Sounds Local: Andean fusion
Throughout the 1990s, Viva Quetzal was one of the most popular bands on the local music scene. Its uplifting brand of Andean fusion music not only appealed to area audiences but won it a following throughout the country. But the decade that followed dealt some changes to the band that led to a lessening of the group’s profile. While Viva Quetzal never went away, the numbers of shows it played declined. But, in recent years, the band has launched a comeback of sorts and with four of the original members in tow, it is very much ready to reconnect with old fans while also winning over new ones.
Viva Quetzal will perform at the Arts Block, 289 Main St., Greenfield, on Saturday, Aug. 30, at 8:30 p.m.
Viva Quetzal currently features six members: Joe Belmont on guitar, Roberto Clavijo on pan pipes, charango, congas and vocals, Abe (Osacar) Sanchez on piano and vocals, Jon Weeks on flutes, saxes and percussion, Rudi Weeks on upright and electric bass and Eliezer Martinez on drums.
I recently caught up with Belmont, a Northampton resident who joined the band in 1991, to talk a bit about the Viva Quetzal’s past and present.
“The group actually started around 1986 with Roberto Clavijo and three other musicians, who were performing as a folk band playing straight-up Andean folk music,” recalled Belmont. “I think it was when they played a Transperformance show and did Santana that it gave them the idea to add guitar, bass and drums.”
Belmont, who also holds various teaching positions and performs with flutist Sarah Swersey as Duo Fusion, came on board as lead guitarist at the time that Viva Quetzal was expanding.
“I hate to throw the word around but it ended up being very multicultural. At that time, you had three guys in the band who were Indians playing the music from South America and they were joined by a bunch of guys like me from North America with backgrounds in rock and jazz,” Belmont said.
These musicians had a lot to learn from each other and as a result of this genre blurring, the Viva Quetzal sound was born.
Viva Quetzal’s music is rooted in the folk traditions of Chili and Peru, but the band also incorporates elements of rock, jazz and world beat. All together, the group’s members play over 30 instruments, including traditional ones like electric guitar and saxophone along with more exotic ones like panpipes and charango, a small guitar that creates a rather high-pitched sound. These musicians create beautiful, high-spirited music that appeals to audiences of all ages.
“South American music is really the focal point of what we do, blended in with a lot of the styles that those of us from North America grew up listening to. So, it really is an Andean fusion band,” Belmont said.
“During the ’90s, we were playing in the Valley all the time,” he added “And then we got into being a road band and we had this insane tour schedule. We were playing all up and down the East Coast and sometimes in the Midwest and South.”
The band also released three albums during that decade, including 1998’s “Hijos del Sol” on the Signature Sounds label.
But then things changed.
“My interpretation was that the band fell on hard times due to some happenstance, starting when Bush was elected. A lot of arts funds dried up and that was driving a lot of our booking, so that all died down,” he said. “Then our manager, Patty Watts, got sick and passed away. There were just a host of things happening.”
Viva Quetzal continued during these difficult times, weathering some personal changes, including the departure of Belmont and Rudi Weeks. Belmont was gone from the band for the early part of the decade and made the decision to return a couple of years ago.
Jon Weeks and Clavijo are the other two original members that remain in the group.
“The truth was I missed playing with the band,” said Belmont, about rejoining Viva Quetzal. “It’s been such a nice part of my life and there is no other band like it. Then Rudi rejoined maybe two years ago and it’s been great having him back.”
The band is currently focusing on playing more shows in the area and also hopes to record again. It also just received a nice boost when its song “Coballo Viejo” appeared on the album “Music of The Andes,” which was released by the label Putumayo World Music.
Viva Quetzal played to a full house at the Arts Block last March. “We really want to invite everyone to come,” said Belmont.”This is the best lineup we have ever had. We’ve got this great drummer, Eliezer Martinez, and he and Rudi are terrific together. We have always been a high-energy band but even more so now. This music is very danceable.”
Tickets are $7 in advance and available at www.theartsblock.com, $10 at the door. Smithsonian Cafe and Chowderhouse is open for dinner from 5 to 8 p.m. For more information, call 413-774-0150.
Sheryl Hunter is a music writer who lives in Easthampton. Her work has appeared in various regional and national magazines. You can contact her at email@example.com