Yoham Ortiz to play Salem College
Paul McCartney once wrote a song with the line “You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs.” It was all a setup, of course. The song itself was a proud silly love song, and part of the point was that people never seem to get tired of that stuff. The singer-songwriter/composer/guitarist Yoham Ortiz has a similar view to that of Sir Paul. Ortiz, who will perform at Salem College in Winston-Salem this week, said that he doesn’t write romantic love songs, in part because he figures all the variations and possibilities have been covered.
“I think every single romantic song has been written,” said Ortiz, who spoke to me by phone from his home in New York City last week. “I love romantic music. I love love songs.”
In its way, Ortiz’s music is plenty romantic, drawing on jazz, bossa nova, samba, folk, classical and music of the Caribbean, with rhythms that point back to African-derived drumming traditions, all played on a seven-string nylon-string guitar.
Ortiz, who grew up dividing his time between the Dominican Republic, West Virginia and other regions of the U.S. He soaked up rock guitar, Afro-Cuban music, traditional styles and more. He has spent much of his career as an orchestrator, arranger and producer, in addition to his work as an instrumentalist. When he decided to focus on his solo material a few years back, Ortiz figured he’d make music that didn’t have a ton of instruments competing for attention. He wanted to foster an intimate listening experience that drew on the musical richness of his arranging and orchestrating experience.
“I wanted to simplify the idea of listening to music,” Ortiz said. And so he let his songs work solely on the interplay between guitar and vocals. It’s not hard to imagine backing percussion, a horn section, strings, or piano accompanying these songs, because there’s a lot of counterpoints, rhythmic complexity and harmonic motion. But Ortiz’s songs — with his gentle finger-picking and jazzy walk-downs — don’t need much else to sustain a listener’s attention.
“It helps you feel more of the details that are going on in the music,” he said of the stripped-down approach.
At times, Ortiz’s music might make you think of guitarists Joe Pass, Django Reinhardt, Pat Metheny, Egberto Gismonti, or even Michael Hedges. There are moments when his positive-vibe songs suggest Stevie Wonder in their sense of gratitude, joy and wonder about nature. Sometimes he plucks out a bass line with his thumb while dancing around with sketched-in chords on the higher strings. And at other times, he plays cyclical trebly patterns that evoke the marching rhythms of a samba band. He’s a virtuosic guitar player who embeds his technical wizardry in the context of songs that have a gentle folky quality.
Ortiz said he grew up as a fan of Hendrix, the Allman Brothers and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. It’s clear that he’s done some serious woodshedding. You can watch video of him on YouTube playing impressive baroque-sounding selections that balance delicacy, extended finger stretching and rapid-fire runs.
Lyrically, Ortiz often brings concern about the environment, about human rights, and about the quality of modern life to his writing. A song like “Up the Creek,” from his most recent record, Uncompromising, asks questions about our tendency to misuse natural resources and the greed and injustice that fuel our mismanagement of habitats and water sources. The title song on the recent record nudges listeners to hold on to their right to maintain a sense of their own set of high standards and excellence within the context of conflicting societal values. And “So Far Away” could easily be heard as a wistful meditation on a relationship that had come apart, but it’s more of a reflection on ways that digital gadgetry and the pace of 21st-century life give the often illusory sense of a connection when, in fact, many among us still feel alone.
“I try to present issues that are happening, things that people are feeling,” Ortiz said. He obviously has concerns about the state of the world, but he’s not exactly into blame and negativity. “I never try to point the finger at someone. I always give everyone the benefit of the doubt. At the end of the day, everyone is born the same way, no one is born having weird thoughts.”
He hopes his songs “yield conversation as opposed to confrontation.”
So, while Ortiz might not be writing love songs exactly, his music is about a kind of connection that’s meaningful, intimate and personal. It’s about people being present with one another and in their world, acknowledging how much we depend on each other and how much we benefit from other people’s enthusiasms, wisdom and talents. Performing live is a manifestation of all those things for Ortiz.
That charge of energy that we feel when we’re in a room with music being made in a shared space is what most recorded music aims to approximate, Ortiz said. The exchange between audience and performer is something that can’t easily be replicated, though.
“When you’re playing live, it’s a call and response,” he said. “People are putting out energy. In a spiritual way, people are giving you something, you’re giving it back. You’re sharing.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Yoham Ortiz May 9 at Shirley Recital Hall on the campus of Salem College, 500 East Salem Ave., Winston-Salem, at 7:30 p.m. $23.