Words by Shaina Joy Machlus
Photos by Catalina Kulczar
Drummer, percussionist, singer, guitarist, composer, and producer Andrea Álvarez is, in a word, legendary. For 40 years, she has blessed fans with an array of rock music and paved the way for other musicians and creators to push their musical boundaries. Despite growing up in Buenos Aires, during a military dictatorship that violently repressed women who were expressing themselves, the now 55-year-old remained dedicated to showing the world who she is on the drums.
As the drummer for Argentina’s first all-women’s rock group, Rouge, Álvarez didn’t hesitate to carve out her space in the world of rock music. As a result, her very presence changed the course of women’s history in music.
Currently playing in Natalia Oreiro and Draco Rosa, with a total of six solo albums under her belt and a documentary, The Girls Are Good, on the way, it is clear that Álvarez is nowhere close to stopping. Tom Tom had the extreme fortune to sit down and talk candidly with this human tornado for a few moments.
Tom Tom: What are five words that describe you?
Andrea Álvarez: Woman, artist, mother, musician, drummer.
Do you remember the first time you played a percussion instrument? How did it feel?
I played clarinet since I was a girl, but I remember like it was yesterday the first time I sat down at a drumset and someone explained to me how to play. I felt like I was an expert even though I only knew how to play basic rhythms. Still, I went back to my house believing that I knew everything. I felt happy that I had found my place in music.
Who were your greatest musical influences when you were growing up?
From a very young age, my parents encouraged me to listen to lots of music and go to concerts of all genres; from jazz & opera to classical, folk, etc. When I was seven years old, they gave me Revolver by the Beatles. I think that was a turning point in my life. Someone fundamental to me was Sheila E. When I learned about her existence in her early days with George Duke, it was a great example to follow. I only got to see her perform during her time with Prince, although I hadn’t heard the music before. At that time in Argentina, we didn’t have access to everything.
How did growing up in Argentina influence your drumming and the way you create music?
Growing up in Argentina and being a teenager during the military dictatorship surely marked a lot of who I am on all levels. It wasn’t easy being a woman at that time and knowing from such a young age that what I wanted was to play drums and be onstage. Neither was growing up in opposition to everything political that was happening. Music was the place where I felt alive, and satiated my permanent curiosity.
Can you tell us about growing up under a military dictatorship?
When the dictatorship began, I was 12 years old; it was March 24, 1976. Of course this formed the sociocultural style of my adolescence. The TV told us there were “good” people and “bad” people. People were kidnapped only because they did not agree; they were named terrorists. There were no laws. It was horrible. They took you prisoner for dressing differently, or, for example, they would not let me enter into the school if I had on certain “strange” clothes. Most of the people agreed with these measures, even though at a distance it seems crazy. Otherwise, it would never have been possible to carry out such a situation.
“I laugh in the face of adversity and have a lot of love for what I do.”
How did the dictatorship interfere with being a woman?
I don’t know if it interfered with being a woman because everyone was repressed. Although today we know that women were raped, and they took away their children if they were pregnant. And in those times, there was almost no talk of feminism. My mom was very independent, and I lived in a home where both my father and my mother were equal in everything.
How did you survive as a human and as a musician during the dictatorship?
My parents saw that I had a lot of energy, curiosity, and the need to express myself. They pushed me towards music. Rock, to be more exact, was a place of freedom, of flight, where I put all my imagination. That is how I decided to be an artist. I think that allowed me to survive that era.
How did this change once the dictatorship ended?
At the end of the dictatorship, at the time of the Malvinas War, music in English was banned. Sounds ridiculous today, no? [Laughs] and that made a resurgence of rock in Spanish possible. I turned to rock bands, because music is where I am from. It is my place.
Can you tell us a little bit about the creation of Rouge?
I was not the creator of Rouge. Actually, it was a band made up of women doing covers of songs in English. There was a moment when the group broke up and only the pianist and bassist were left. In that moment, they decided to recreate the band and make their own songs in Spanish. Mari Sanchez was the drummer who decided to travel to Spain, so I was the only drummer left! I was 18 at the time, and I knew Claudia Sinesi, the bass player. So they called me, and the second stage of Rouge, the one we know today, was born. Rouge was the first all-female rock group in Argentina.
How was that experience? What were the best parts?
Rouge was the first band of women musicians, and I remember it as one of the happiest times of my life. To have musician friends and share everything with them was a dream come true. At that time, being a woman and musician was in no way common, and meeting “peers” was beautiful. We didn’t realize that there were difficult parts at the time, because it coincided with a very good moment in the Argentinean rock scene. Without publicity, we could play show after show to full venues.
“My strength comes from my great need to say things, to question. It does not come from my size. I’m very small! But in drumming, I’ve found a place from [which] to ‘make noise.’ The force comes from deep inside!”
What is your secret to longevity in the music industry?
I think what keeps me always active and excited is to feel that I am only just beginning. I can develop my records as I like and still be nominated by the Latin Grammys. I laugh in the face of adversity and have a lot of love for what I do.
Do you think you have received the recognition you deserve? Why or why not? What recognition would you like for yourself? For example, the Latin Grammys, what do you think of them?
