Started by childhood friends Yuzo Nieto and Mike Neff in early 2007, Pink Hawks initially explored an nearly pure jazz-improv musical route. Those early shows incorporated performance-art elements that tried to engage multiple senses, with cohorts of the band passing out items frozen in ice cubes, or live painting, or creating any number of other inexpensive sensory experiences to take audiences out of the run-of-the-mill live-music experience.
Since that time, Pink Hawks has evolved its sound to incorporate more of the Afrobeat aesthetic pioneered by Fela Kuti, who makes music from a rich alloy of traditional and not so-traditional, African music and jazz, using polyrhythms as a compositional element. The band retains its jazz roots and includes ideas from dub and various folk-music traditions for a compelling and unique mélange of sounds, so it could never be pegged as strictly an Afrobeat band. We spoke with Nieto in advance of the release of Shima, the group's sprawling odyssey of smoky sounds, about Afrobeat and about how he became immersed in poetry and its performance.
Westword: What initially got you interested in Afrobeat?
Pink Hawks, with Bad Weather California, the Dendrites and El Sin Fin, 8 p.m. Friday, May 13, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, $10, 303-294-9258.
Yuzo Nieto: I really started getting into Fela Kuti, and I had taken some West African drumming classes in college. Getting into African music and having a jazz background was a perfect mix of everything I was into. The reason Pink Hawks started moving toward Afrobeat from its origins in jazz improv is that it was born out of an inherent rebel artivist nature. However, it lets you have fun and dance rather than making you feel bad or angry.
In addition to being a musician, you studied writing at Naropa?
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I did the summer writing program. I started out as a music major, and I studied jazz saxophone at Loyola in New Orleans. I kind of went around town playing at various spots. It was crazy being eighteen and nineteen in New Orleans. Then I went to CU. I started out in music and then switched to poetry, and around that time, I started doing that summer program.
I didn't like the institution of higher music education. For one, when I was playing saxophone, especially at CU, people tried to put rules on improvisation. It seemed really formulaic, and it seemed like they were watering down this really soulful music. I switched to voice, and all they had was an opera department, and after a year, I decided being an opera musician wasn't my calling. I always did songwriting, and I liked literature, and I thought poetry was the best way I could get a good education and help my songwriting.
At Naropa the guy that stood out the most was Miguel Algarín. He co-founded the Nuyorican Poets movement and he still owns that cafe. He really got me into the performative aspect of poetry and pushed my boundaries more so than I had been on my own.