How the Colombian Band Morat Is Winning Over a Global Audience10/07/2021
The breakthrough moment for one of the fastest growing bands in Latin America came thanks to an unlikely instrument: a stolen banjo.
Morat met up for a recording session in Bogotá in 2014, when its four members were still college students, childhood friends playing school functions and weeknights at bars. Casting around the room for inspiration, the guitarist Juan Pablo Villamil picked up an instrument that he didn’t exactly know how to play.
“We all knew back then that we wanted to sound differently, to explore things,” Villamil recalled on a recent Zoom call as his bandmates Juan Pablo Isaza, Simón Vargas and Martín Vargas jumped in to add their own flourishes. They recorded a 12-string guitar and a mandolin, then someone spotted a banjo hanging on the wall. They borrowed it, and never gave it back.
“As for the learning process, I would say mainly YouTube,” Villamil added, “because there’s not a lot of banjo teachers in Colombia.”
The song they were writing at the time, “Mi Nuevo Vicio,” ended up featuring a simple but prominent banjo riff and caught the attention of the Mexican pop star Paulina Rubio, who quickly recorded it with the band. The single became a sensation in Spain and hit the charts in Latin America and the United States. Morat was invited to Europe to produce more music — and the banjo came along.
“We couldn’t be a one-hit band, with Paulina’s song and that’s it,” Villamil said. The song they brought as their “hidden ace” was “Cómo Te Atreves,” which now has more than 200 million views on YouTube alone. With its racing fingerpicked banjo, imagery-rich lyrics and upbeat “road trip pop” vibe that together have come to define Morat’s sound, the track marked the band’s blazing arrival onto the Latin music scene in 2015. They have not left since.
In July, the group released its third album, “¿A Dónde Vamos?” (“Where Are We Going?”), and last week the U.S. leg of its tour began, taking them to theaters and arenas in California and Texas, with stops in Chicago, New York, Atlanta and Miami. With songs that address heartbreak, nostalgia and falling in love, the band has been able to forge powerful connections across borders and oceans by speaking to a generation of young people whose personal anxieties and concerns, big or small, often exist amid a broader backdrop of social turmoil.
“What Morat tries to do is use simple words to explain complicated feelings,” said Pedro Malaver, the band’s manager. “We’re not trying to be Neruda. We’re just trying to tell people: you’re not alone.”
The hallmarks of what Villamil called the band’s “very specific sonic signature” include achingly nostalgic lyrics about unrequited love reminiscent of the classic boleros; choruses sung in unison; and the use of instruments (like the banjo, electric piano or steel guitar) seldom heard in Latin pop. They have released power ballads, funky R&B tunes and country-inspired rock songs. “We can go as far as the instruments let us,” said Martín Vargas, the band’s drummer.
Musically, the band is a bit of an outlier in a landscape where reggaeton often gets the most mainstream attention. Morat’s influences include Coldplay and the Latin pop band Bacilos, Mac Miller and the Spanish poet and singer Joaquín Sabina, Dave Matthews Band and the Colombian rock band Ekhymosis and, of course, the Beatles. Villamil and Isaza are also country fans (they write and record often in Nashville), and the Vargas brothers were metal heads before they got into folk-rock.
“In 2021, there is no single sound that defines pop in Latin America,” Kevin Meenan, YouTube’s music trends manager, wrote in an email. “In a way, Morat is a microcosm of this trend, incorporating a diverse range of sounds and genres into their music — and in their case typically from outside the perhaps more familiar worlds of reggaeton and Latin trap.”
Leila Cobo, vice president and Latin industry lead at Billboard, said, “There are a lot of assumptions about what Latin music is right now, but it is such a broad territory.” She added, “Morat highlights that Latin music is not necessarily what you see on the charts at any given time. They write great pop songs with great lyrics. They stay true to themselves, steadily building their fan base.”
MORAT GOT ITS start playing music together in grade school; its members have known each other since they were five years old. As they neared the end of high school, Isaza, Villamil, Simón Vargas and Alejandro Posada, the group’s original drummer, formed a proper band. After the release of their first album in 2016, Posada left to focus on his studies, and the younger Vargas brother came aboard.
During those early days, Morat (then called Malta) delivered CDs of its music to bars in Bogotá until it established a regular gig at one called La Tea, where the group’s friends were the bouncers and the band mixed its own shows live onstage. Soon, an audience actually started showing up. “I remember we had this game in which every time we played La Tea we tried to guess how many people would come,” Simón Vargas said. “And it usually went better than we expected.”