When I was nominated for my last album for a Latin Grammy, I was very happy. It’s not that I’m interested in the awards, but my album was 100 percent independent, without any record label other than my own, and that seemed like a huge achievement. I did not win it. I think it’s very evident that the big labels have a lot of power and that business is always what “triumphs” in the end. And the truth is that it didn’t change me at all on any level. I took a side and declared myself feminist decades ago. My music talks about that. Yet, when it is the famous Women’s Day [in Argentina, March 8], I am never called to perform at any important events. It’s not that I am unknown as an artist. No. I even work on a television program, and I have played with the most important artists of Spanish-speaking rock. I know the entire artistic world. What I would like is, for example, at this stage of my life, to be in a more comfortable situation economically, and, above all else, play live more often with my own band.
Humility, important or not?
Today’s concept of humility is strange. When someone is an artist, before anything else they have to believe in what they do, be proud of it, and want show it off and share it. That requires a certain ego and self-esteem. We all think that our album is the best in the world—it’s the reason we made it—that’s why I don’t believe much in people who pretend to be humble.
What advice do you give to women who are just beginning their career in percussion?
My advice—if I played it humble, I would say, “I’m not the one to advise anyone.” [Laughs] It’s the same for everyone: First of all, respect yourself. Don’t have high expectations, or believe in magic formulas, because they do not exist. In particular for women, as we’re still in times of inequality, even if it seems we’re not, I would tell them listen to your desires, don’t be afraid to mark your territory, and do whatever is necessary to take the place you deserve.
I see that you write in Spanish using the “x” (ex. todxs) in order to write in a gender-neutral way. What do you think the future of the Spanish language is, in terms of gender neutrality?
In Argentina, we use the “e,” or the “x.” The “x” is the one that I use and is the most comfortable for me. It is about not using gender. I do it out of respect. After many years of speaking in the masculine, sometimes I forget to do it, but if I think a little I do it out of respect. The structure of Spanish masculinizes everything. I do not know what the future is, but I think that generally what is masculine has to change.
What made you decide to start producing your own music?
For many years my goal as a musician was to play an instrument well. After being a mother, naturally, I began to need to listen to music that talked about the topics that mattered to me. Family violence, toxic relationships, abortion, and everything related to my being a woman in this world. I realized that I could not expect that of male artists, and no women were doing it in my country, so I started writing lyrics. The first was “40 minutes,” which is about a militant anarchist squatter who commits suicide. My own need generated my solo career.
Do you feel it is important to sing in Spanish versus English? Why or why not?
I am Argentinian, and I think in Spanish. Anyway, I think one’s “voice” comes from many places. From a sound, a style, an attitude, taking a position. For example, I do not know what Fiona Apple, or PJ Harvey, are talking about when I listen to them without reading the lyrics, but I hear an identity; I hear a fury; I hear that they invite me to be different from the establishment. That is what makes their music universal. I do not like Argentinians who sing in English, because it’s not believable. Spanish is much more difficult to fit into rock, so doing it in English is, for me, cowardice. If I find what I hear natural and attractive, I don’t care. In general, it doesn’t sound natural, and that is why it does not appeal to me.
“The most important thing for me [about producing your own music] is knowing what you want to communicate. Even if you don’t have resources or technical skills, a good idea or a good song can save everything.”
What recommendations do you have for other people who want to start producing their own music?
The most important thing for me is knowing what you want to communicate. Even if you don’t have resources, or technical skills, a good idea or a good song can save everything. Listen to a lot of music and old records and analyze all kinds of details about them; the interpretation, arrangements. Realizing what we like about something we hear is important. It’s not the model of symbols, or guitar, or a team, or a pedal, but the way it is played; the notes. It is always something deeper that money can’t buy that is important.
What has been the most useful advice someone has given you?
My teacher Horacio Gianello (the founding drummer of Argentinian rock) always told me to know who to surround myself with and whom to give my attention and energy to. Of course, I did not listen to him [laughs], and I made a lot of mistakes.
Tell us about your future dreams and plans.
Besides being a teacher and teaching in my studio, I’m a drummer for the bands Natalia Oreiro and Draco Rosa. I also participate on the jury of a TV show featuring a rock band competition. This year, there is a project that is going to occupy a lot of my attention. That project is the making of a documentary that’ll talk about my life as a musician; the goal is to use my story as a way to tell the story of women in Argentinian rock. Not the same story that is always told, promoted by men, but that of many musicians who are less known and have no visibility in the rock scene. It will be called The Girls Are Good and has a part dedicated to female drummers.
What is your practice routine?
I practice a technique of Sebastian Hoyos that gives me strength, resistance, better sound and precision in my hands and feet. I try to find a few moments to sit down and play drums from a musical standpoint, not just a technical one, and I practice singing and guitar. Little by little, because one of the things that happens over the years is that worries increase in life so one appreciates every free moment that much more.
Is rock still a man’s world?
There are many women who like rock, play it, participate in it, listen to it. We are not the majority. From that perspective, yes, it’s a place where men dominate, but I do not think it’s a man’s world. The business of music is a man’s. The rules are derived from that; from the guidelines of a patriarchal culture.
You are such a powerful musician. Where does this force come from?
My strength comes from my great need to say things, to question. It does not come from my size. I’m very small! But in drumming, I’ve found a place from [which] to “make noise.” The force comes from deep inside!
This was originally published in Tom Tom’s Spring 2018 issue. Read the full version here.