Argentina at the end of the seventies, because their music is not adequate for what is happening at the moment. ‘

After seeing them perform live at La Tea a few days later, Malaver quickly changed his mind. “I went with the worst attitude ever to that concert, but then they started playing!”, remember. That same night he decided to represent the band.

They have been working together for almost a decade now, and Morat’s collaborations have spanned the entire spectrum of Spanish music: they have made songs with Mexican actress Danna Paola, with flamenco singer Antonio Carmona, with rocker Juanes and with pop stars like Sebastián Yatra and Aitana, among many others.

“The group’s catalog really speaks to the power of collaboration in the region,” Meenan said. “This success has not been linked to a single country. On YouTube, we have seen his music in more than 15 countries, earning places in the Top 40 in places like Spain, Mexico, Bolivia, Argentina, Italy and Ecuador, in addition to his native Colombia ”. He said that Morat has managed to have more than 950 million views on YouTube, just in the last 12 months.

Morat, the Colombian band that conquers the world to the rhythm of the banjo

Morat was touring Spain when we spoke for Zoom, and the group gathered on a couch in front of the camera like four brothers. They moved comfortably between English and Spanish when they wanted to express a point more clearly, they would make jokes, and often one would finish the other’s sentences. They also did not hesitate to debate aloud some of the more complex questions.

Two themes often crop up in Morat’s lyrics: love and war, which is a sensitive issue in a country that has endured decades of armed conflict.

“The context in which we have grown up and in which we live, has that image every day, all the time”Simón Vargas said. “And I think that, even if you don’t want to, it shows and influences you.”

Although the global image of Colombia has been affected by general descriptions that place it as a violent place, the reality, of course, is much more complex. “Bogotá has these huge mountains and the sun rises behind the mountains. So for much of the morning the sun has not risen from the mountains, but the sky is blue “, adds Simón Vargas. “That is very Colombian, in a way it is as if you are living on the edge. You can see the darkness, but you also know that there is something else there. And, at the same time, you are next to the light and right next to a very beautiful culture and very beautiful people ”.

In 2020, Simón Vargas, who is also a writer and is currently finishing his bachelor’s degree in history at the Universidad de Los Andes, published a book of stories about Bogotá inspired by magical realism. “Maybe it was a way of playing themes more intense and darker than the ones we talk about in our music”. He titled it, appropriately, At the edge of the light.

Morat’s latest album was composed almost entirely during the COVID-19 pandemic in one of the hardest hit regions in the world. “There is not a single human being on this planet who has not thought, where do we go after this?”Simón Vargas said. “We decided that it would be called Where are we going? literally because we thought it was a great way to talk about what’s going on in all respects. We didn’t know when we would have concerts again. We did not know how the pandemic was going to change the social landscape ”.

Martín Vargas said that the title also refers to the creative process of the band. “With the musical exploration that we try to do, where do we go with our instruments?”he added. “It is very evident during the album: the songs are different. There is a lot of rock. And there are also clear references to countries. Ballads, boleros ”.

None of their lyrics speak explicitly about the pandemic, but almost all of the songs are marked by themes of personal anguish, uncertainty and unease that contrast with upbeat and often highly danceable melodies. Together, the compositions show Morat’s versatility: the electric “En coma” deals with a relationship trapped in limbo; the ballad “My nightmare”, with the Colombian singer Andrés Cepeda, is about the anxious wait for the arrival of the right person; the acoustic “Turn around” is a heartfelt letter to a friend in a toxic relationship.

Although the songs represent a variety of moods, all have the aesthetics of the band that continues to add new listeners. “I feel like what we’ve done so far has been a miracle,” Isaza said. “I don’t know why people like a banjo with Spanish lyrics. I consider it a miracle, and the fact that we are still doing it is amazing to me. “

Although the album begins with the question “Where are we going?” ends with the hopeful message of “They just pass”: “I already want to tell him to dance / That the worst that can happen is that we like each other,” says the band. And he ends: “Because when good things have to happen / They just happen.”

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