Pink Hawks' Yuzo Nieto Plans to Start a Music School in Denver

Pink Hawks’ Yuzo Nieto (third from the right) is preparing to open an arts and music middle school.
Pink Hawks’ Yuzo Nieto (third from the right) is preparing to open an arts and music middle school. Courtesy of Pink Hawks
Lately, Pink Hawks frontman Yuzo Nieto has been thinking about the band’s multicultural approach, fusing Afrobeat and West African music with Latin music and hip-hop.

“I think, in a lot of ways, that stems from being multi-ethnic myself,” Nieto says. “I sort of had to exist in these spheres of absolute otherism, so basically I was never...I’m always token, but I’m never good enough. I’ll be like the token Asian, but in the Japanese community, I’m not Japanese enough. Or I’ll be the token Latino or Latinx. And in the Latin community, I’m not Latin enough because my Spanish isn’t good enough, or this or that.”

Nieto says he also has a strong indigenous background that stems from his great-grandmother, who was a Mescalero Apache.

“I’ve been tokenized in that respect, and also was never enough for any category,” he says. “In that, I was always interested in everything, and I think that’s sort of like an American condition in the ways in which we become multicultural.”

When Nieto, who studied jazz saxophone at Loyola University in New Orleans, started Pink Hawks eleven years ago, he says there was no vision for the band. He and his good friend Mike Neff started jamming and eventually began playing out, building sets around free improvisation, and each show was different. A performance aspect was added later.

“He and I got really interested in Afrobeat from Nigeria,” Nieto recalls. “We would just improvise in an Afrobeat style. Everything was always recorded, because you never knew what was going to happen. Then eventually, a lot of those improvisations became songs. I’d be like, ‘That’s a sweet idea. We should actually perform that.’

“Initially, I was looping horn lines on my own,” he continues. “Then I realized I should add some horn players so I didn’t have to loop stuff live all the time. Then, for the need of authenticity and trying to steer away from cultural appropriation, Pink Hawks started evolving to really respect and understand Afrobeat in a deeper context.”

Many of the members of the ten-piece band, which sometimes expands to eleven when artist and rapper Molina Speaks joins, are Latino, Latinx or Chicano. More recently, the group began incorporating Latin music.

Nieto also studied in Guinea for about two months, spending twelve hours a day drumming and dancing.
Drummer John Olsson studied in Ghana, and together they’ve incorporated some of those West African influences into the music along with Afrobeat, Malian blues and Ethiopian jazz.

“Lately, what I sort of realized is that it all falls under the umbrella of Afro-diasporic music,” Nieto says. “So, really, any music that was informed by the transatlantic slave trade — Africans, predominantly West Africans, being taken from one place, put into another — those cultures collaborate, new music is formed out of that. That’s kind of where we’re at. We incorporate hip-hop, Afro-Latin music, West African music — kind of how Africans took jazz back to Africa, or funk or soul...just all of that.”

While Nieto has been busy raising two children and working on a doctorate in music education from the University of Northern Colorado, he and the rest of the band will make time to record a new album, which will continue Pink Hawks’ decade-plus holistic evolution. Nieto says that the majority of the songs are written by more of the group’s members than ever before.

“On previous albums, most of the songwriting came from improvisation, but a lot of it was more centered around my arrangements of my lyrics or my horn lines,” he says. “Our evolution in our songwriting process has become a lot more collectivist, and that’s been cool.”

The recording process shouldn’t take that long, says Nieto, but with so many people in the band, editing and mixing can sometimes take several months, as there are a lot of tracks to deal with.

In the meantime, Pink Hawks will continue to play live shows, including headlining Fiesta de Scorpio on Saturday, November 10, at Syntax Physic Opera. The event is something of a group birthday party for Pink Hawks, since six of its members are Scorpios. Nieto says the other bands on the bill — Roka Hueka and the Maybe So’s — also boast a strong Scorpio presence.

“Scorpios are generally pretty creative, really passionate and deep,” Nieto explains. “I think that all factors into people who want to pursue things like music, and I think that also can kind of contribute to — or that passion, I guess, can contribute to — some similarities, maybe, like a pursuit of social justice or something like that. We are very aligned in those ways.”

One of Nieto’s passions is teaching, something he’s done at the SOAR and Highline Academy charter schools in the Green Valley Ranch area, which inspired him to pursue his doctorate.

“After working in the far northeast [of the Denver metro area], teaching music to underserved populations, I saw basically immense talent and a very limited amount of resources beyond this school that I taught at,” Nieto says. “My students were super-awesome and really talented. All the middle schools around there are focused on more, like, test prep. Almost none of them have any arts programs. And if they do, they’re very limited; they’re not very rigorous.

“So my students had experienced academic rigor in the arts at the schools I worked at, and then they went on and pretty much couldn’t pursue it — in school, at least — and a lot of them stopped doing it.”

Nieto’s hoping to change that by founding his own school, most likely in far northeast Denver, since that’s where he’s done a lot of his work. While he says it might take a few years to get approved and funded, he hopes to have the school open within the next four years.

“[The school] would offer a culturally responsive, rigorous arts focus so that students have access to legitimate arts programming, but also can be valued culturally and musically so they can pursue things like songwriting or audio production or recording,” Nieto says. “That would be the music component, but also modern dance, hip-hop styles, with visual art allowing them to express themselves in the modern context, if it’s like muralism or a graffiti framework. And the same with creative writing and theater, as well.”

Eventually, Nieto wants the school to be kindergarten through twelfth grade, but he plans to start with a middle school, “because I think that’s where the biggest need is, and then just kind of extend from there.”

Nieto says a lot of the work he did as a teacher involved culturally responsive pedagogy, something that he’s also been researching as part of his doctoral degree.

“It’s like customizing your curriculum to respond to the cultures of the students,” Nieto says, “letting them study music or create music that they’re interested in or that is reflective of their cultures, whether ethnically or otherwise.”

Fiesta de Scorpio
With Pink Hawks, Roka Hueka and the Maybe So’s, 9 p.m. Saturday, November 10, Syntax Physic Opera, 554 South Broadway, $7.
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon