Near 6 months in to the COVID-19 pandemic and the world continues to adjust. Cirque Du Soleil is on hold for the moment.
Betwixt the many roles that modern living has fostered remains that of the artist. Those who have had voices for millennia in different capacities continue to interpret and create, trying make sense of their surroundings in the only way they know how. The era of confusion and anger has elicited the artist to reassess their own role and seek a fundamental understanding of what it means to assume it.
Fernando Diez sits at his computer as he plays back an audio clip packed with momentum and eclectic vibrations, surrounded by instruments and mementos from his travels as a world touring percussionist with Cirque Du Soleil, which spans over 60 countries and 10 years.
Congas, woodblocks, chimes, keyboards, and cymbals of all shapes and sizes occupy this musician’s sanctuary.
His studio, modestly sized but exuding charm (and air conditioning), has been his second home for years, but even more so since COVID-19 had prohibited all touring and live venues from hosting shows indefinitely. “I miss it. I mean, I went from doing 8-10 shows a week to zero. You know, the slow up was so brutal,” reflects Diez.
Now on his 6th studio album, Breathe, Diez continues to infuse his sounds with a chromatic blend of sub-Saharan beats, traditional African music, latin rock, jazz, and some hints of 70’s lofi and prog.
Citing Santana as one of his first influences that made him slap his first skin at 18 years old, he reminisces “I started playing on my own, bought a pair of congas and I killed my hands because I had no technique. I just liked it.” Art is pain, as they say.
Diez’ ambition grew when a friend had lent him an LP by French-Algerian artist Guem, whose music he describes as “very melodic” despite being comprised entirely out of percussive elements.
By chance — or perhaps fate — Guem began teaching classes in Diez’ hometown in France, “I went to take a class and the first class I was like, that’s it! That’s what I wanted to do,” he says, noting that all it took was that extra push to pursue a dormant passion, “I realized I loved it already, but I also realized I had this gift, so I decided that I was gonna do this with my life.”
Remembering the days as a ‘struggling musician’, Diez facetiously fondly remembers the days of eating ‘basta’ — a portmanteau of ‘bachelor’ and ‘pasta’ — a simple and affordable dish of butter, salt and pasta. Facing a difficult transition did not preclude him from his dreams however, “It didn’t bother me because I had a goal,” he simply puts.
Beating away, literally, on his craft, Diez had collaborated with many acts over the years as both a touring and studio percussionist. Howard Hewitt, Marta Santamaría, and One Tribe Nation were just a few of the many acts that benefited from his feverish, sonically-paced rhythms.
Working as a freelancer, the cyclical nature of work and play as an artist drove him into a hustling modus operandi. “You have a job, you don’t have a job, you have a job, you don’t have a job. They’re calling, you’re hustling. And all the hours you have to put into practicing, you know, it takes dedication. The gift is not enough,” warns Diez, “If you just like it, you’re gonna just do it for a bit and give up.”
It wasn’t until over a decade ago that Diez joined with the world-famous traveling act, Cirque Du Soleil. Trekking to Las Vegas, he took a chance to audition for them. “It wasn’t for a specific job,” he explains, saying that if they liked you they just put you in ‘the book’. For 3 1/2 years, Diez wasn’t sure how his audition went, admitting that he had totally forgotten about it until the decisive call he received from the circus, asking him if he’d be available to perform in Brazil in just two weeks’ time, to which he ostensibly agreed to.
Having the chance to play over 60 countries, Diez admires the time he gets to spend touring and playing under the Big Top. Another benefit is the opportunity to explore the various cities around the world, “You do have time to visit the city, to know the people. It’s different from like a rock tour, where it’s: ‘bus, gig, bus, gig.’ you know? So this is kind of nice, because you really have time to discover places.”
Not only does Diez get to soak in the scenery and experience the rush of performing live for thousands, he also brings along his own ‘mini set-up’. Consisting of a MIDI keyboard, a couple of travel-friendly instruments, and his laptop decked out with Pro Tools, the songwriting process starts here for his personal work. Modestly joking that he “cheats with the MIDI” to write melodies, Diez also believes that as a percussionist, his approach to melody is unique. “I just go by feeling,” he says emotively, “I don’t have a concept when I write an album. I just start with one song and two songs then it becomes its own entity.” He describes the way he connects to his music parallels that of a “color” or a “vibe”.
Diez feels the duality of the recent pandemic has definitely lead to the completion of his latest album but also yearns for the day he can return to the stage, “I’m very proud to be in a show like that and the music is good and the band is held together so we have fun.”
He hopes that he may get the opportunity to hit the road by next spring again, but in the meantime plans on continuing to write, record, and produce music. Another album might be in the works he says, but for the time being he’ll continue to meditate on the beats that this lockdown world may produce, proving that no matter what your circumstances as an artist you never stop creating, “Everything you hear and listen to, it’s always in you.”
Fernando’s latest album, Breathe, and other songs can be found HERE, via ‘BandCamp’ where 80% of the proceeds go directly to the artist.
He is also available for Zoom lessons and can be contacted through his home page at fernandodiez.com