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World Music Features

Gustavo Santaolalla

By Phil Freeman
Published February 27, 2007

Gustavo Santaolalla has taken the Hollywood music-scoring industry by storm over the past two years. He took home an Academy Award (“Best Original Score”) in 2006 for his work on Brokeback Mountain, and another in 2007 for Alejandro Iñárritu’s Babel, amongst others such as the BAFTA, Latin Grammy, and Grammy awards.

You were up for a Golden Globe for Babel. Did you win?
No, I didn’t win. The movie won, thank God. I thought it was a long shot for me to win, since I won last year. The movie had seven nominations, and only got one, but I think the one it got represents everything, which was Best Movie.

How did you get started as a producer?
I’ve always had a career as a recording artist and a producer simultaneously. I started making records professionally at the age of 16. I signed a deal with RCA at the time, and I always did kind of alternative, not really mainstream music. So at the time, I came from Argentina and there were no alternative music producers. I don’t even think the word ‘alternative’ had been coined. But I’ve always been interested since I was a kid in both parts of the process of making records, songs and what the artist brought to a record but also what the producer did, too. I had the opportunity to start with both things at the same time, making records at 16 and producing my own records since then.

You were sort of the go-to guy for Latin alternative rock in the 1990s, working with Café Tacuba, Julieta Venegas, Maldita Vecindad and many other acts. How did you get started?
Well, when I started in Argentina, since very early in my career with the group Arco Iris, I had a vision that sort of came along with me through my career – a vision of trying do to music with identity. By that, I mean music that represented who we are, and where we come from, you know? So with Arco Iris I was the first group that I know that started mixing Latin American rhythms, Argentinian and Latin American rhythms with more worldwide sounds like rock and jazz that were predominant at the time. We were criticized by the rock intelligentsia in Argentina; nobody could stand the fact that we were playing a chacarera with an electric guitar, or that we would introduce a charango or a quena along with the drum set. But I continued with that vision, and over time it proved to be the right one. I never supported the idea of trying to be like a cover version of an anglo band but singing in Spanish. At the time, I don’t think the term world beat was even in existence – I’m talking about 1968, 1969. But I carried that vision with me, and by the time I settled in the United States in 1978, I did a project with the only other artist that I produced up to that date. I always produced my own music, but this artist I discovered and got signed in Argentina was Leon Geico. He’s very big in Argentina, not well known outside the country, but he’s a folk hero, like a combination Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. He was the only artist I would produce every now and then, aside from doing my own music. In 1984-85, when I was already living in the United States, I went to Argentina and we did a wonderful project called De Ushuaia A La Quiaca. That means from the southernmost point in Argentina, Ushuaia, to the north and the border with Bolivia. And we went through Argentina, recording rural musicians who expressed the different folk languages of the country. Then we went back and did another record in which we sampled those things and used for the first time in Argentinian folk music, drum machines. And that really marked me, because I worked with a lot of artists who were not looking to make records or to appear on TV, they made music because it was a way of life to them. It really affected me. So when I came back to the United States, I decided to put my personal projects as an artist on the back burner and get more involved in production. At that time, coincidentally, there were some big changes happening in Mexico. The PRI fractured and there was the creation of a new party. The PRI had been in power for 60 years, but then the other party came. And TV Azteca, an opponent of Televisa which had basically monopolized TV for years, came out, too. Rock concerts, which were forbidden