Interview: Jairo Zavala of Depedro

Thrilled by his native Spain’s World Cup win, Jairo Zavala apologetically jokes, “I’m the one responsible for Depedro.” After his recent show at Schubas in Chicago, Zavala talked with me about his early musical influences, his global principals and perspective, and of course, the music.

Like his world music record label, National Geographic Music, Depedro’s sound comes from his global family. Jairo’s grandfather lived in Equatorial Guinea, “a Spanish colony,” he notes. His family later emigrated to Spain, where Jairo was born. Raised by “hippy parents” in Madrid under dictatorship of the 70’s, listening to the stories and records of his families life in Africa, he spoke of his mother’s struggle to assimilate to Spanish culture, arriving from Africa “to a grey, closed country, a conservative country, in contrast to her oasis,” in the former Spanish Guinea. These early introductions to globalization and postcolonial observations inspired much of the style and intent behind Depedro. In college Jairo studied painting and started playing local bars and clubs. The music, Zavala notes in jest, “started taking a wrong turn, but it was good music anyways.

The conversation predominated in Spanish, but I interestingly noticed how after reciting the name of an English band (like Chicago-based friend, Andrew Bird and The Cat Empire who he had the fortune of playing with in Winnipeg, Canada for the Winnipeg Folk Festival) Zavala would start speaking in English, as if his brain hadn’t made the switch yet. Jairo would catch himself and switch back to Spanish. I asked why he sings songs for Depedro in English and Spanish, thinking he would speak to the bilingual nature of the diasporic Latin American communities in and outside of the Spanish speaking world. Jairo wittingly responds, “The album was recorded with a group from the U.S. (Calexico of Arizona) in order to ‘trick them’ and keep them more involved.”

Jairo’s response sounded less like a cry for bilingual education reform than the playful reality of language and the multitude of bi-cultural, bi-national peoples traversing political and cultural borders daily. But as our conversation continued, Zavala’s humanitarian ideals shined through his love of world music and his pro-immigrant political outlook. “I love flamenco and a lot of bands from Spain, roots music, U.S. American blues, country and of course Latin American music. Speaking to this global influence, Jairo mentions, “My father is Peruvian. In Peru there are a lot of rhythms like Creole music.”

The song, Equivodado 1, speaks to the heart of immigrants like his father. When he sings, “Vi las luces avisando, me habian encontrado / despues de dos dias sin ver, ningun barco. / No eran amigos, la policia me estaban apuntando / por nacer y vivir en el sitio equivocado,” 2 The song echoes like a ballad to the harsh realities of the millions of immigrants being threatened by deportation raids and xenophobic, racist practices across the world, not just in the U.S. “In Europe now,” Jairo explains the situation abroad, “there are a lot of people immigrating from Africa and Asia who don’t have opportunities to make a living, come to Spain, they come to our country. In the past the Spanish left in search of opportunities and now it’s happening to us, all over the world actually. There are a lot of immigrant people and the song speaks to that. You can be born in the right place, but at the wrong time because your country doesn’t have opportunities. It’s called Equivocado for that reason. We’re all wrong then.”

Further sharing his outlook on globalization and his passion for immigrant justice, Jairo explains, “We’re a globalized world. It doesn’t make sense to close the doors. We’re all mixed. We’re fruits of mixings and we need to share experiences. Right now in Spain theirs an economic crisis, and there’s a push to blame the immigrants. But when the immigrants were doing the work that nobody else wanted to do, nobody was saying anything. It’s always the same thing. We have to wake up and realize we need to all push the same cart.”

Reiterating the mission of his label, Nat Geo Music, Jairo’s optimism and ambition intoxicate audiences across the world, “We have to build. No one’s going to come to your house and say, ‘here I’m going to fix your life.’ You have to fight for yourself. You have to find your own way. And it’s possible. The change starts in each of us. The internal is the most important. When you have confidence that amplifies and that example spreads.”

Zavala remains proud of his Spanish roots, yet unrestricted in his critique of those global structures that have left much of his home and third world in turmoil. “Spain is a country that has many faces, many cultures and many languages. I’m very proud to be from their and see the diverse cultures, opinions, looks and foods. Right now there’s a hard economic times. The time has come to confront reality, the model of Neo-liberalism doesn’t work. What has happened here [the US] is going to happen in other nations. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. The banks have given out money to the whole world. They end up millionaires and buy two houses. The workers can’t buy two houses. It’s impossible. It’s the same thing everywhere.”

The philosophy of Neo Geo Music meshes well with the message of Depedro, “a Latino name that invokes and makes reference to Latin American music, Mediterranean sounds, Pedro is a universal name.” Like his band name, Zavala’s lively energy and uplifting music continues to cross borders and inspire audiences across the world.

1 Equivocado (Wrong), Jairo Zavala, Joey Burns. EMI Music Publishing Spain, 2009.

2 “I saw the lights warning, they had found me / after two days without seeing any boats. / They weren’t friends, the police pointing guns / for being born and living in the wrong place,” translated by Jose Luis Benavides