For their September 22 show at the Atrium, New York City–based band M.A.K.U Soundsystem will be joined by a special lineup of guest artists for a project they call Open Sound System. Liliana Conde (singer and percussionist) and Felipe Quiroz (keyboards and synthesizer) sat down with us to discuss the band’s unique sound and how they approached this particular collaboration.
Kristy Geslain: You’ve played at Lincoln Center several times before. Why do you like playing here?
Felipe Quiroz: Every time we play here we have amazing sound, and they’re usually free performances. Out of Doors  was a really amazing concert with a bunch of other artists who we admire a lot, too. So it’s always pretty amazing to play here. Every time I tell my parents "I am playing at Lincoln Center" I feel so awesome about it. I mean, I went to high school here in Manhattan and always walked around Lincoln Center, and to be able to perform is…it’s kind of amazing.
Liliana Conde: Lincoln Center is one of the main stages in New York, and I always tried to come to the shows in the summer, even before I was involved in M.A.K.U, and just kind of growing up in the city, just being familiar with Lincoln Center as this kind of epicenter of music and culture and things that are happening makes it super exciting to play.
KG: Tell us about your name. What does M.A.K.U Soundsystem mean?
FQ: M.A.K.U Soundsystem basically means a sound system for everyday people, for the common people. M.A.K.U comes from the Nukak-Makú; it’s an indigenous tribe in southern Colombia. Not that we’re claiming indigenuity per se, but it means, basically, common people. And Soundsystem—just like the Jamaican sound systems, we have sound systems in Colombia too, called picós. It’s just a party, you know, throwing down different kinds of music for people to have a good time and dance and get together, to celebrate each other.
KG: And what is the M.A.K.U sound, if you had to describe to someone who’s never heard you before?
LC: I think it’s been evolving. I think it’s very particular and specific to the people who make up M.A.K.U as it is right now. The eight of us bring our own influences to the band, bring our own experiences, talk about our own experiences through the music, so I would say that it’s very personal and honest.
FQ: We like to call it sometimes "immigrant beat." We’re an immigrant band from New York City. Six of us are from Colombia, even from different parts of Colombia, and then we have a trombonist from Georgia and our saxophone/clarinet player from the Bronx, who actually went to Juilliard.
"We’re very different people. But that’s the beauty of it, that we challenge ourselves every time to come together and to meet in the music."
Each of the members comes from a different musical background. At the beginning and still at the core of the rhythm there are elements of Colombian traditional music from the Atlantic coast. We use an alegre hand drum, which is a drum from Colombia, and tambora and maracas, but sometimes we don’t even play traditional rhythms with those drums, we just kind of come up with our own rhythms. There’s definitely an element of Colombian music, but we love a lot of Caribbean rhythms and the African diaspora, especially the very syncopated polyrhythm. And then we live in New York City where we listen to hip-hop and punk, so…just kind of try to put it together.
KG: It seems that just as important as your sound, maybe, is also what you’re trying to say with your music. Can you talk a little bit about the message you’re trying to get across?
FQ: As artists and musicians we try to be as honest and transparent as we can be. We don’t necessarily deliberately try to make a song about a political cause, it’s more like the experiences that we’ve had as regular people living in this world are what we draw inspiration from. There are definitely themes about migration that have permeated our personal lives and obviously end up being part of our music and who we are. There are themes of everyday working people, more like common people. We don’t try to be deliberately politically active, but things that have happened to us and people close to us have shaped who we are and that’s where we draw inspiration from.
LC: It’s really hard not be political when you live in the world and you are aware—even mildly aware—of the things that are happening around us, especially having had and sharing an immigrant experience of having to leave the place where we were born and growing up in search of something or another, in search of a better living situation, or fleeing violence, or whatever the case may be. That puts us in a political situation; we’re embedded in that, so we inevitably talk about it.
Music is really powerful. It’s one of the best examples of how we can come together—at a show or listening to an album. If we can all groove together, there’s something we can learn from that experience that we can translate to a conversation. It’s not easy to have the conversations that help us grow or challenge us, but if we can remember how we can come together, then we can use that as inspiration. That’s what inspires me, for sure, at a show, seeing people, everybody just kind of blending together, doing their thing, but bringing their own experiences.
Differences are important. So even in coming together and making M.A.K.U happen, we are by no means a homogenous group of people. We’re very different people. But that’s the beauty of it, that we challenge ourselves every time to come together and to meet in the music. If we can do that with all of our different histories and our different experiences, then hopefully that gets transmitted in the music, too.
KG: What can people coming to your Atrium show expect?
FQ: This show is particularly special for us and, I think, for our career. It’s a commissioned concert for which we’re writing original music. We call it Open Sound System, and we wanted to collaborate with various artists who we’ve encountered and shared with over the years who we’ve met here in New York City.
LC: But they’re from different parts of the world.
FQ: So it’s really, really exciting. We’re going to do a song with Bajah and the Dry Eye Crew, which is an amazing MC/singer/rapper from Sierra Leone based in Brooklyn. We’re going to be collaborating with Kemba [Lodesco], a gospel singer. We’re doing a song with Bulla en el Barrio, which is this amazing collective of bands that plays bullerengue, which is this traditional kind of Colombian music sung by women and danced by women. We’re collaborating with another band from New York called People’s Champs, which is a really great sort of funk, Afrobeat band. So basically it’s going to be a really diverse show, and we’re trying to push ourselves musically to write interesting music with all the people. So far it’s been pretty amazing, and for us it’s quite a milestone, to be able to do that on a stage like the Atrium at Lincoln Center. It’s quite an exciting show for us.
"You can definitely expect a lot of grooviness, dancing, rocking out, lots of energy."
KG: What’s the collaboration process been like?
LC: The process was interesting because it’s a large number of people who we’re collaborating with. It’s five different bands. Basically we split ourselves up and we said each of us is going to work with one of the bands, kind of lead the song project with that band, and then we come together in a rehearsal and try it out and just jam it out for hours until we are happy with what we have going on. But definitely we come into that rehearsal with a solid concept and a solid idea of what the song is going to be. That’s how we went about coordinating.
It’s been really awesome to have the bands that we have built relationships with over time, and it’s really exciting to be coming together with people who we admire, who we like, who we have collaborated with in other ways, to bring them into the M.A.K.U Soundsystem world, especially thinking of the amazing music that everyone is making on their own and thinking of how we can come together. The fact that there’s a scene of immigrant musicians, or musicians who admire each other’s music, or who admire music from other places around the world, or who are from various places around the world. Like with Gnawa, I’m so excited—we’re rehearsing with them tomorrow.
FQ: They’re from Morocco, traditional Moroccan music. I don’t even know the name of the bass guitar he plays...
LC: It’s so cool. It’s so funky.
You can definitely expect a lot of grooviness, dancing, rocking out, lots of energy.
Kristy Geslain is Media Development & Distribution Manager at Lincoln Center.