Interview: Q&A with Planeta Polar – Baltic Cumbieros (May 2022)
The global music village we all live in has accustomed us to the most peculiar and at times bizarre, cultural brews. Still, discovering and enjoying a Lithuanian trio so passionate and dedicated to cumbia, chicha and tropical sounds doesn’t happen every day.
Planeta Polar is indeed such a one-and-only act that we can’t help but get intrigued by.
The trio, who developed a proper music addition to everything Latin, will be visiting London on Saturday 28th of May to play at Hootananny for Balkan vs Cumbia, so we thought it was perfect timing for an “official” introduction to the three visionary cumbieros from Vilnius, their imaginative sound built in-between the Baltic Sea and the Cordillera and their recently released debut album, Puro Carnaval.
Rhythm Passport: It’s a given that we all live in a global village, still it sounds quite peculiar to find a cumbia/Latin-inspired band in Lithuania. How did your project come about and where does your love for cumbia come from?
Adomas: I fell in love with cumbia about seven years ago when I was living and studying in Peru. I’d never been a fan of South American music before, but after spending time abroad I kinda got obsessed with it and I started a band called Parranda Polar with two more friends. It would be quite right to say that cumbia hadn’t existed and nobody knew about it in Lithuania when we started playing. The fact that we played in a TV show for elderly people and in a popular electronica and minimal techno festival the same summer, shows that cumbia received broad attention from listeners in Lithuania.
Jonas: Me and Adomas have been friends since we were teenagers when we played in the same funk band with a very difficult Lithuanian name. After the band split up we stayed in contact. I used to give him a haircut occasionally when he was in town, and when he was travelling or living in South America he would send me music he discovered so I would discover the same music in real time. That’s how I got to know cumbia, and when Adomas got back to Lithuania for good I told him I wanted to play this music here. I was intrigued to learn the percussion side of the music. I also really fell in love with Andres Landero, the legendary cumbia musician, which reminded me of the blues, just from a different angle. Later we were joined by Vytautas on the bass, who also had travelled in the same region and got to know Adomas there. We were fueled by pure excitement exploring unknown rhythms and sounds, and we were also quite a success among the hipsters of Vilnius. That’s how the band was born.
Rhythm Passport: I know that the project originally debuted as Parranda Polar. Why has it turned into Planeta Polar and what are the main differences between the two bands?
Jonas: I guess that excitement that I mentioned earlier faded away during our six years run as Parranda Polar so instead of splitting up we changed the bass player, the name of the band and started to learn new, more difficult grooves that Adomas came up with.
Adomas: You could call Parranda Polar an authentic cumbia trio. It was raw cumbia and sometimes vallenato with bass guitar, percussion and accordion. We were composing our own cumbias, which even Colombians were sometimes taking as their own, as well as playing well-known cumbias. In the winter our concerts were like “sunshine therapy” for Lithuanians tired of the winter cold and darkness, and in summer it would perfectly suit the vibe and end in a type of improvised carnival lasting until dawn, long after the concert had finished.
However… we wanted to change, to grow out of the acoustic cumbia genre, and land on a new kind of planet, where wider musical experimentation is possible. We didn’t want to appear as Lithuanians playing Colombian cumbia, we wanted to become Lithuanians reinventing their own “cumbia-tronic blend”. Also we wanted to move from acoustic towards a stronger electronic sound. Another reason for the change was the ability to express ourselves visually, to invent our own costumes and visual identity which would reflect the electropical psychedelic vibe of the music we radiated. To sum up the main differences, they would be: 1) Parranda – raw Colombian cumbia vs. Planeta – psychedelic synth Hi-NRG cumbia 2) Parranda – Acoustic vs. Planeta – Drums, Synths, Groovy Bass 3) Planeta has a wild, psychedelic, cosmic visual identity.
Rhythm Passport: What’s it like playing the music you play in Lithuania? Even if people are getting more and more used to listening and dancing to exotic sounds nowadays, I guess you are still considered quite a “different” band…
Adomas: You are totally right. Even for us ourselves it is not always easy to explain what style of music we are playing and how many different cultural contexts from around the world are involved in our songs. So for many folks it is quite difficult to find the right drawer to put Planeta Polar in. On another hand people do really love us, and they seem to get attracted by the positive energy and our unusual sound. The last impression from some days ago: we were playing in a public event with a lot of very different people and everybody got united and positively bouncy within our first song. Even when people don’t understand the words, they are easily carried away by the music. And that is what we intend to do.
Jonas: No, people don’t really get what we are playing, even we are unsure what to call it. I noticed that foreigners accept our music easier and with fewer questions.
Rhythm Passport: As already said, Planeta Polar is a pretty unique band on many levels. What makes it even more unique is the fact that you don’t just play Latin-scented styles, but you also mix them with your Baltic roots. How does the blending process work? Have you ever spotted any similarities between the sounds from those two worlds-apart regions?
Jonas: The way we think affects the way we create. Growing up during the 90s in post-Soviet Eastern Europe does affect how we understand or don’t understand the world and culture. So the unique Lithuanian sound, if one exists, is more inadvertent because there is no intentional blending of Lithuanian folk music.
