"This album takes a lot more risks in terms of genre. I am trying to make songs that I like and that’s it."
Last time we talked to Raúl, he was promoting Origenes under his other project, Sotomayor. The interview took place in February 2020, right before the start of the pandemic. However, the events of the pandemic and the inability to give live performances of an under-appreciated gem, in my opinion, did not dampen Raúl's spirit and instead he harnessed the necessity of the time to focus his attention on producing music outside of Sotomayor.
Thus, we have the birth of Tonga Conga. Tonga Conga is a dj, producer, musician, and beats genius (my words of choice). It is the alter ego of Raúl which, as he mentioned during our conversation, came about pure spontaneity and need for a name as a producer. He used the time during the pandemic to be as creative as ever. He did not let this derail his ambition. He, instead, started to produce music for and with other artists and is 1/2 of the lo-fi project, Flora Vida.
If you are really interested in setting the mood for this interview then I recommend listening to his latest single Mira Bien and/or the dj set below. Earlier in March, Raúl and I met over Zoom to discuss not only his first album under Tonga Conga, but also why he chose to take this direction given that in the past few years, his efforts were directed towards Sotomayor. During our conversations, it was revealed that Raúl will release a single, Diablo, on April 8th and an album in the summer: JEVI (pronounced like the word “heavy”). And although the album is not out yet, it's a delicious and savory (yep) album that cannot be boxed in a single category. It’s neither pure Afro House or cumbia or house, but combines all of those elements plus the signature Raúl sound found in his other projects.
The single coming this week, Diablo, will have you vibing… just pure vibing. It is that, a tone-setter. It is even better when you close your eyes and let the beat and vocals carry you to a better setting. In my case, I picture myself at a party by the beach or at a very future-esque, dark-lit café. It further showcases the versatility of this album yet cohesiveness. It’s even better when you listen Mira Bien and Diablo back-to-back.
I started off the interview by asking Raúl how he was and it just went off from there:
Pao: First all, how are you? How’s everything been with the pandemic and all?
Raul: Well, good. I think the pandemic changed many things for me. With Sotomayor, we released an album in February 2020. The album underperformed because it came out during a very complicated time. Right when the pandemic started. That made it so that a lot of the things we had planned could not happen. It was hard getting back at it. It felt like a reset. […] At the same time, we had find a different way to change what we had been doing and adapt. In my case, I changed everything I was doing to producing. Instead of putting all my energy towards Sotomayor, I put it towards producing other projects.
I think the first thing that happened was that I produced a few songs on Cabra’s album. Cabra is Visitante from Calle 13 and he produced the Sotomayor album and we just became friends and started working together. [...]
I also did other albums like that of Los Masters Plus and an album for this girl that sings R & B, Immasoul, plus other things. The change from doing shows to producing music, was the biggest change in my life. It made me realize that that is what I like the most about making music. It is MAKING MUSIC.
With that said, that’s how Tonga Conga was born. Tonga Conga is my production alias. And in the moment of producing stuff for others, there were songs I felt were good but did not fit within the “universe” of the artist. It felt new. I decided to then release it instead as a project full of collaborations- something alternate to Sotomayor. Although there are similar aspects, it is a different concept. I decided to make it something new and little by little it has become something bigger. [...]
One single has come out and another will come out in April. And I hope to have the full album out by summer. And, yeah. I am happy with how things have developed.
Pao: Yeah, I was actually recently re-reading the 2020 interview. It was right before the pandemic and you guys were promoting the album. I actually have it right here. It makes sense that you are producing. I’m actually surprised it did not happen sooner.
Raul: Yeah, yeah.
Pao: One hundred percent. By the way, I feel like I should rip this list of questions up. We just covered a lot of ground. Ha-ha.
Raul: Yeah, it’s been happening to me.
Pao: No, it’s fine!
Raul: I just keep going.
Pao: No, it’s fine! It’s harder when someone gives you a one-word answer. Ha-ha. On that note, why did you choose Tonga Conga?
Raul: To be honest, it happened the day when Vistante’s album came out.
When La Cabra Jala Pal Monte, came out, Eduardo (Visitante/Cabra), wrote to me and said, “what do we credit you as on the album?”. It didn’t make sense for it to say “produced by Sotomayor” because Sotomayor is a separate thing that I do with my sister. So, I decided to use Tonga Conga […] I was looking for something that was new. But it’s hard to put a name it on it. It’s something that starts making sense little by little, but not at the moment you chose it. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s the name of a preset on a synth I have. I thought it was funny when I saw it and the word play makes sense with the style of music. It was funny that little by little…like, Tonga is an island and no one knew about it until the Olympics and then now that a volcano erupted people know about it. It’s funny how something that didn’t really exist/mean anything is given a significance by the world.
