Guayaba Melds Bossa Nova, Psychedelia and Horrorcore on New LP

Photo by Úna Blue

In 1959, in the midst of an American craze for bossa nova, Brazilian director Marcel Camus made his stunning film Black Orpheus, an adaptation of the Greek tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice set in the mid-century favelas of Rio de Janeiro. In the opening scene, a clamoring procession of villagers play tambourines and drums, women transport jugs of water on their heads, and children play dice in the dirt. Slowly, soft singing and nylon-string guitar fades in like a gloomy, mysterious fog. This is “saudade,” the Portuguese word for a profound, encompassing melancholy, and the essence of Fantasmagoría, the new spell-binding album from Afro-Cuban rapper Guayaba, which arrived November 11.

The follow-up to 2016’s Black Trash/White House, Fantasmagoría is more than Black Orpheus—it’s a fever dream imbued with elements of South American psychedelia, negro spirituals and horrorcore. With artful concept and elaborate production, Guayaba guides the listener through revenge, magic, and death, then brings us back to life again. The album channels saudade, as well as magical elements of Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religious tradition akin to Santeria, and the concise, pared-down beauty of bossa nova. In fact, the film Black Orpheus—which Guayaba “enjoys quite a bit”—is referenced directly in a track by the same name.

Audiofemme caught up with Guayaba to hear about their early days of performing, their wordplay and theme-driven songwriting process, and the making of Fantasmagoría.

AF: Tell me about how you got into music – what inspired you to start performing?

G: Music has been in my life for as long as I can remember, which may be a stereotypical answer. I was in choir from a young age, sang in a few school talent shows, had a bit of classical training in community college and some vocal music classes in college. I was absolutely terrified of performing in the beginning, so I worked my way up in a somewhat linear fashion; uploading music semi-anonymously to myspace, then uploading videos of myself on youtube, onto coffeeshops/busking, and finally my first live show in January of 2015. By then I felt prepared enough to perform in front of others, but it was somewhat of a journey. As for my inspiration, I wanted to do operatic vocals for a gothic metal band. I wish my origin story was more exciting.

AF: Do you have a creative process? Do songs most often happen in pieces, on-stage, or all at once in the studio for you?

G: My creative process definitely takes place in pieces. It may take a minute for me to put together a song; sometimes it’s very easy, sometimes it’s 3D chess. I like to include particular themes and wordplay in my music that I do have to think about, so I’ll often revisit lines to see how I feel about them. 

AF: How do you define your sound and influences? Or do you prefer to let it all be undefined and organic?

G: I jokingly have referred to my music as ‘funeral trap’ before, but I do feel like that’s a somewhat accurate description of my rapping. I stand at a crossroads of horrorcore, alternative r&b, psychedelia and latin music. and I like to play with the idea of what things are or aren’t musically. Things are developing so rapidly in the musical climate, especially in hip-hop. As a joke I often call myself a grindcore musician as my songs are often short. 

My influences are extremely broad; I minored in ethnomusicology at Evergreen and have an appreciation for every genre. For this album specifically, my influences are across the board; from Yma Sumac to Billie Holiday to Diamanda Galas and so on. I was and am a huge metalhead and goth kid, and elements of that slip into this record as well. There’s an overwhelming sense of dread hanging over the head of the listener, and it invokes a sense of saudade despite there being very subtly bossa influence. We’ve taken South American psychedelia, negro spirituals, choruses of the dead, and dances of the living and invited them to stay here for a while.

AF: Tell me about the inspiration behind your new album, Fantasmagoría. What does the title mean? Or rather, where is Fantasmagoría? It feels like you’ve taken us to a new place.

G: The definition of Fantasmagoría is “a sequence of real or imaginary images like those seen in a dream.” It was also a form of horror theatre that used projected images and often sensory elements. The album’s overarching themes are sleep, death, magic, and revenge, and guides you through an uneasy dream that turns into a nightmare within a nightmare. It is largely based on my own dreams, of which I am lost deep in forests being chased, feeling a terror I’d never feel in the waking world. Fear that gives me the anxiety of death and forces me to come to terms with it. I float down rivers of crocodiles and wild dogs snap at my heels. I wanted to build a sense of urgency that occurs when you have to run, but it feels as though you’re running through quicksand. I want to portray the feeling of seeing who you hate the most, but only being able to hit them in slow motion. The frustration, the fear, the anxiety; it’s something we all experience. But the way I experience it lies deep within a jungle and I will only take you deeper.

AF: How did the new album challenge you? How do you think it expands on your earlier work?

G: This album challenged me in ways that I could never imagine. I’ve never put so much work into a piece of art before, and I’ve never invested so much of myself into something like this. Black Trash/White House was a fun experiment in finding my sound/establishing myself as Guayaba. It was recorded in Luna God’s (the producer’s) bedroom and I just didn’t take it as seriously as I could’ve. We put a lot of hard work and time into Fantasmagoría; I wanted a cohesive concept that I felt proud of, not just something I slapped together out of what felt like necessity. BT/WH was surprisingly well-received, and I had to elevate that. I had to take my time, but things happen for different reasons.

 AF: Who was essential to making this album happen? Who appeared on the album and what did they bring to the table?

