Strange Harmonies: Chilean Flirts with ‘Non-folklorized’ Music

Me and Chilean composer Leonardo Garcia chill out at the cafe. His work beautifully mixes Miles Davis jazz sensibility with now, sounds of the Orient.
By Trista di Genova, The Wild East

Tonight I spotted a ‘foreign people’ nursing an iced coffee at 85-degree Café in Wanhua District, and called out my standard Chinglish greeting, “Hello how are you!” to no response.

It turned out this was Leonardo Garcia, Chilean composer and flutist who just arrived 2 days ago. His Iranian wife, a dancer who does choreographic notation for Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, is joining him here next week. They’re both graduates of the prestigious Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris.

In Paris, Leonardo met the directors of the music production company Ilha Formosa, Damien Bernard and his Taiwanese wife Chin Ping-lin, who invited Garcia to Taiwan to perform his innovative work with 6 Taiwanese musicians here, in Taipei, then Chiayi and Taitung. Rehearsals start today.

Leonardo first came with the company for a month in December, playing what he described as ‘world music’, and ‘acoustic not electronic music’, in a small village near Keelung “to locals including artists and fishermen”, then to fairly packed audiences of local music students and teachers in Chiayi.

Also a sociologist by training, Leonardo rapidly pulls into the course of our conversation an encyclopedic knowledge of seemingly arcane, disparate musical styles and traditions from around the world — from the ‘Chinese Tango’ he says people dance here in Taiwan’s parks to the bailes chinos he researched as a student at Universite de Paris 10, Nanterre.

He researched the ‘Religious Brotherhood in Chile’, called ‘bailes chinos’ (dancing Chinese). “But they’re not Chinese at all,’ he says, ‘Well yes and no. In many parts of northern Chile people dress like Chinese, because that region saw a lot of migration from China in the late 1800’s. The Chinese were miners, and there was slavery — once African slavery was forbidden, the English companies made Chinese come to work in mines, [and to make] guano, and in agriculture. They are Roman Catholic, mixed with ancient rituality.” To see more of his work on bailes chinos, see:

Of Leonardo’s six compositions he and local, classically trained musicians will be performing, only one of them he says actually has Andean influences. The others draw on his jazz and even Balkan influences from studying the Kaval (the Bulgarian flute) near Sofia for some months.

Surprisingly, he expressed a near-abhorrence of folkloric music. In halting English, he explains to The Wild East why:

“I like ‘very roots’, but not folklore. I like it when it’s very contemporary or very ‘roots’, but this [music] in the middle, no. Traditional music, yes; but music has been folklorized too much. You take for example a piece that’s very archaic” – and he hums a few bars – “and turn it into 1-2-3-4. But that’s square” – he gestures in the air – “because you don’t respect the 17-beat cycle. You will make 16-beat music into 4-plus-4-plus-4, like this music” – gesturing the insipid love ballads the café was playing – “Very square. It’s very easy to dance to, like techno music, but it’s ‘4’. You make impoverished music with that — tasteless. When you see bailes chinos playing their flutes, it’s harsh-sounding. [If you turn it into a] pure sound well that’s more clean but your tone, it’s now very poor. For me, folklore is the death of traditional music. When I work with a traditional piece, I will try to keep the basic structure, not make it 14 if it’s 17. I play 17, and will make a harmony counterpoint, but with modern quotes — like the harmony of Miles Davis in ‘Kind of Blue’ or ‘Maiden Voyage’, with suspended chords. You keep the strange harmony, with chords out of scale. I don’t have a keyboard for show you, but if you come to the concert you will see!”

Poster for Garcia's upcoming performances in Taiwan.
You can listen to Leonardo’s ‘strange harmonies’ on

Or catch one of his performances: Sat. May 14 in Taipei, May 7 in Taitung or two days in Chiayi late next month.

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