Pao: Yeah, cool! I know it’s hard to explain, but it’s cool that in the moment that is what you felt. That is what made sense to you.
And, well, you have been producing with Sotomayor then as Tonga Conga, and you also have Flora Vida. What’s the biggest difference you have noticed when you are working with each project? How does your approach differ? Or if it does at all?
Raul: Each of them have a complex side. For example, in Sotomayor, I share responsibility. Although I am the one producing and finishing it, the lyrical part is delegated almost completely to my sister. We share that 50/50. My job was to make good beats and then adapt that with my sister. With Tonga Conga, I have that responsibility. Although the artists are helping with the lyrics, there is more direction on my part. I am the one that is calling the shots on everything, time, the concept, and how to continue. And with Flora Vida, it’s a strange project because I almost feel like I am cheating. Because they are instrumental tracks, in my universe, they feels like incomplete tracks. That’s why I feel like I am cheating. They are beats I made in half an hour and it’s there. They are demos that I made for other things and we finish them as lo-fi tracks.
Also, funnily enough, lo-fi garnered a lot of importance during the pandemic. A lot of the tracks in my catalogue that have the most plays are the lo-fi ones. Flora Vida has almost triple the plays that Sotomayor has. Sotomayor is a project that has three albums and 6 years of hard work and Flora Vida has 2 EP’s that came out in the span of 6 months and it’s crazy to see how music is changing.
For me, it’s interesting to see the many ways that one can enter the music business. Flora Vida is an escape for me. I like that a lot. I don’t have the pressure of having a “complete” track with a super powerful hook. Like when you make commercial music or pop music, you have the necessity for the songs to be a hit. Not necessarily a hit like that of Katy Perry, but a hit nonetheless. And with lo-fi, it’s niche in a way and you do it and that’s it. You have that liberty of doing whatever you want.
I really love instrumental hip-hop like J Dilla and Madlib. Flora Vida is that part for me. I can make beats and that’s it. They can just come out. Also, they do very well. The special thing about Flora Vida is that it’s not only lo-fi, but it is Latin lo-fi which is something that didn’t really exist. Then all of a sudden, Flora Vida became one of the pioneers in Mexico and streaming platforms started paying attention to that. They supported us a lot. Now, there is a true movement of Mexican producers making lo-fi with a Mexican or Latin American intention. It’s very special to have seen it grow and how important it has become.
All of a sudden, the things I was able to do multiplied.
Pao: Yeah, I don’t think I ever listened to lo-fi prior to the pandemic. And if I did listen to it, it was not that it was categorized as lo-fi or intentional. And was it that popularity of lo-fi that influenced this new album? Jevi right? Sorry I have to ask because I am always scared of mispronouncing an album especially because I once messed up with the word once (means eleven in Spanish but written the same as the word “once”).
Raul: Well, that’s what it’s about. Jevi means heavy like in English like with “h”. However, it’s an expression used in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. They use the word to describe something that is cool. It’s precisely that play on words that we all understand in all countries in Latin America and at the same time we don’t. That’s what motivated me to name the album that. I don’t think it’s that influenced by lo-fi, but it’s more influenced by this idea I’ve always had with Sotomayor such as to combine electronic music with Afro-Latin music. You know, at the same time I didn’t want it to sound like Sotomayor. This album takes a lot more risks in terms of genre. I am trying to make songs that I like and that’s it.
It’s weird when I talk about it. One would think that people make the music they like all the time and that’s it, but that is not true. The whole time you are thinking about what the audience wants, what the label wants, what will work, and what will make us be on a certain Spotify playlist. For example, lo-fi is genre music and if I follow certain “rules” Spotify will put it on “lofi beats” and it will do well. And with the album, it’s the contrary. I believe in these songs because they are good even though I don’t know where to "put them". The best example for this is the track with Mabiland because it’s a weird house song. It’s neither house music or Afro House just “hard” house.
Mabiland is an artist that does hip-hop and R&B and she combines these things very well. She's good at rapping but also good at singing so she combined these things very well. There is a part where she is spitting bars then sings a chorus and the combination is so good, so fresh, and so novel. You would not expect it. That is what I am looking for with these songs, novelty. You can really feel a transition.
Like I feel the transition that happened during the pandemic. I am not the same person I was three years ago. I am way better at producing. It is a necessity for that to be reflected onto these new tracks.
Pao: Of course! You can tell. It’s like you said it’s Afro-house and at the same time it isn’t. It’s a mood, it’s a vibe. Ha-ha. I hate to be wording it like that. But yeah.