Adomas: We do not use any direct influences from our Lithuanian folk music but we do bring a vibe from here. We could call it Baltic roots or Baltic mentality. I think there is something related to a particular existential sadness in this Baltic feeling. That’s why you could still grasp a bit of nostalgia, minor harmonies, and melancholic melodies between all those high energy rhythms in our music. I think in early Lithuanian pop synth music of the 90s when Lithuania became free from the Soviets, there was a particular sense of freedom in the air (I was born out of that sense); it has consciously and subconsciously influenced this album.
Rhythm Passport: As well as the Latin and Baltic traditions, Planeta Polar’s sound is shaped by electro-pop and synth-pop from the ‘80s, jazz, Gipsy music and 1970s funk. Can you mention some of the musicians/bands you grew up with and influenced your music?
Adomas: The influence list is very wide, just to mention a few: Yellow Magic Orchestra, Omar Souleyman, Andres Landero, and styles: 80s soukous music, champeta.
Jonas: We are three quite different personalities, my teenage years were spent listening to Led Zeppelin, Beatles and Elvis, while Paulius was a metalhead. As a child I was surrounded by classical music and jazz due to my grandmother who was a musicologist and my parents who spent a lot of time in jazz bars (there were quite a few of them during the first decade of independence). Only later in my youth I discovered more genres of music through my older brother and sister and became a serious funk and old school rap fan. Also there is a sweet spot in my heart for all the nostalgic 90s music that I used to hear on the radio.
Rhythm Passport: On the 22nd of April you published ‘Puro Carnaval’, Planeta Polar’s debut album. How would you introduce it and, after little less than a month after its release, how do you feel about it?
Adomas: Puro Carnaval is a positively intense collection of 10 synth tropical songs stuffed with a big variety of musical influences, coexisting in very playful and unexpected ways. An experimental easy listening experience with a strong invitation to dance. We have co- habited with this music now for about two years playing it live, but now when it is released it is very exciting to see how it reaches much further and faster.
Jonas: It is a messy kinda album. As I like to joke, it could be called Planeta Bipolar.
Rhythm Passport: With hindsight… What do you love about the album and what would you have done/written/recorded differently?
Adomas: This is our first album and it was very fun and very interesting to create. We did record it ourselves. And there are some sounds we would love to hear differently though we’d need some assistance to achieve that. Also the album is very energetic – banger after banger, sometimes I think a couple of calmer songs would have made this album easier to listen to in a seated position, not in a jumping mode.
Jonas: It is what it is. Every time you record something, especially yourself, you learn something new, so things I would do differently I will leave to myself to do on the next album.
Rhythm Passport: Can you help us to explore the Vilnius music scene? I’ve read that it’s getting livelier and livelier, but it’s also still mainly focused on electronica, hip-hop, dubstep and jazz… Is that right?
Adomas: Vilnius is quite small but is really full of amazing, talented and very unique artists.
Jonas: I would say that Lithuanian music scene is regaining its confidence. There are a lot of different things happening in different directions.
Rhythm Passport: Is there any local artist/band you’d like to suggest we listen to?
Adomas: Firstly, I would like to mention that our band members also have other bands where they quite radically change their personas. Our drummer Jonas Narbutas has his own melancholic indie-folk band Kabloonak, and bassist Paulius Vaškas is from an experimental electronic jazz trio Sheep Got Waxed. Then I would like to add the bands Shishi, Džiazlaif, and an inventive rap artist, Iye.
Rhythm Passport: In a few days’ time, you’ll be performing in London… What should we expect from the party and how would you “invite” people to join you on Saturday 28th of May at Hootananny?
Adomas: Ok it’s time to confess. Our music is intentionally created to be played live, it is good to listen to and dance to, but it is much better to wildly share it with everybody around you. We are super thrilled to be able to perform our music for the first time in London and we can’t wait to bond with a room full of people who will hear us for the first time. It’s risky but it is also very thrilling. It will be like a first date, but in a very dynamic, whirling, spinning dream full of tropical flavours and never-heard-before musical combinations.
A long story short. It will be a wild and psychedelic hell of a first time for all of us. 😀 p.s. 28th of May is my birthday too, couldn’t think of a better birthday party after all these years of self-isolation, haha.
Rhythm Passport: You just released an album, then you are filling the agenda with shows around Europe… Wondering if you have any other plans for the near future…
Adomas: We’ve just also released a new video for one of our songs from the album titled “Mi Niña”. So in the near future we are looking forward to going to Mexico where the studio of our beloved label Some Other Planet Records is. I can imagine how emotionally strong it will be for all of us to have the experience of touring and performing this Latin-culture inspired music in Mexico and recording an album there.
Rhythm Passport: In a few words… How would you introduce Planeta Polar and your sound to someone who never listened to your music before?
It’s a full-on party, tropical, folk music delivered by positive aliens who got stuck in the 90s.
Puro Carnaval, Planeta Polar's debut album is out now via Some Other Planet Records. You can buy your copy HERE
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