Elisa Garcia from Uruguay is one Latin singer who does not like being specifically categorised. As a lead singer and co-founder of Latin band NuMundo in the States, the band’s open embrace of cross-cultural influences has created a light-hearted aesthetic dish of tango, fado, jazz, salsa, flamenco, samba and folk music. Throw in Elisa’s smoky and edgy voice along with her velvety dance moves, and you can’t help but be immersed to the brim with a sumptuous, magnetic vibe. Now in Singapore as a solo act, Elisa’s enthusiasm to infiltrate the Asian market proves to be one of the most exciting and challenging period of her life. We chat with the 29-year-old Latin beauty who is also a Zumba instructor and artist, as she settles comfortably in her new home.
What got you singing in the first place?
I started singing at a very young age at children choirs in and outside of school. I got to perform in Europe and in Disney World in America. I did not study singing beyond the choirs. I studied anthropology at university instead, but loved singing and dancing for fun in my spare time. I never really considered doing this as a profession until I met my Singaporean boyfriend, Kailin Yong in Colorado. As a full time musician, he really influenced me to go back to my roots and do music from my culture, dance tango, as well as explore writing my own music and melody while he helped me with the instrumentation behind that. From there, we started NuMundo to infuse the music of North America and Latin America together.
So you consider Kailin to be a very big influence in your musical career?
Yes! He inspired me right away to delve more into the music scene even though I was only getting started to explore that path right before we dated. Once we got together, he became the catalyst to steer me in that direction. It was a gradual transition that took about a year before I quit my office job to do this full time.
What was your office job before you pursue this full time?
Oh my! There were a few that I did. I worked behind the computer doing different things – reception, banking, real estate etc. Just boring desk jobs.
Which artistes are the biggest influences in your music?
I really like Lila Downs whom I can relate to so much. I love her voice and her music, and like me, she also studied anthropology and has a multicultural background as a Mexican-American. I’m also inspired by Chilean singer Violeta Parra, and Brazilian musicians like Paulinho Da Viola and Marisa Monte. In the world of Fado in Portugal, I really like Mariza and Amália Rodrigues. And let’s not forget, Colombian singer Shakira! I love her older music actually, especially the Spanish ones since she’s a really good song writer with very meaningful and beautiful lyrics then, though she’s a lot more commercialised now.
Is being a commercialised musician the route you want to take?
No. I would like to have a more international outlook with my own voice. I’m still in the process of finding my own identity as an artiste. I do a lot of different things from tango to Brazilian music to Fado, and writing my own songs in Spanish, English and Portuguese. To me, the sound, the lyrics and the poetry behind the songs are really important. I feel that the lyrics from a lot of commercial musicians are watered down and not meaningful. Yes I want to be successful, but with my own voice.
Now that you are in Asia, how long have you been in Singapore?
I’ve been here about 4 months now. I find the country great, with lots to offer in different ways. It’s really multi-cultural. I feel ilke I can fit in here, and it’s accepting of many different people. In the realm of music and arts, there’s a lot of opportunities.
How do you feel about the Latin American music scene in Singapore compared to other places you have been?
I think it’s still very young in general though it’s growing. There are a lot of salsa and tango communities, as well as Latin Americans here. What I see less of in Singapore than in the USA for example, is original Latin music. Many Latin bands here do covers rather than compose music. I may be wrong, but I don’t see many of them doing that.
Are all of NuMundo’s music original then?
We’ll throw in some well known and less known covers from time to time, but most of what we compose are our own music. Our most popular songs are “Mar” which means ocean in Spanish, and “Solcito” which is an enduring term for little sun, that adopts a bit of Cumbia style.
How would you describe your music style?
It’s a mix of old traditions of Latin American styles like Samba, Salsa, Cumbia, Rumbia Flamenco, and some North American swing. We sing in Spanish, Portuguese and English, and the cultural background of each band member – North American, Singaporean and Latin American – plays a big part in influencing our music styles. Our music have positive messages about bringing people together. We want to build a bridge across the communities, so what we want to bring to people is a sense of belonging. Many of our songs carry an undercurrent of forward-looking emotions, like I’m looking towards the sun, I’m going forward in life, I’m looking forward to find the beauty in the world etc.
I’m sure there are days you feel low. How do you continue writing such beautiful and light-hearted songs?
The songwriting process is never an issue. There are times when I sit down and try to come up with something. Sometimes when I’m driving in the car, something just pops up in my head and I stop and try to record it so I do not forget. Usually, the melody comes in first, then I’d add lyrics to it or vice versa. I try to go with the flow of the inspiration that comes right at that time.
How was NuMundo’s first gig like?
It was a house concert and very well attended by many friends and communities around the area coming in to see us. We didn’t have a name for the band then. It was a band naming contest. People would listen to us, and come up with band names for us. We didn’t end up taking anyone’s suggestion (laughs) though the names were really interesting!
Which was the best event the band ever performed in?
It was at an outdoor music festival in Colorado called Bohemian Nights Music Festival in August 2012 with many bands before many people. We shared the stage with the Gypsy Kings, so it was exciting to see our name on the line up with the them. I enjoy those kind of concerts, but also the smaller venues where you can have people directly in front of you listening.
Now that you are a musician, an artist and a Zumba instructor, how do you juggle the 3 roles in your life?
It’s hard to say. If I had to choose one and could not do anything else, I would focus on the music more than I would on Zumba and art. Though I love teaching Zumba, it’s not my brand, but someone else’s. I’m not exactly at the final stage of where I want to be, but the path that I am on now is where I need to be. I’m happy to be doing something that I love.
What do you think of dating a Singaporean man?
(Laughs) Well, Kailin is very unique. I don’t know how truly Singaporean you can categorise him because even though he was born and raised here, he has lived overseas for over 20 years. He’s an amazing and inspiring person, and I’m so glad I can be here with him.
How do people in Singapore perceive you here as a foreigner and musician?
It’s interesting how people here can pigeonhole you. Many here assume I sing Salsa, which I do, but they don’t think of anything else that I do as part of my profession. They tend to think of you as one thing, and not the other worlds that I’m a part of. Also, most people don’t know where Uruguay is. Sometimes, they will try to have a really good guess of where it is like “Oh! Is that next to Guatemala?” I would pinpoint to them exactly where Uruguay is on the map.
What advice can you give to Latin American artistes who are trying to breakthrough in Asia?
Continue to do what you love and try not to get stuck in one thing to avoid being typecast. You have to balance between making a living and doing what you want to do as it’s not easy.
Future plans for yourself?
To grow as a musician in Singapore, and hopefully bring NuMundo over to perform in festivals in Asia. I’m still looking around SouthEast Asia, especially Malaysia, to hunt for opportunities for NuMundo and myself as a solo artiste.
This article was published on Vida De Latinos’ online magazine, 1 March 2013.
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