- Deborah Sengupta Stith American-Statesman Staff
Full-bodied and powerful, Kiko Villamizar’s golden voice aches, even as it soars, on his second album, “Aguas Frias,” which is scheduled to come out on local imprint Discos Peligrosa later this month. The title of the album translates to “cold water” and it’s the culmination of a harrowing year spent tracing waterways, from the Missouri River on the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota, to Barton Springs in Austin, to the mountain springs outside Medellin, Colombia, where he grew up. Villamizar considers spring water his “medicine” and the album is a prayer for the water.
It’s late March, two days before he’s set to leave on the first leg of a national tour to promote the album. Space is tighter than usual in the cozy South Austin bungalow he shares with his partner, Natalie Lake, a midwife. A pair of international travelers, an Afro-Colombian bass player from Canada and a friend who flew in from Colombia to help with logistics and merchandise sales, are in town for the tour.
The album is ready, the gigs and a series of workshops are booked. Anticipation wrapped with anxiety seems to linger in the air, and Villamizar’s greatest challenge right now is to keep it together, to bear the emotional weight of the release without buckling.
“When I sing these songs, part of the rehearsal is not crying (while) singing the songs. … A couple of them, I can’t finish the song yet. I have to keep singing them more so I can do that,” he says.
With familial roots tying him to the Chachapoya and Yurimagua peoples of Peru, tension between indigenous people and the forces of colonization has always been a central part of Villamizar’s artistic and spiritual work. Standing Rock wasn’t the only flash point he visited last year. He also participated in mining protests in the Putumayo region of southern Colombia and joined indigenous Colombians resisting the Quimbo Hydroelectric Project on the Yuma River.
He says the dam on the Yuma, planned by a multinational energy company, would “basically be genocide for the people who live on that river and do river things, talk to those animals.”
“Their medicine is in that river. The herbs they use. Everything they do has to do with the path of that river. When you kill that you kill the people,” he says. “That’s happening everywhere. That’s happening in Canada. It’s happening in West Texas right now.”
Every artist has a “music saved my life” story, but Villamizar’s is bleaker than most. He was born in Miami and split his youth between the southern U.S. and Colombia. In both countries he had what he calls “hood problems.” Compounding matters, when he was 16, he fell asleep at the wheel of a car, careening off the road in a devastating accident that killed his 11-month-old baby sister, and left his body and spirit broken. His face was reconstructed, and after he was fitted with titanium plates to reinforce his femurs, he had to slowly learn to walk again.
Throughout the ordeal, his mother helped him to heal, even as she was losing herself. Gradually, consumed with the pain of losing a child, she became afflicted with a drug addiction that destroyed her life, he says.
Villamizar felt suicidal, but as he reached his own edge, a song brought him back — “Freedom” by Richie Havens. “I don’t know what that did to me,” he says. “It was just, he feels that way, too? There’s a black guy playing guitar? You don’t have to be white (to) play guitar?”
His uncle had given him a guitar, and still struggling to move around, he learned to play, beginning a lifelong process of using music to work through pain. He studied voice at the University of Miami, but he’s more of a folklorist than an academic, and after college he traveled for years, vagabond style, with a guitar and a backpack, seeking elders to educate him on traditional styles.
His mother’s spirit visited Villamizar last year when he hunkered down in the snow at the Sacred Stone camp at Standing Rock on Thanksgiving. “Thanksgiving was her favorite holiday ironically enough, because she loved cooking. That was her jam,” he says.
The entire camp was participating in a ceremony, holding hands in a circle, when Villamizar felt his mother’s presence and “started to go nuts.”
“I saw them bulldozing and this hit me really hard … I could see that with one bulldozer swipe they killed like a thousand echinacea plants that all are the medicine of the Lakotas, one of the seven herbs to them that they use as medicine…. Each plant, I heard it screaming, and that day filled me with too much sadness,” he says.
He recounts the story of Thanksgiving at Standing Rock in Yawku Kausai,” a mournful song written in the language of his indigenous Colombian grandmother and set to the slow rhythm of an Argentine Zamba.
The translated lyrics of the song include the passage, “At night it started to snow/ They tried to hurt us with water/ They did not know that the snow would germinate a green resistance, frozen but with a sacred fire.”
Cold water has always occupied a space in Villamizar’s life. The album’s title, “Aguas Frias,” is also the name of the mountain where he grew up, in a small dirt-floored cottage on a coffee farm his mother owned outside of Medellin.
“The shower was like a hose from the mountain into the wall,” he said. “It was cold as (expletive). It sounds nice but in the Andes, there at 4 in the morning before school, you either get up at 3 to boil the water or you take the coldest shower of your life.”
Villamizar returned to the home, now occupied by his cousins and expanded into a much larger homestead with indoor plumbing and a tile floor, because he wanted the album to be “written by the mountain instead of me.”
“On the mountain there’s 60 different songs of birds. So I just sat on my hammock and listened and wrote the melodies of the birds. That’s how the songs started, some of them,” he said.
Most of the songs on the new album are built around standard Colombian drum and flute (gaita, in Spanish) composition, dressed up with “a few psychedelic dings.” While he was in Colombia, he sought out a master gaitero, Elber Álvarez, an elder flute player who consistently wins annual festival competitions across the country. Villamizar took food and tobacco to him and spent hours listening to his stories and watching him play. Part of his mission with the album is to record the wisdom of the elders, to create a document of the oral tradition for the next generation, including his own daughter, Lola, who is 6.
His South Austin home is scattered with various pieces of hand percussion. He pauses while speaking to explain how in Colombian tradition there is a male and a female gaita.
“There’s a duality. The female tells a story. The male supports her with kind of a bass line. You play the female with two hands because it has more notes. (You play) the male with the right hand and in the left, you play a maraca,” he says, grabbing a maraca and singing a line to demonstrate.
He aims to pass along this knowledge in the workshops that will accompany many of his performances across the country. He also plans to address the roots of cumbia, the dominant form of Pan Latin music of the modern era. “It’s goes from Argentina in the hood to Alaska in the hood,” Villamizar says.
He believes it’s essential to understand cumbia first as Afro-Colombian slave music, with a dance devised for shackled feet. “We’ll talk about how resistance to colonization ties to this thing that everybody’s grandmother dances to,” he said.
Honing his musical instincts both in ceremonial settings, during prayer circles and at the club, he has come to believe music is the most effective organizing tool he, as an activist, has right now. “Because nobody can agree on things … but they all know how to clap at the same time and move their asses in the same direction at the same time,” he says.
He distills this idea on the song “El Arbolito.”
“La Música es la magia más evidente como el viento y el agua”
“Music is the most evident form of magic like the wind and the water.”
NOTE: This document has been updated to note that Villamizar’s Chachapoya and Yurimagua roots are from Peru and to clarify a personal detail.