Folk music from his native Argentina has a treasured spot in the heart of Gustavo Santaolalla, the former South American rock star who composed the score for “The Motorcycle Diaries.” To take on a project that took folk music from nearly every country in South America bordered on a dream come true.
“When I was very, very young, I wanted to do music that had an identity of where I was from,” says Santaolalla.
The Latin alternative music pioneer pays homage to the styles of the South American countries that form a travelogue throughout Walter Salles’ biopic of a young Che Guevera, mixing rock and folk, acoustic and electric, Peruvian woodwinds and Brazilian percussion.
Nearly all the music is driven by Santaolalla’s guitar, although the musician is a veritable one-man band on the soundtrack, capturing the film’s Pan American flavors with an array of exotic stringed instruments such as the guitarron, the ronroco, the charango and the caja, as well as pipes, flutes and vibes.
The sounds range from soulfully stirring to quietly introspective. In fact, many of the words critics used to describe ‘Diaries’ could apply to Santaolalla’s music: reflective, enigmatic, poetic, transformative, gorgeous.
Santaolalla became a legend in Argentina via the band he started as a teen, Arco Iris. He moved to Los Angeles in 1982 and discovered, produced and guided leading Spanish-speaking acts Cafe Tacuba, Molotov, Juanes and Maldita Vaeindad.
In the 21st century though, as he spreads his wings into art songs, electronica, folk music and the tango, Santaolalla has become a lauded film composer after just three works, the first two being “Amores Perros” and “21 Grams.”
His next project is Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain,” in which he is composing score and songs, with Bernie Taupin, to be sung by Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris and Rufus Wainwright.
He is also working with tango legends and an electronica collective, the Bajafondo Tango Club.
“Tango has the capacity to regenerate,” says Santaolalla. “Today it has a tremendous life in Prague and Finland and Germany. The music has been on the back burner, but it taps into a melancholy that’s very universal. The tango is always there waiting for me.”
No longer sporting the look of a militant hippie as he did through the ’90s, Santaolalla can owe some of his success to his charm. He laughs frequently and speaks in several languages during an interview, passionate about every aspect of his profession and a career path that has been self-taught at every step. He has never learned, for example, to write musical notation, and instead uses “memory, instinct and my own notation.”
“I have always been involved in alternative music and not the pop music on the radio. I have eclectic taste, but the big trigger was the Beatles — they’re my spiritual fathers. But it wasn’t just the music — I was also fascinated by the recordings, and wanted to find a way to learn how it was done.”