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3.5 Questions for Ben

Updated: May 11, 2019


Ben Schnake

Quick chat with mi compadre Ben, about how he got started in music in Santiago de Chile and how he ended up in New York !?!


How and when did you start playing music?


I started playing with my brothers actually at our home in Santiago. One brother would play Quena (an Andean flute) another brother plays guitar and I was playing charango, which is like a small Andean guitar. We started that when I was 10 years old and we did that for about 3 years.


Then I began to study and play out more with my mentor Danny Rodriguez which allowed me to go to music festivals and play small gigs throughout central Chile.


When did you first travel outside out Chile - or I guess I'm curious when and how you started to deep dive into Andean music genres like Huayno and Saya?


I went to Bolivia for the first time when I was 17 with the band I had with my brothers. We were really curious about the music from Bolivia and wanted to learn more about it. We had listened to all these records back home -


What kind of records?


Music for what you would call "pan flutes" but in spanish is called zampoñas and also quenas. In the Andean countries like Bolivia and Peru - there are music and dance festivals (usually syncing with the seasonal equinox and solstices) which are very important events for the communities there. And the bands that play are usually these huge groups of musicians playing reed flutes of all sizes. I mean some of these flutes are gigantic - like 5 feet tall.


But we weren't only interested in the strictly folk styles or what in Bolivia they call "national music", we were also listening to Los Kjarkas which is a really famous band from Cochabamba, Bolivia and which would blend spanish/western instruments like the guitar with the folks instruments but whose vibe is definitely more Andean pop music...


I heard their music for the first time when I went to Chile this past summer


Really? Where? You heard them live?


No, no. When I was in Valparaiso I heard their music being played everywhere and there was something special about it. Being in this Chilean port town - Pablo Neruda's home - and hearing these records from the 70's or 80's by this Bolivian Andean jam band everywhere.


Yeah, they're still popular for sure. I would say though they're more popular in the north, in places like Iquique for example. I actually heard them live in Pica which is located in the interior of Chile in the Atacama desert.


How did you get into jazz to such an extent that you pursued your master's here in New York?


Well after a few years of playing and traveling around as a musician, I decided to study composition and arranging as an undergrad at la Universidad Arcis (University of Art & Social Sciences). It was a very eclectic school. The teachers and students would play everything - honestly. Classical, pop, jazz, folk, rock, latin-american, electronic, atonal. And as a composition student, the directive was often to write or arrange for music outside of your comfort zone. Which of course is good but at the same time it didn't allow for much hyper-focus on your music. But it was a way to also give you a broader spectrum of music and give you some tools to survive in different musical environments that are outside of your comfort zone - which I think is positive.


Anyways, while at university I started to arrange for big band and started to delve deeper into jazz harmony and that's when I discovered Maria Schneider. Her sound is unique for a big band, I think, and I was really attracted to that sound. So yeah, after I graduated I went back to gigging around but there was always this desire to understand the jazz idiom more and speak that musical language you know? So then I came to get my master's here at NYU and I'm still learning how to play jazz - I imagine it'll be a lifetime pursuit- but I don't really consider myself a jazz musician. I think I'm more interested in doing latin-american music using jazz techniques such as improvisation and jazz harmony. So the project I'm working on now for example, I describe as a South American latin jazz music written for a nonet.