It’s not surprising to find two-time Grammy Award-winning music producer Christian Castagno in his recording studio. What is surprising is to find his recording studio in the coastal jungle of la Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia!
I caught up with Chris at his home and recording studio alongside the river that runs through the eco-village of Minca, a half-hour drive up the hill from Santa Marta. He was in the middle of an outdoor recording session with the Latin jazz ensemble, MARIAZÚ, led by Parisian singer turned Bogotá resident, Sarah Marechal. I was curious to learn what had motivated Chris to leave New York and bring his wife and young son to the jungles of Colombia.
Chris is 43 years old, born in New Jersey, raised in far-flung locations like South Carolina and New Mexico, but mostly a product of New York City. As a teenager he learned to play several musical instruments and wound up with a job at the historic Manny’s Music Store which is something of a shrine for music and musicians from around the world. He played gigs as a DJ and was eventually promoted to the audio technology department at Manny’s, learning the ins-and-outs of the technical side of recording music and producing record albums.
New York City is a bubbling melting pot for musical cultures from around the globe, with Cuban and Puerto Rican and African and Latin rhythms all finding their way into the musical salsa. Chris became something of a musicologist, researching and experiencing all types of music, including Latin rhythms and particularly the many various Colombian musical genres.
He met his Colombian wife, Tatiana, while they were making music together in Brooklyn, and soon found himself producing record albums for many Latin artists, from traditional music to pop, for performers like Naty Botero and others. He fine-tuned his recording and mixing skills and his reputation grew, resulting in his winning Grammy awards for best contemporary world music albums in 2006 and 2007.
A chance encounter with a group of Colombian indigenous musicians at the Grammy Award ceremonies led to an invitation to record the sounds of an historic gathering of Native American Elders from throughout the Americas at Menla Mountain in upstate New York in 2011, a gathering that included a delegation of Mamos from la Sierra. Chris and Tatiana had made a couple of visits to Colombia over the years, but this encounter with Colombian indigenous spirituality and traditional music was the spark that fueled a growing de- sire to perhaps one day actually live and work in Colombia.
Another life-changing event entered into Chris and Tatiana’s decision to make the move: the birth of their son, born almost three months premature. Little Apolo was given almost no chance of survival, but after four months of intensive neo-natal care at the best hospitals in New York City he emerged as an incredibly strong and healthy miracle child. And Chris became a new person as well – a father with a renewed sense of purpose, an intense desire to help his son realize his full potential.
While many Americans might feel that having the responsibility of raising a young child would be a reason for staying put in the United States, for Chris it was a reason to respond to the call of Colombia. The political and economic crisis that began in 2007-2008 had highlighted for Chris the fact that perhaps the United States was not the best place in the world to raise a child. And Chris’s encounter with indigenous wisdom and spirituality and his experience with the Colombian people and the beauty of the tropical environment began more and more to seem like the environment in which Chris and Tatiana both wanted their son to grow up.
I pressed Chris to elaborate on what he thought was the primary reason he left the familiar and made the move to the unfamiliar. His answer was profound: “During the four months that Tatiana and I were living mostly in the hospital, waiting around in the Ronald McDonald House between doctor’s consultations and brief visits with our son in the neo-natal unit, I had a lot of time to think. I realized that if this tiny premature baby survived, I would be a father. For a guy who had spent most of his adult life in the world of pop music and the lifestyle that goes with that, it was a sobering thought. I began asking myself, ́What would I want my son to know?’ And that led to an even deeper, more fundamental question: ‘What did I know?’ What did I know that was worth passing on to my son?”
Pondering these almost existential questions ultimately led Chris and Tatiana to the realization that if they were to be the parents they truly wished to be, they would need to become both teachers and students themselves; that they would want to discover alongside their new son what was real, what was truly important in life. And for them that meant rediscovering nature and reclaiming indigenous wisdom.
Chris had been home-schooled by his mother. She was a pianist and had introduced him to music, but she was also an organic farmer with a love of and respect for nature. She always told Chris that ‘the Earth is our best teacher.’ She also had a little Native American heri- tage, and shared with Chris a deep respect for indigenous spirituality.
So while other parents may have been leery of moving their young child from the States to a much more ‘primitive’ lifestyle in the rural Sierra Nevada of Colombia, for Chris and Tatiana it was, in fact, a clear calling.
Clear calling or not, there were many plusses and minuses to be considered. For Chris there was the question of whether he could effectively continue his musical career from Colombia. In fact, he was already dealing with Colombian artists, so in some ways the move would bring him closer to his work, not further away. Wireless internet was available, even in la Sierra, so technically speaking all things were possible. And there could certainly be benefits to making music in the midst of Colombia’s pervasive musical environment. But most important was the hope of a deeper connection with nature and indigenous wisdom. For Chris it was less a musical decision and more a spiritual decision, though he would argue that the distinction between what is spiritual and what is musical is an artificial distinction at best.
Tatiana had a similar wish list. She wanted a place not too far from the coast, ideally with a view all the way from the mountains to the sea. It was her hope that Chris would build them a home that would allow for a simple life in harmony with nature. She wanted Apolo to participate in planting, growing and harvesting their own organically-grown food, to enjoy a healthy lifestyle that took full advantage of the tropical environment. She was an accomplished chef and even considered the possibility of opening their home to visitors as something of an eco-hostel, with a little restaurant that would serve locally-grown foods in a natural outdoor setting.
For both of them, however, the number one concern was what would be best for Apolo, and second what would be best for their own personal and spiritual growth as well. It was their answer to Chris’s original question, ‘What can I teach my son,and what do I know– what do I need to learn?’
So the decision was made and the move was made. Computers and mixing consoles, speakers and microphones and headsets, drums and instruments, diapers and baby clothes – all moved to Colombia. After receiving a blessing from the Mamos in the Arhuaco village of Nabusimake, they settled in to a place in Minca. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Two years have passed since Chris and Tatiana left New York for Colombia. Several albums have been recorded and engineered in the jungle studio that Chris built himself, Apolo has grown ‘in wisdom and in stature,’ Tatiana has opened her restaurant and then closed it in preparation for soon becoming a mother for the second time. They have bought a piece of property with a panoramic view of Santa Marta where they are building their new home of local natural materials, one which will operate largely ‘off-the-grid’ in harmony with the natural environment.
On this particular day, Chris is making music in the jungle with MARIAZÚ – rhythm and harmony they hope will convey a connection between the musical rhythms and the rhythms of nature, between the sounds of the wind and the water and the birds and the music. While the mixing will take place in the studio, the music is all being performed and recorded outdoors, alongside the river, with the inclusion of indigenous instruments and percussion that includes the sounds of the water. As Sarah describes it to me, the album is dedicated to the water, the “Living Thought,” as it is called by the indigenous peoples of la Sierra. For MARIAZÚ and Chris it’s also the birth of a new sound: a jazzy and mystical – but groovy – call, created by eight beautiful musicians and sound magicians, gathering together with the river, the trees and the birds in the “Heart of the World.”
It is, in fact, a musical expression of the essence of what called Chris and Tatiana and Apolo to Colombia in the first place. Do they have any regrets? None at all.
In Chris’s words: “We both feel – in the very core of our being – that we are in exactly the right place, at exactly the right time, doing exactly what we are supposed to be doing at this moment in our lives – for ourselves and for our children.”