To Be Amina: An Interview with Carolina Mama

Fantasy-fueled jazz maven takes over Paradiso for one night only

For the past two years, Argentinian musician and composer Carolina Mama has made Santa Fe her home. Now, she sits before a large bohemian mirror in an apartment above Brooklyn’s eclectic bar LunÀtico where she will begin a series of shows swinging out to San Francisco’s Black Cat before returning to Santa Fe and Paradiso on March 29. All this is in support of her debut album Amina.

As we speak, she has just escaped the subway where an accident delayed her train, once again.

“It’s the story of New York!” she says.

From childhood, Mama embarked upon a passionate study of the folkloric music of South America, from Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Bolivia and beyond.

“Every country has its own vibe, and it’s so magical,” she tells SFR. “Then I really got into jazz in my late teens and early twenties, and it blew my mind because it’s such an amazing folkloric music from this country.”

These intense explorations led to a full scholarship at the New School’s Jazz and Contemporary Music program, where she chose fellow-Argentinian jazz pianist-composer Guillermo Klein as her mentor. Was there something in jazz that was also present in traditional folkloric music for her? What bridged the two?

She pauses.

“That’s a beautiful question. I’ve never been asked that. I think there were two things,” La Mama continues. “Definitely the rhythm. I felt something that was not from South America, and early on, I would hear these drummers and think ‘what are they doing, and why, and how?’ They were like octopuses. That was in my late teens, but in my early twenties, it was harmony. That is something that I will always give to jazz, that my ear opened.”

Mama’s musical quest for complexity is also informed by her background in filmmaking.

“Storytelling is the whole engine of what I do. The most important thing for me as a musician is having a story to tell,” she explains. “It doesn’t matter if it’s funny, sad or if it’s sexy or completely depressing. Because I relate to artists who struggle.”

Both jazz and film remain male-dominated fields.

“Yes, I struggle with that still,” she says. “I come from a country where we’re really direct. I don’t like machismo…And I can tell some people I’m a musician and they say, ‘What do you sing?’ And I ask, ‘Why are you assuming that I just sing?’”

In addition to composing, Mama has interpreted and arranged music, from canonical jazz like “You Don’t Know What Love Is” to The Black Keys’ “Little Black Submarines.” What compels her to interpret a particular song?

“When I fall in love with a song, let’s put it like that, it’s because that song brings out a new, unique sense in me that I haven’t heard before. Whether it’s through the storytelling or the musicianship, that artist has achieved something new,” Mama says. “That’s when I say, ‘let’s go study, let’s interpret it.’ The act of interpreting allows you to grasp for a second what that person was doing when they did it. It’s entering someone else’s universe for a second and having that magic.”

As a composer, she continues, some songs are simply mesmerizing.

“Where did this person write this? Where were they at? Were they at their house? Were they traveling? Were they with their wife? Were they alone? Did they just break up? Did someone just die?” Mama wonders aloud. “And it’s really interesting as a composer when people have come to me and said that my music really moved them and made them think about this, and this, and this…”

Her laughter is self-deprecating.

“And it has nothing to do with why I wrote it. And I say, ‘Interesting!’”

And isn’t even her own work an interpretation or a translation of her initially imagined music?

“I love that concept,” she says. “It’s an interpretation of your own idea.”

As I’m about to ask for something that no one could learn from her bio or the internet, she volunteers just the thing:

“For me everything is really related to magic,” she offers. “I’m a huge fan of fantasy, like The Lord of the Rings.”

As she laughs again, I ask if this is a long-term interest.

“Yes!” she says emphatically. “I am the generation that had the Golden Age of Disney, where your parents said, ‘Go and watch this VHS until you die.’ And I love Miyazaki. But I was obsessed with Tolkein.”

As for what people who have never heard Mama can expect from the Paradiso show?

“I like performing in smaller spaces because you can have that intimacy with the audience,” she notes. “So, as for what to expect: intimacy.”

After Paradiso, Mama is scheduled to play Daleee at El Prado’s Ktaos Solar Center on March 30, before playing the modest setting of the Lincoln Center in New York City this May.

Carolina Mama: 7:30 pm, Friday, March 29. $10-$20. Paradiso, 903 Early St.,

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