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How Gustavo Santaolalla and his ronroco took the film industry by storm

Gustavo Santaolalla
Piper Ferguson
courtesy of the artist
Gustavo Santaolalla

He was never formally trained to read or write music, yet Gustavo Santaolalla has a gift for capturing moments and, more importantly, feelings that are hard to put into words.

"It's about the note that you play, and it's about the note you don't play," he told us during an interview over Zoom. "I work a lot with silence, but it's an eloquent silence. It's a silence that sometimes is louder than the notes."

"You know these guys that do parkour? That last step that you take, it's like the last note in which you're going to go to the silence," Santaolalla says. "You're going to jump into that silence. Then, the note that you're going to land? So important how you're going to land. So you land safe, and it really closes that arch and you just ... crash."

That musical instinct telling him when to "jump" and how to "land" a note has helped Santaolalla reach some incredible heights. He's won heaps of awards for his film scores and produced dozens of records in the Latin rock world.

He provided the score for The Last of Us video game, and this year, he's nominated for an Emmy for scoring the HBO adaptation of that game. But his career started decades earlier in Argentina at the moment he was handed his first instrument when he was just 5 years old.

"It was my grandma that gave me that first guitar," he says. "It was from a shop called Casa America, a big instrument shop in downtown Buenos Aires. I immediately connected in a sort of a spiritual level with the music — you know, that relationship with the instrument and the music."

There may have been a spiritual connection, but Santaolalla says he was a stubborn student. He didn't like to practice or sight read. Still, the music just seemed to flow out of him.

"By the time I was 10, my teacher quit on me. She went to my mom and said the words were: 'His ear is stronger than my music,' " he says.It wasn't long before Gustavo started writing his own songs, inspired by the rock music he heard coming out of the United States and the U.K. The first album he ever bought was Elvis Presley's G.I. Blues. As a preteen, Santaolalla would write songs in English, mimicking bands like The Beatles.

"Then I realized I live in Argentina," he says. "My background is Hispanic and stuff. If I want people to understand what I want to say, I have to sing in my language, you know?"

So he started writing songs in Spanish. Eager to add his own culture and personality into this new wave of rock music, Santaolalla formed Arco Iris, a band that helped usher in a new genre in Argentina called rock nacional.

"In that moment, I started fusing Argentinian folk rhythms, instruments, then Latin American rhythms and timbres from different instruments," Santaolalla says. "I was criticized by the rock intelligentsia in Argentina because they would say that's not rock."

Academy Award-winning film composer Gustavo Santaolalla is nominated for an Emmy this year for his work on The Last of Us, the HBO TV adaptation of the hit video game of the same name.
Piper Ferguson
courtesy of the artist
Academy Award-winning film composer Gustavo Santaolalla is nominated for an Emmy this year for his work on The Last of Us, the HBO TV adaptation of the hit video game of the same name.

But Gustavo and musicians across the country had bigger problems than music critics. In 1976, the country entered a dark chapter. The Argentine military seized political power and a dictatorship took hold. Rock music became a prime target for censorship.

"When I came to the States in 1978, I kind of had to leave Argentina," he says. "It was very dark years of dictatorships in Argentina, where 30, 000 people disappeared at the hands of state terrorism ... I was arrested many times since I was 15 — just because I had long hair and I played an electric guitar, you know. I didn't do any drugs, I didn't belong to any political party, I just played rock music."

Santaolalla settled in Los Angeles, where he lived undocumented for several years, unable to go back home — but he kept honing his craft. Eventually, he was able to return to Argentina, and it was during one of those trips in the mid-'80s that his perspective on music completely changed.

"It was a trip that we did with a dear friend of mine, a great artist named Léon Gieco. He's a mixture of Woody Guthrie and [Bob] Dylan. Sort of folk. He really is like a folk hero in Argentina," he says. "At the time, we were just two younger guys, and I produced this tour in which we went recording and taping rural musicians from Argentina."

Over the course of four years, Santaolalla and Gieco traveled from the northern tip of Argentina all the way to Tierra del Fuego, near Antarctica. They made stops along the way, collecting the folk traditions of people all over the country.

"We went to look for the essence of our music, where this music comes," Santaolalla says. "I thought: 'Why don't we go to where these people actually come from?' and we tried to connect with the environment where this music was born."Digging into Argentina's past lit a fire under Santaolalla. His embrace of folk sounds would turn out to be his secret weapon, and Andean instrumentation started becoming a huge part of his work, like the ronroco.