Raul: Ha-ha. But that’s what I am looking for. With everyone that I discuss the album with, I try to send them the full album. It really doesn’t make sense when you listen to just one song. It’s been the hardest part for me. I am releasing singles and you listen to one song and it’s cool and all, but it does not evoke the full message like when you listen to three songs on the album. You can see the musical intention behind it. You see all these artists from different countries, and it all starts making sense. It’s no longer just an isolated song. I do think it’s important to construct a vibe.
Pao: Yes, of course. Like the trend in recent years has been to release single by single with all this space in between that it doesn’t really automatically capture the whole vibe of an album or it’s direction or what one should feel when listening to the whole thing.
Raul: Yeah, especially with collaborations. We are in the era of collaboration. If your song or album does not have a collaboration, then it’s “weird”. People are expecting the hype of that collaboration. It’s different when an artist releases random collaborations than when they all make sense. I see this more as a Gorillaz album. Even though there’s like fifteen to twenty collaborators, in the end, those collaborations are chosen in such a way that the palette of the album is Gorillaz. It’s an album. That was very important. You won’t get it until the whole thing is released.
Pao: And speaking of collaborations, how was it that you chose these collaborations. I imagine that with Vanessa (Zamora) it’s because you recently worked with her, but what about the other collaborations for this album?
Raul: Well, they all came about due to different circumstance. With Vanessa, she reached out so I could produce some songs on an album and in that process, we became good friends. I showed her a few tracks and when I showed them to her, she did not say anything. She told me to send them to her and then a few days later she sent me some lyrics. It was very organic and it was very important to me that things happened that way. The friendship aspect is more important to me than them simply turning in a product. With that track it was all good because she was the only artist on there from Mexico and I could work with her here in Mexico.
On the other hand, with Mula, I knew them via the internet. I mean I still don’t know them in person. I sent them the album and they liked the idea. They chose a song they liked and they quickly sent material to me. They were very proactive. In that case I sought them out and it all happen so quickly.
For example, with tracks like the one with Mabiland, Mabiland recently works under the same management as me. In order to release this album, I signed a deal with Virgin Records which is part Universal. And that deal was like an exclusive artist type deal and at the moment of signing, the management changed and it coincided that Mabiland was under the same management as me. Mabiland was actually in my list of artists I would like to write to. In her case, management helped with that collaboration. It’s crazy because even though Mabiland is a new artist, I think she is going to be huge like the Latin American Little Simz. She has her attitude and approaches to music that is very unique. It’s been interesting working with her and seeing all these things happening in her career.
Now, the track with AcentOH. AcentOH did a track with Trending Tropics on the album that was made by Visitante and Vicente Garcia. And I knew him via the album and the relationship between Eduardo (Visitante). I wrote to him, and he quickly returned something.
TolumiDE is a Nigerian artist and I met her at the Grammys because a few years ago I was invited to be part of a committee in the U.S. For example, there is a group of people that qualify or check that songs in a certain category are correct. Since it's all voting based, there is a chance that it’s not in the right category. So, the Grammys organize committees with people that are experts in certain categories, and they make a decision as to the artists nominated. I was invited to the participate in the category of world music (Global Music), now three years ago, and that’s where I met TolumiDE and she was like the representative of Nigeria. I also wrote to her and she quickly sent a track.
It’s been a challenge because not every artist has the capacity to record themselves. If the pandemic had not happened, then I would have probably travelled to those places to record them myself. But with the pandemic, it has been complicated and it has had to be resolved with them going to a studio, or them recording it themselves, or sometimes in person. […] It’s also been challenging because it all hinges on when an artist responds back. I’ve had to be patient with the timing of things. The pandemic slowed things down.
The rest of the conversation with Raúl was overall lovely and more so felt like catching up with a friend. He was very detailed and kind. Through the continuity of the conversation, we discussed the artwork for some of the singles which was made by Jimena Estíbaliz (@jimena.esibaliz), an emerging illustration artist in Mexico. Honestly, the covers are fantastic and really reflect the singles and album as a whole. Raúl mentioned that the artwork for Diablo has two figurines. If you look at it closely, it creates this devil face with their bodies. Raúl also described this idea where eventually all the figures on the singles will come together on the album and form a type of Where’s Waldo situation.
Finally, the conversation came to an end. Raúl talked about his admiration for producers like Tainy and he also mentioned that he would want people to experience Jevi live. With the album, he stated that, “I want people to see it live especially because of the pandemic.” He reiterates that it has been almost a solitary process during this time and it's his dream to have all the people that collaborated with him to be together for the show. That is the way Jevi should be enjoyed.
I truly recommend checking out his latest work. Thank you Raúl for the interview. If anyone is interested is checking out his solo endeavors then go follow him at @tongaconga.
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