Kukuly Uriarte hails from Peru, by way of Argentina. In the Quechua language spoken in the Lima household where she grew up, her name means dove.
“That’s the way they sing there,” she demonstrates, imitating her namesake, “Coo-coo-lee-o! There are a lot of indigenous names that are onomatopoeias like that.”
Uriarte’s mother preceded her to the United States and summoned her from Buenos Aires in the late 1990s as Argentina’s government shifted from chaos to collapse.
“I was there protesting,” Uriarte recalls. “I was raised on folk music related to civil rights. Chanting against the president was what I was supposed to do.”
Uriarte sings in multiple languages, plays guitar in many styles, and, since 2011, leads the multifaceted jazz ensemble Kukuly and the Gypsy Fuego. Her dramatic journey to Knoxville has influenced both her style of making music and the music she chooses to interpret. Uriarte’s inclination toward activism has not been diminished by access to democracy—this conversation was postponed so she could rally with others concerned about immigration reform at Donald Trump’s recent Knoxville appearance.
“People were taking their kids,” she says of Trump’s stump event. “I was shouting, ‘Don’t teach your kids racism!’ We were all chanting ‘Somos uno’—‘We are one.’”
Numerous titles from the Fuego’s long and varied set list are associated with—or performed in the style of—the late Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt. In Paris between the World Wars, Reinhardt, with violinist Stephane Grappelli and others, invented the radical music still referred to as hot jazz. (Grappelli and Reinhardt co-led a quintet that became emblematic of the jazz appreciation society, Hot Club de France.) The instrumentation of the Hot Club Quintet was revolutionary for its time. Reinhardt—who had the full use of only two fingers on his left hand—was playing frenetic solos on an instrument that previously had only provided rhythm to jazz. Alternating with Reinhardt was Grappelli on violin, an instrument from the symphony. It was a rich and decadent sound that has only become more popular during the century since.
“It was the act of surpassing those limitations, the intensity that creates something within the individual that’s transmitted from the artist,” says Uriarte of her idol’s disabled hand. “You can see how he was an immense and beautiful inspiration to me as an immigrant. I have all my fingers, but I definitely felt like I was without some part of me. His story touched me profoundly, and to be able to relate to him musically makes it even better. We play all these different kinds of music and wonder, will they get it?
“Be like Django,” she says to herself. “Just do it.”
The Gypsy Fuego head count ebbs and flows as necessary, depending on the engagement, the audience, and the availability of members, ranging from trio to septet. The core is Uriarte, violinist Seth Hopper, and often guitarist David Bivens and/or cellist Andy Bryenton, who is also principal cellist for the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra.
Uriarte speaks perfect English, with some charming and exotic mannerisms. Her singing voice, however, whether she’s singing Portuguese, Spanish, or English, is like her guitar-playing and superior to such trifling distinctions as nationality. Her voice becomes an instrument, joining those of her talented collaborators in making this terrifically festive and romantic music.
“That’s one of the reasons I do the music, is to embrace the diversity,” Uriarte says. “I do Gypsy jazz. It is jazz, and it is a language that can be fully understood here. But I still like the idea that it’s not entirely from here. For me, it’s perfect. It helps me unify those things.
“It’s so rhythmic and arrhythmic. Gypsy jazz has that velocity and virtuosity which makes it more exciting. I think it was the closest thing to metal and rock ’n’ roll that there was back then. In general, I think that if music doesn’t move something inside someone, then you’re doing it wrong.”
Kukuly and the Gypsy Fuego play at Barley’s Taproom and Pizzeria (200 E. Jackson Ave.) on Tuesday, Dec. 1, at 10 p.m. You can also see them on the third Friday of every month at the Casual Pint in Fountain City and on Wednesday, Dec. 30, at the Red Piano Lounge on Kingston Pike.
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