"It's a 10-string instrument. It's five double strings," Santaolalla says. "It comes from the Andes Mountains, and it's obviously something that after the Spaniards came to Latin America and Native people saw the guitars and was trying to do something like a guitar. But it's more like the size of a ukulele. It's small, and the original ones were made out of an armadillo shell."

Santaolalla even dedicated an entire album to this instrument: his 1998 album, Ronroco, which features fresh-sounding instrumentals created using the ronroco and other instruments like the charango and Andean pipes.

Santaolalla wasn't expecting his music to make a lot of noise, but one instrumental, in particular, struck a chord. He says "Iguazu" was inspired by an enormous waterfall system between Argentina and Brazil.

"So we put out the record and suddenly college stations start playing it," Santaolalla says. "One day, I got a phone call from Michael Mann's office that he wanted to meet with me and he wanted to use ["Iguazu"] in The Insider, the movie about Jeffrey Wigand — you know, the guy that blew the whistle in the tobacco industry."

"Iguazu" became a hit. The song has since been used in movies like the Oscar-winning Babel, which Santaolalla scored, and in TV shows like Friday Night Lights, 24 and Narcos.

"So this is how I got into the movies," he says. "No plan, no master plan. But I always had this love for films. Also, I have always got the comment on my music that my music was very visual — and it's true: I conceive music in visual terms."

Directors started calling him up. Santaolalla scored The Motorcycle Diaries and the first four movies from Alejandro González Iñárritu. Then, in 2005, another life-changing opportunity came along.

Santaolalla still remembers having just a single conversation with director Ang Lee before signing on to score Brokeback Mountain.

"I did the whole score before one frame was shot," he says. "And it was the genius of Ang Lee to say, 'We're going to put this here. We're going to repeat it here. We're going to put this here.' But the music was all there. He had all the music — all. He used all of it."

Santaolalla's score, inspired by those Argentine folk rhythms he'd carried with him all these years, earned him a lot of awards, including an Academy Award for best original score. (He'd win the Oscar again the following year for scoring Babel.)

"It's something that I could have never imagined," he says. "I always thought that I had something, you know, that could connect with a lot of people, but I could never in my wildest imagination thought that something like that could happen."

And his music would again score another hit with The Last of Us, the post-apocalyptic action video game that became a massive hit in 2013. This year, the HBO adaptation of the game became one of the most-talked-about shows on TV. The instrument Santaolalla chose for the theme song? His ronroco.

"That was the first instrument that I was drawn to for the theme of The Last of Us," he says. "That theme came like that. It was one of the ones that I woke up, I grabbed the ronroco, and I knew this is the theme for The Last of Us."

Going through the list of his projects, it's apparent there are a variety of stories. The Last of Us is about a zombie pandemic triggered by a fungus. There are Western queer love stories and stories about dogfighting and immigration.

What ties them all together?

"Identity. Finding out who you are," Santaolalla says. "I think the concept of identity starts in your house. Who are you in your house? Then, who are you in the block? Who are you in the neighborhood? Who are you in your country? Now, I'm an Argentinian? Latino? Your identity expands, but I think it's so important to keep always connected to the root of your identity. ... That is a light that guides me."

That helps explain which projects Santaolalla chooses to work on, but it doesn't explain why his music resonates so deeply with audiences.

"You know those moments in which you can be watching a sunset? It's a moment of super happiness and peaceful, but there's something also melancholic about it," he says. "It's not necessarily sad. It's not happy ... It's that thing that we all experience when we are born — that, somehow, we've been separated from something. And this is with us forever. I think [the music] taps a little bit into that. Again, it's not sad. It's not happy. It is there."

World Cafe is produced by WXPN and is distributed by NPR.

Miguel Perez
Miguel Perez is a radio producer for NPR's World Cafe, based out of WXPN in Philadelphia. Before that, he covered arts, music and culture for KERA in Dallas. He reported on everything from the rise of NFTs in the music industry to the enduring significance of gay and lesbian bars to the LGBTQ community in North Texas.
Raina Douris, an award-winning radio personality from Toronto, Ontario, comes to World Cafe from the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), where she was host and writer for the daily live, national morning program Mornings on CBC Music. She is also involved with Canada's highest music honors: Since 2017, she has hosted the Polaris Music Prize Gala, for which she is also a jury member, and she has also been a jury member for the Juno Awards. Douris has also served as guest host and interviewer for various CBC Music and CBC Radio programs, and red carpet host and interviewer for the Juno Awards and Canadian Country Music Association Awards, as well as a panelist for such renowned CBC programs as Metro Morning, q and CBC News.