Fernando Onate guitarrista and cantante (singer) started his journey in Santiago, Chile and settled in New Zealand after stints in Argentina and Brazil. Deeply influenced by blues guitarists such as Carlos Santana and the music of Chile, Onate learnt his craft playing the Latin music styles: Samba, Bossa-Nova, Guajira, Bolero and his native Zamacueca. Arriving in Auckland in the 1990's he established the Santiago brand, building a following in the Spanish-speaking population and crucially young dancers wanting to step the salsa with a live band. Based from Swashbucklers a restaurant/venue in Auckland's Freemans Bay near the harbour bridge the band developed a following playing covers and branching out to perform at private shows weddings and anywhere Latin music could celebrate its ritmo, its rhythmic drive.
As is the case with so many artists Fernando took a break from Santiago to spend time with family in 2016 and re-launched the new version Santiago Band Auckland in early 2018 with multi-instrumentalist Stephen Galvin and Latin-music master Miguel Fuentes.
Fuentes is no stranger to Latin music. In fact he is about as 'Latin music' as you can be. Latin music is in his bones and in his well-developed powerful hands so necessary for driving the conga and cajón. Originally a rock drummer he branched out into Latin styles in the 1970s, with the Puerto Rico Symphony, then with the house Orquesta in Puerto Rico's major hotels with artists such as Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jnr, Peter Allen, Isaak Hayes. He also worked as a studio musician for The Sounds of Philadelphia with producers Dexter Wansel and Skip Scarborough. Fuentes can also be heard on on the syndicated tv series Sesame Street. Miguel played in several touring shows with American artists Grover Washington Junior, Patti Labelle, George Benson and others before quitting the touring lifestyle and bringing his family to New Zealand. He was induced to stay after being offered the role of Musical director in the Kantuta band, and playing local dates with jazz and contemporary musicians including Grant Chilcott and Nathan Haines. Any night of the week Fuentes is likely to be laying out the clave at any one of Auckland's Latin-themed venues such as Tasca in Newmarket, Dos Amigos in Mission Bay, even Devonport's Esplanade Hotel. Wherever the clave is Fuente is there.
Galvin plays bass, guitar, sings, and at various times has played drums, flute, saxophone and keyboards. Established in rock act Gratis Kinetic, then backing bands in Queenstown and Christchurch he opened his teaching studio in 1984. Equally at home on stage, in his teaching/recording studio or in South Auckland high schools, he has taught music to thousands of Aucklanders and played in jazz and rock acts, music-theatre, churches, classical orchestra, classical guitar recitals, and big band jazz acts the Prohibition big Band, and West City Jazz Orchestra. As resident bajista in the Santiago band he brings the depth of his musical insights to the fiesta of musical entertainment we call Música Latina.
"The Santiago songlist has it all. From romantic ballads to the eminently danceable everything about the trio is confident, stylish and authentically connected."
"Hearing this band at the Thirsty Dog on Sunday, I was impressed by their tight sound and choice of music. My girlfriend wanted to dance straightaway. Santiago is the real thing." – George Reid
Opening with several numbers in the Bossa-nova style Santiago plays Black Orpheus or Manha de Carnaval an internationally recognised tune from Brazilian master Luis Bonfa. It is equally loved by jazz, Latin and classical musicians. Originally used as a theme song for Marcel Camus's 1959 romantic tragedy Orfeu Negro this minor key melody sings of desire and longing in the favela, in the languid heat of Rio de Janeiro's annual carnival. Santiago updates this music, taking the bare bones of its rhythms and updating them into contemporary sounds.
Playing Qu'en Sera, the band originally took the tune as Sway, popularised by Dean Martin, Michael Buble, the Pussycat Dolls and others. In the process they discovered an early version of the song, in Escuela De Vagabundos the 1956 cinematic comedy by Fernando de Fuentes. Onate sings the Spanish lyrics while Galvin sings the English. This is where the music is adapted and renewed for a new audience.
Tom Jobim's Corcovado is given the same modernised remix. Played in countless 1950's jazz lounges and hotel lobbies, and notably in covers by jazz pianist Bill Evans, hearing this timeless melody is the epitome of the laid-back Bossa style, with its eighth-note rhythms and opaque seventh chords, supporting again the bi-lingual Spanish and English renditions that Santiago do so well.