But, not everyone saw the group’s potential right away. Villamil remembered an early meeting when Malaver, then a young manager still getting his start, initially turned them down after hearing one of their early songs. “He said, ‘I think you guys are talented, but you won’t ever have a song on the radio. You probably should have been born in Argentina in the late 1970s, because your music is just not right for what’s happening right now.’”
After watching them perform live at La Tea few days later, Malaver quickly changed his mind. “I went with the worst attitude ever to this concert,” he recalled, “but then they started playing!” He agreed to sign them that night.
In the nearly a decade that they’ve now worked together, Morat’s collaborations have stretched far across the spectrum of Spanish-language music: songs with the Mexican actress Danna Paola, the Spanish flamenco singer Antonio Carmona, the rocker Juanes, and pop stars like Sebastián Yatra and Aitana, among many others.
“The group’s catalog really speaks to the power of collaboration within the region,” said Meenan of YouTube. “This success has not been tied to a single country. On YouTube, we have seen their music chart in over 15 countries, landing slots in the Top 40 in countries like Spain, Mexico, Bolivia, Argentina, Italy and Ecuador, along with their native Colombia.” He said Morat has earned over 950 million views on YouTube in the last 12 months alone.
MORAT WAS ON tour in Spain when we spoke on Zoom, and the group crammed together onto a couch in front of the camera like four brothers. They moved comfortably between English and Spanish when they wanted to more clearly express a point, cracking jokes and often finishing each other’s sentences. They did not hesitate to thoughtfully debate some of the more complex questions out loud, either.
Two topics come up often in Morat’s lyrics: love and war, which is a sensitive subject in a country that has endured decades of armed conflict.
“The context in which we’ve grown and in which we live, it has that imagery every day, all the time,” Simón Vargas said. “And I think that even if you don’t want it to, it shows, and it influences you.”
While Colombia’s global image has certainly been colored by its widespread portrayal as a violent place, the reality, of course, is far more complex. “Bogotá has these huge mountains and the sun rises up behind the mountains. So there’s a big part of the morning in which the sun hasn’t gone up from the mountains, but the sky’s blue,” Simón Vargas added. “That’s very Colombian in a way, like, you’re living right on the edge. You can see the darkness and you can tell there’s something right there. And at the same time, you’re right next to the light and right next to a very beautiful culture, and very beautiful people.”
In 2020, Simón Vargas, who is also a writer currently finishing his degree in history at the Universidad de Los Andes, published a book of short stories about Bogotá in the very Colombian tradition of magical realism: “It was a way maybe to talk about more intense and darker topics than what we talk about in our music.” He titled it, fittingly, “A la Orilla de la Luz.” At the edge of the light.
Morat’s latest album was put together almost entirely during the Covid-19 pandemic in one of the worst-affected regions of the world. “There’s not a single human on this planet that has not thought, where are we going after this?” Simón Vargas said. “We decided it was going to be named ‘¿A Dónde Vamos?’ (‘Where Are We Going?’) literally because we thought that it was a great way to talk about what’s happening today in every aspect. We didn’t know when we were going to have concerts again. We didn’t know how the pandemic was going to change the social landscape in general.”
Martín Vargas said the title extended to the band’s own creative process, too. “With the musical exploration we’re trying to do, where are we going with our instruments?” he added. “It’s super evident during the album: the songs are different. There’s a lot of rock. And there are clear country references as well. Ballads, boleros.”
None of their lyrics speak explicitly about the pandemic, but the songs are almost all marked by themes of personal angst, uncertainty and restlessness set against upbeat and often highly danceable melodies. Together, the tracks showcase Morat’s versatile range: The electric “En Coma” is about a relationship stuck in limbo; the ballad “Mi Pesadilla,” which features the Colombian balladeer Andrés Cepeda, is about the anxious wait for the right person to come along; the acoustic “Date La Vuelta” is a heartfelt letter to a friend in a toxic relationship.
While the songs represent a variety of moods, they all carry the trademark aesthetic, which continues to reach new listeners. “I feel like what we’ve done so far has been a miracle,” Isaza said. “Like, I don’t know why people like a banjo with Spanish lyrics. I considered that a miracle, and the fact that we’re still doing it, it’s amazing to me.”
If the album begins with the question “¿A Dónde Vamos?,” it ends with the ever-hopeful message of “Simplemente Pasan”: “Let’s dance/because the worst thing that could happen is that we like each other,” the band sings, “because when good things have to happen, they just happen.”
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