Essential albums: Jorge Reyes

There is a mysterious, earthy intensity to Jorge Reyes' work that's an exception to the light, semi-commercial fare that usually sits under the world music banner. This quality is often at its most visceral when he sings and chants amid the percussion, flutes, synths and sundry other native instruments that make up his exotic sound.

Jorge Reyes

country of origin:

Tribal ambient, progressive rock, folk

decades active:
70's - 10's

essential releases:

  • Comala (1986, Mexican Records)
  • Niérika (1989, Mexican Records/Silent Records)
  • The Flayed God (1994, Mexican Records)
  • Mort Aux Vaches (1996, Mexican Records)
  • Rituales Prehispanicos (1996, ParaMusica)
  • Prehispanic Music (2005, Mexican Records)

with Suspended Memories:

  • Earth Island (1994, Hearts Of Space)

with Steve Roach:

  • Vine - Bark & Spore (2000, Timeroom Editions)

Reviewed by Mike G

Variously described as shamanistic, devotional and tribal, the electro-acoustic music of late Mexican musician Jorge Reyes (1952-2009) often gets filed under "world music". Close inspection reveals something quite different, however. There is a mysterious, earthy intensity to his work that's an exception to the light, semi-commercial fare that usually sits under the world music banner. This quality is often at its most visceral when he sings and chants amid the percussion, flutes, synths and sundry other native instruments that make up his exotic sound.

Reyes music is the real thing, despite whatever contrary image he may have projected at times. There's a piece of surviving footage from a TV appearance circulating online complete with sets, dancers and outlandish tribal regalia that suggests a performer ramping up the shamanistic shtick to the point of parody. But close your eyes and, even here, there's no denying the power of the music. As U.S. radio broadcaster John Diliberto once wrote: "Jorge Reyes was a remarkable presence. Gentle, sweet and unaffected offstage, a possessed ritualistic performer onstage."

Upon Reyes' death the American synthesist Steve Roach, who collaborated with him a number of times, also said:

"In working and hanging with Jorge, there was always a sense of stepping off the edge into a kind alluring and dangerous zone that always was supported by an unspoken trust of some primal state he had direct access was truly an honor to share the peaks and the relaxed moments...we would find our way back from the edge after these long recordings or live sessions, hearing the results while sipping a fine Tequila with the sounds of our recent journey playing, then calling us back out once more."

Solo albums

So, where to start for newcomers? Reyes complete discography was elusive for many years - only certain albums seemed available at all - but now pretty much everything he released can be found on CD or download. There are some 20 original albums dating from the mid 1980's to the late 2000's, plus compilations, and he rarely made a lousy one. Following below are some good introductions.

Although he was not a Mexican Indian, Reyes played many Prehispanic instruments and was exposed to them from an early age in the village where he grew up. This influence permeates most of his output and the four volumes in his Prehispanic/pre-Columbian music series are an excellent place to start: Rituales Prehispanicos (1996), plus three other albums from the same decade that are now available as a 3CD compilation set simply called Prehispanic Music (2005). Many tracks from these releases find him playing a mix of found and borrowed instruments and he's not at all concerned with standardised tunings; instead he explores these ancient sound spaces in his own personal way. We don't know exactly what early Prehispanic music sounded like, of course, and that's not the point. Reyes' art is pure, but he was not a purest. The feeling on these albums is positively primal at times - occasionally aided by the airy, drifting, dark hues of synthesisers - and epic at others, such as the swelling strings that cushion the big tribal groove of "No Te Entiendo".

The Prehispanic series of albums are compilations of sorts, drawing some of their tracks from other Jorge Reyes releases. As such, they provide a decent sampling of the breadth of his work. But a number of other releases together make an equally good introduction.

His early solo albums are generally more melodic than his later ones and show a progressive rock influence, not surprising given that he played in several prog rock bands in the 70's and early 80's. Comala (1986) is a fantastic example; a brilliantly whacked-out combination of prog rock, psychedelia, tribal grooves, jazzy improvising, chants and other Mexican folk flavours. Niérika (1989) from the same period is another outstanding release, equally eclectic but a little more restrained and polished.

Fast forward to the mid-1990's, by which time the tribal side of Reyes sound well and truly occupies centre stage. The Flayed God (1994) is a rare and wondrous thing: an album of tribal exotica that engages and enthralls from beginning to end with almost no reliance on tonality, chords or melodic lines. What moments of melody do exist on the album - the flutes for example - are played not using a Western seven-note scale but a "natural tuning", which essentially means the instrument's original maker punched the holes where they felt right. Mort Aux Vaches (1996) is also outstanding, albeit more tuneful, and contains some stunning vocal work. "Plight" captures the singer at his most sensual and restrained, accompanied by simple live percussion and gorgeous, understated synthesiser drones.

Steve Roach collaborations

The 1990's also saw a number of significant collaborations between Reyes and pioneering American ambient musician Steve Roach. Together they spearheaded the rise of electronic tribal ambient music, a dark and deep electro-acoustic hybrid that today commands a massive underground following.

As part of the trio Suspended Memories they recorded two albums with Spanish musician Suso Sáiz. The second of these, called Earth Island (1994), is a fantastic and varied collection of dark-edged global exotica, enveloped in Roach's widescreen drones. As equally fine is the Roach and Reyes collaboration Vine - Bark & Spore (2000). This album sees Reyes' vocal stylings treated with heavy reverb, shimmering across electro-acoustic landscapes which range from darkly brooding to luminous and uplifting. While a tribal heart still beats at its centre, the album is a more subtle affair and has an extra degree of intimacy that the pair's other collaborations lack.

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