Cochemea: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

On All My Relations, Cochemea Gastelum’s second solo album and first for Daptone Records, the saxophonist offers up a globetrotting swath of sounds, soul music of varying genres. Funk, R&B, Latin jazz, Indigenous chants and stomps, Morrocan Gnawa, cosmic jazz—leading his combo of Daptone stalwarts, Gastelum melds together elements of each to form a multi-faceted, spiritually cohesive tapestry. “Living in this plane, ceremony keeps me in tune with our actual world, where we come from,” Gastelum says from his place in upstate New York. “This record is a reflection of that.”

Cochemea’s resume is lengthy. He worked extensively with the late soul singer Sharon Jones as part of her Dap Kings ensemble and has played with the Budos Band, Antibalas, Robert Walter’s 20th Congress, Archie Shepp, Public Enemy, the Roots, David Byrne, and more. Genre-hopping comes naturally to the San Diego-raised saxophonist, but the cultural conversation occurring on All My Relations is the result of thoughtful and deliberate meditation. It’s a record inspired by Gastelum’s connection to his ancestral roots, his Yaqui and Mescalero Apache lineage. You can hear it in the powwow-inspired drums of the title song, in the peyote dance referencing “Mitote,” and in the Aztec-channeling “Sonora.” It’s an easy album to sink into: on the swaying “Seyewailo,” Gastelum and his band open with Pharoah Sanders-invoking abstraction before settling into a floral groove that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Cymande record.

“‘All my relations’ is something we say in prayers to represent our interconnectedness to everything,” Gastelum says of the title, which references the Lakota prayer “Mitakuye Oyasin.” “The universe. Me. You. The two-legged, the four-legged. Everything in the air, everything in the sea. We all come from the same source.”

Recently, Aquarium Drunkard caught up with Cochemea to discuss the familial fusion of the record, how the project pulls from Gastelum’s vivid dreams, and what lessons Sharon Jones taught him on the road.

Aquarium Drunkard: In making All My Relations, it seems like you really dug into your ancestral roots, not just musically, but conceptually as well. Growing up in California, how aware were you of your Yaqui and Apache Mescalero lineage?

Cochemea Gastelum: I always had an awareness, because my name is Yaqui—[translated, it means “they were all killed asleep”]. My father passed away when I was young. I never got to know him, though I knew him through stories and family folklore. I always knew I had this native background, but I wasn’t so connected with it. But my mom, she has native roots too—that’s where the Apache comes from. She became involved in the native community in my high school years, working at the Native American Health Center. That’s when I started attending powwows. A little while after that, as fate would have it, I was reunited with my father’s side of the family. My cousin was doing a family tree, tracing my family’s roots…he discovered me for the first time. Out of the blue, my auntie called me. It was a very emotional experience, reconnecting. It felt like things had come full circle. My father was a very celebrated figure in the family. He was a gifted artist, sculptor, musician. He passed on a lot of our native traditions to my cousins. As it turned out, it would get passed on through my cousins to me.

AD: This is your second solo album. Did connecting to those roots inform what you were doing musically on that first album as well?

Cochemea Gastelum: The first record [focused] more on Latin roots and rhythms. I had a series around the time I was making that album, dreams about my ancestors, speaking to me through that realm. I had kind of touched on it with that record, but it didn’t get actualized in this way until now.

AD: What kind of dreams did you have?

Cochemea Gastelum: I think at the time, I was going through a period of transition. One of the bands I was in had broken up. [In the dream] I was in this lodge, in the middle between these two warring Indian factions. One of them was lead by an older guy, one was led by this younger guy. I remember them saying in the dream his name was “John Arrow.”

In the dream, I started following the older leader and his clan over this arch, but I remember feeling like I was following the wrong team. I looked back and saw John Arrow, and his team is beckoning me to come. So I hauled ass back to where they are. I end up with them and I see this band on stage playing music. This woman walks and says, “We knew you’d be back.” It felt like a confirmation, that even though where I was before was gone, I’m entering this new phase. I had other dreams, of elders, of deer antlers. Deer are very sacred to Yaqui culture. I pay respect to those dreams in these trailers for the album. I like to reference my dreams a lot.

AD: “All My Relations” was inspired by the sound of powwow drums. How would you describe a powwow to those who haven’t been?

Cochemea Gastelum: There’s drumming, singing. Community is the big aspect of it. If someone is hurting, there’s praying. There’s dancing, contests, there’s people in regalia. My family, my first cousins, they host an annual powwow in Southern California on Father’s Day.

AD: There are no borders between the sounds you’re exploring here. Jazz, funk, Afrobeat, Morrocan Gnawa music. Was this blend of sounds something you set out to do with this record? Or was it more a reflection of the natural way you listen to and play music?

Cochemea Gastelum: I think all of the above. Originally the concept Gabe [Roth, of Daptone Records] and I talked about was getting a bunch of drummers together and having the melodic content be in the drums. Why don’t we have the drums do the talking? Then it came down to the casting, getting the right people. But we didn’t want to have too many preconceived ideas. We just booked the time, got the crew together, improvised, and documented it. It was all our extended musical family. Some of the guys from Antibalas, Fernando [Valez] from the Dap Kings, Sunny Jain, Elizabeth Pupo-Walker, the Big Crown family, Giancarlo Luiggi. We’ve all known each other for years, and we’ve played together in one setting or another. Once we got everyone in a room, and the drums started playing, it immediately felt like something was going to go down. It felt special.

AD: Touring with the Dap Kings, I imagine that there was a lot of musical exchange happening on the bus. A lot of musical back-and-forth.

Cochemea Gastelum: Oh yeah. There was a solid group of us that, whenever we’d get to a new town, we’d drop our bags and book it to the nearest record store, and spend the day listening to records until soundcheck. Tossing each other records, saying, “Hey, do you got this one?” We’d have these stacks, and Gabe brought a turntable, and we’d have a pre-amp and just sit in the bus listening to records whenever it was parked.

AD: Sharon Jones had a monumental spirit. What was the biggest thing you learned from playing music with her?

Cochemea Gastelum: She was totally in the moment. Sure, there were things she would do that became routine in the performance, but she always colored it a certain way with how she was feeling. You never knew what was going to happen. You really had to pay attention with her. That’s one of the things I loved about the band: it was just so alive. You had to watch her, for better or worse. If you’re not listening, you’re going to get left in the dust.

Toward the last couple of years, [I was inspired by] just her strength. Her body had been weakened quite a bit, but she did some of the best singing of her life. She was doing stuff with the songs I’d never heard her do. Even in her weakened state, she would come on stage and come alive. She moved, she’d shout. Whenever I’m feeling a little “uhh, I can’t quite get it on,” I think about her. “Come on Chemski.” [Laughs] That’s what she would call me. She’s still around in that way. words/j woodbury

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