Latin music could not be complete without reference to the great Sergio Mendes whose Mas Que Nada, based on the style of the Maracatu from Brazil's northeast is for many the quintessential Latin style. It features the minor key, the rippling montuno, tumbaou and especially the heartbeat and footsteps of the conga, in Fuente's hands, an instrument that is just as melodic as it percussive. Fuentes makes the conga sing and in live performance it is fascinating to see and hear the interplay between the layers of Mas Que Nada. Santiago is a band that is just as much about the lyrics as it is about the instruments. All the musicians sing, and remind us that singing and making music is universally enjoyed across the world. The lyrics might be in Spanish (Santiago's is in both Spanish and English) but even without knowledge of Spanish we can feel the exuberance, the tragedy and the patterned layering of rhythm that makes this music unique. You simply have to dance to these sounds.
There is no real agreement what the word 'Cumbia' means. Sometimes it is used as a derivative for 'Colombia' other times a style of music. In the case of Santiago's Cumbia Maravillosa it is the dance and like most of this act's repertoire the immediately recognisable toe-tapping rhythm stands out as music for dancing, music for leisure and music to enjoy. Cumbia uses a distinctive hook, a short eight-bar motif that returns several times though the song reminding us that at heart the music is at times romantic, at times comic, at times tragic, overstated, passionate or nostalgic but always it has the clave, the dance step. Whether you are listening while seated or on the floor, you just want to tap your feet to these sounds.
La Sombra De Un Alheli the song that made a hit for Aurora, written by Chano Dominguez and featuring flamenco crossover artist José Miguel Carmona is coupled in the Santiago setlist with the Gypsy Kings Quiero Saber, both items drawn from the flamenco soul and infused with that minor-key langour that Onate does so well.
Que la me importa de ti
A un nuevo amor
E tu forma deseo
No llego a a comprender
E tus ojos ja llorando dio
Want to know
That I care about you
To a new love
I do not understand
Why your eyes are crying
Joan Manuel Serrat's Mediterraneo is a different class of lyric. A huge hit in 1971 for the Catalan-born Serrat, and sung in Spanish it captured the imagination of Latinos worldwide and propelled Serrat to stardom in his homeland across the Atlantic nad throughout the world. In Mexico, in Puerto Rico and now in New Zealand this song is a proclamation of identity, a tribute to the heritage of the Latin diaspora and a salute to music itself. Latin music is often music about music, about rhythm or a style, but in this song Serrat captured a culture and proclaims its identity.
Hollywood fans would recognise Johnny's Mambo from the movie Dirty Dancing with Patrick Schwarze as Johnny Castle the amorous but ultimately honorable dance guru. For Santiago Johnny's is an instrumental that features each of the musicians in turn and for them an opportunity to stretch out in music. As always it is the conga that drives this music and reigns supreme.
Bilongo or La Negra Tomasa was written in 1937. A guaracha or comic 'vulgar' song it celebrates the love for a black girl, la negra, and the magic of love or bilongo, which culminates in the refrain Kikiribu mandinga, a phrase from Senegalese culture that has several meanings including 'cursed by love'. This music is not at all serious. Upbeat and clever, it is both celebration and relief.
Devorame Otra Vez by contrast is a chef's delight. The English translation 'Devour Me' gives a hint of this song's sensual theme.
Hasta en sueños he creído tenerte devorándome
Y he mojado mis sabanas blancas llorándote
En mi cama nadie es como tu, no he podido encontrar la mujer
Even in dreams I believed You devouring me
And I've wet my white sheets
I could not find a woman like you
In my bed no one
Need we say more?
Wherever live music is played, whether it is in a club, in a high-priced and fancy restaurant on Auckland's Princes wharf, in a festival, concert cafe or bar, at home or in a stadium, music connects people together and in simple terms when the music is right, everything is right. Across Auckland on any given night, on a Sunday afternoon at one of the city's many relaxed and informal venues, music serves as the catalyst the makes the ordinary into something special making an event out of a day, an experience out of a routine. The Santiago Band is perfect in this setting. Rhythmic and danceable, romantic and interesting, superbly played by master musicians, the music of Santiago deserves its well-earned place in Auckland's music scene serving international quality and mixing it with the best that our local culture has to offer.