araukaaria, live in viljandi

Araukaaria playing to a captivated audience in Viljandi, 15 April 2022, photo by Kerttu Kruusla

THE CITY OF VILJANDI, Estonia, has become in recent years a sort of hub or draw for artists and musicians from Latin America. It is the Santiago de Compostela of Latinoamericanos in search of something. More arrive each day, from Chile, Cuba, Mexico, Argentina, and other places. One of the first arrivals though was José Prieto, known to all as Pepi, who has been here for a decade.

Pepi is a programmer, teacher, and musician originally from Buenos Aires, but with roots in Chile. Lately he has been channeling his creative energies into several new projects, among them a band called Araukaaria, after the genus of great coniferous trees that grow in South America. He has also continued to innovate via samasama.studio, a digital production enterprise that recently rented the space of a former Viljandi jazz club called JASM, where it serves not only as a coworking space, and location for workshops and lectures, but also as a music venue at night.  

It was here last week that Araukaaria performed a 10-song set. The quintet is led by Pepi on vocals, guitar, and keyboards, with Lee Taul on vocals and violin, Harri Heinsoo on guitar, Cuban bassist Liosdán Herández (“Tito”), and Johannes Eriste on drums. This is a group in its infancy, and yet, perhaps because of it, a lot of fun to watch. One must remember that all bands in the world start out just like that, as a bunch of friends and accomplices on a small stage, surrounded by friends and curious onlookers. Even the Beatles themselves started out like this. 

During the performance Pepi began to develop a frontman persona which is somewhat apart from his usual thoughtful, insightful presence, engaging the crowd, telling stories about the songs, and also introducing the art of Argentinian Juan Yañez, also based now in Estonia, who has developed artwork to accompany each one of Araukaaria’s songs. All of this, complemented by good lighting (by Rommi Rutas) and sound design (Laura Sinimäe), made Araukaaria’s performance fun and a bit unpredictable.

The music has a variety of influences, pop, folk, progressive rock, and Argentinian sounds, like Vox Dei, Sui Generis, Seru Girán, Divididos, and Babasónicos, to name a few. Pepi’s acknowledged greatest influence is Pink Floyd, and one can hear some traces of David Gilmour in the guitar work and song composition. Lee Taul (Don’t Chase the Lizard, Black Bread Gone Mad) brings Estonian folk sensibilities with her contributions and helps to balance the vocals. 

This is a unique group that is just starting out and has some good things going for it. One is its links to savory Latin American music and culture, as well as its blending of those influences with local sounds, and another is strong compositions and memorable melodies and lyrics, sometimes sung in English, other times performed in Spanish. But above all this band benefits from reliable musicianship. Lee Taul is a charismatic, widely sought after performer, and Harri Heinsoo is a fiery, impressive guitarist. Tito and Eriste proved themselves to be a seasoned and sensitive rhythm section. And then there is Pepi, who has provided the outfit with vision and direction. 

We will all hear more from Araukaaria. I am sure of it.

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