G: Eric Padget is the other essential person on this project I couldn’t have done myself. Eric had me come in for sessions in his isolation booth, engineered and mixed the record, and has generally taken care of every aspect of what needs to be done that I’m not able to take on (distribution, promotions, etc). He is also just an amazing friend who got me through hard times when I thought I was going to give up, or on days where it felt like I could sleep through a week. Eric is amazing and this project would not exist without him.

Fish Narc is the producer of “Mariposa Mala,” and WOLFTONE produced the rest of the beats on the album. He’s a good friend who made the beats for me knowing the sound I was looking for, so I just went for it. We brought in Lori Goldston, an amazing noise cellist, and Michaud Savage, who played the classical nylon stringed guitar. Eric also played the cornet which was excellent. I did all of the percussion and vocals/animal sounds as well.

Without their involvement, this would’ve been a completely different album. Eric is amazing to the point that, towards the end of the record when I asked about adding live instruments, he asked “What did you have in mind?” without hesitation. They added an entirely new dimension to the beats and made them stand out in a way that I think is really exciting.

AF: As a fan of Latin music, I was really interested in your song entitled “Black Orpheus”—which, in some ways, fees like a modernized version of the classic by Antonio Jobim. What’s the story behind that one?

G: Black Orpheus is a film that I enjoy quite a bit. Stunning music and visuals, I love the intersection of the greek tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice in the setting of Carnival. It’s not a concept I’d seen before and it’s quite interesting to see how that was interpreted in 1959, as many black actors in starring roles in a film in North America would be unheard of at the time. It also touches on elements of Candomblé, which has very similar elements to Santería. There are touches of bossa nova throughout the project; the saudade invokes a melancholy that goes with the tone of the album, and in a way is a neighboring diaspora that has many similarities to Cuba; there is a large black population, but only white Brazilians are praised and put into the spotlight. Orfeu Negro was refreshing for that reason as well. I wanted to draw those parallels to a modern setting while also keeping elements of the Greek myth intact.

AF: I love “ D.U.M.E.” It’s like a scorned lover incanting a curse, and it aches in such a gorgeous way. Is this song based on real life, a character, or a combination of the two? Do you tend to write from real life or by embodying other characters/points-of-views?

G: This is rather dark, but “D.U.M.E.” is a spell I’ve cast on an abuser of mine who froze my life for a second and that I was able to break free from. I’ve never felt such a blind, visceral hatred for someone to the point of putting so strong of a curse on them; but this person is dangerous and harmful to black women, and I bind him from hurting others the way he hurt me. There isn’t much to be done about the damage caused, but this song was a way for me to help release some of the hurt and hatred I have inside, because it felt like it truly did something. I’d like to think that it’s a spell that can be  used for anyone who feels the way that I do about someone, but only if the person is still being actively harmful. The “D.U.M.E.” candle is one of the most powerful and isn’t to be toyed with.

I often write from real life, but I like to toy with different ideas and experiences for sure. I’m working on an upcoming EP and there’s a song about a haunted phone number, for example. I rap as a more fantastical version of myself, who is able to say what they wouldn’t be able to in real life. I’m rather shy off stage and its great to tell the stories I’d like through performance.

AF: What are your thoughts on the rapidly changing/contracting Seattle music scene? What has been the most challenging about the change? Do you plan to remain here as an artist?

G: The changing of the music scene in the city has a direct correlation to the city changing as well. The city has become more corporate and I think that means they are looking for safer, more radio-friendly artists to play events, and I do still feel like parts of the city are afraid of hip-hop. Seattle drains me as a city. People are (usually) extremely kind to me when I perform, but there’s still a veneer of strange, unwarranted judgement that drives many artists away from performing live. I’ve definitely gotten off of the stage and cried a few times due to the passive aggression of reactions to my performances; I know others have experienced that as well, and if it keeps happening, there won’t be many artists left.

I, like a few others, are tokenized as being the “alternative women” rapping in Seattle. There’s a rather obvious rotation that we’re included in to diversify bills, and it really makes you question whether you have talent or if you’re just filling a slot. 

Many, many artists are realizing the stagnation of the city and are leaving after a certain point. I completely understand. I’m lucky to have a wonderful audience of fellow queer folks, but many of the tech bros (as a whole, there are obvious exceptions) that attend shows are belligerent, rude, and downright people I don’t care much for performing in front of. I’ve never lived in Seattle in my life and likely never will; it’s a city that makes me wildly uncomfortable that is only going to get worse as Amazon roots deeper into the soil; but I play music there and seeing the change has been astounding.

AF: What are your goals as an artist overall?

G: My goals are to be able to make the exact music I have in mind, and to collaborate with artists that I respect and think I’d work well with. I’d like to work with multiple producers who have me in mind, I’d like to go all out with performances, and I’d like to hone my craft overall; I never want to stop learning and growing as an artist. I’d like to DJ at some point as well. Ultimately I don’t think I’ll be rich and famous and have no desire to be; I’d like to be able to take care of myself and my tía, be able to tour around the world, and to just quietly spread my sound through alternative genres and be recognized as an artist that puts a lot of work into their craft.

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