Esteban Copete is a presence. He’s tall, tatted up and down 1 and a half arms, and he recently started locking his hair. When Esteban walks into a place, heads turn.
And so it was on this Saturday afternoon in Ciudad Jardin in the southern end of Cali. Ciudad Jardin is the type of neighbourhood that compels other Black people to remark, “Oh, you don’t see many Black people there, do you?” when you tell them that’s where you live.
While he “looks” like an artist, Esteban is unlike what you’d expect from a musician if you based your expectations on stereotypes. He’s surprisingly quiet but readily accepts hugs and photo requests from strangers. Besides being a local celebrity in his own right, Esteban is also the grandson of the late musician Patricio Romano Petronio Álvarez Quintero, for whom the largest festival of Pacific music and culture in Colombia is named.
We met up at one of the many Juan Valdez coffee shops scattered about the city (think Starbucks: overpriced but delicious) to talk about why he chose to base his career in the music of Colombia’s Pacific region, his grandfather’s legacy, and his most recent musical offering, Encuentro.
How would you describe yourself?
Someone who is passionate about his roots. Someone who loves what he does. I try to be good person — a good son, a good brother and a good friend. I do the best I can with what I have.
How did you end up becoming a musician?
First because of family tradition, because of my grandfather, Petronio. There is a really strong artistic vein
Esteban with his marimba. Photo by Diego Badillo.
that runs in my family. They say it’s imprinted in your DNA. I was born with a taste for music and my family was very connected to the music from our culture, from the Pacific. Since I was very young, my family always supported me in studying music.
Do you feel any pressure, because of your grandfather’s legacy?
No. I feel very fortunate to be his grandson. But do I feel any pressure from my family because my grandfather was a great musician? Or do I feel like I have to be great simply because I’m his grandson? No. I want to be great simply because I want to be great, not due to any expectations.
What instruments do you play?
I play percussion from the Pacific and from the Caribbean (cununo, el bombo, el guasá, marimba de chonta, tambor alegre, tambora), gaita, saxophone, a bit of the ukulele, and I sing a bit.
What was the first musical instrument you picked up?
The first was the flute in school. Then it was other instruments related to chirimía — I grew up with that music. I came to Cali when I was about 10 years old and that’s when I discovered the marimba. I had already discovered the saxophone in Chocó, so I came with the desire to study it in Cali. I finished high school and then went on to study the saxophone in the conservatory, and then I went to Univalle [Universidad del Valle] and continued studying the saxophone. When I finished university I started working on my own musical projects, including Kinteto Pacifico, which is the one I’m working with now.
What are some of your musical influences?
Everything. I listen to Brazilian music, music from West Africa, a lot of jazz, lots of traditional music from various countries, salsa. Everything.
What’s playing in your car right now?
Pericles from Brazil.
Why did you decide to play Pacific music and not something like salsa?
Because it was the first music that I encountered, and I liked it. Sometimes you hear something first but it doesn’t grab your attention. In this case, I connected with it. And it allows me to connect with my roots.
I assume it would be easier to do something like salsa in Cali but you keep faithful to your traditional music. Where does that commitment come from?
I don’t know — from my heart. Because if we’re talking about work, yes it would be easier to do a genre that is more popular in the city. Not to mention, when I started, traditional Pacific music was just starting to pick up speed. So, I don’t know. Love for our culture. Some colleagues have switched paths along the way and headed over to salsa and reggaeton but there are some of us who are still in the struggle.
And what’s it like, being a musician in Cali, but also in Colombia?
Photo by Mango Visual
It’s complicated. It’s a bit difficult, but like everything you need perseverance. You need to believe in what you do and little by little things come together. Being a musician, and especially a musician who does traditional music in Colombia, can be somewhat of a slow process. But with perseverance and diligence things are coming together.
Talk to me about the new project Encuentro.
This is the fourth album from Kinteto Pacifico and I wanted to do something different. I wanted to invite artists that work within different musical genres. We invited artists like Mauro Castillo, Anddy Caicedo, William Angulo from Herencia de Timbiqui, Edson Velandia, and Vicente Garcia who just won 3 Grammys. So it’s a bit of a new sound, kind of like an exploration, and I think we have a really beautiful result.
What’s it like, being part of this community of artists that do traditional Pacific music?
It’s a healthy environment. I think it lacks in unity, but each person respects what the other person does. There is no envy, no one is trying to stab anyone in the back. We need to be closer so that we can work as a bloc for the good of the music. But we’re all friends, we support each other.
Who would you like to work with?
I’d really like to do something with Jorge Drexler. I’ve already worked with a lot of artists that I respect on this album. Gregory Porter is another one.
Where can people listen to you online?
All of the digital music outlets Spotify, Deezer, iTunes, Claro Music, YouTube and Soundcloud. You can follow also follow us on Instagram and Facebook.