Aurelia Trio brings Latin flavor to campus

    Video by Arpita Aneja / North by Northwestern


    The Aurelia Trio quickly loaded their guitars and assorted Latin-style percussion instruments onto the stage in the Jones Great Room and prepared to play. Bienen senior Sasha Bayan quickly tuned his warm-toned acoustic guitar; Sam Suggs, also a senior in Bienen, lightly bowed his upright bass; Alexander Hunt and Chirag Gupta, Weinberg and McCormick seniors respectively, softly tapped rhythms in anticipation of their performance. The band seemed relaxed and ready to entertain.

    The crowd — mainly consisting of members of the Asian Pacific American Coalition supporting their annual event “Espresso Expressions” — in contrast to the band, seemed tired and ready to begin studying. Several other acts had already performed. The audience had warmly supported them, but a feeling of closure rapidly engulfed the room. People diverted their attention from the stage to individual conversations about homework and sleep.

    The master of ceremoines finally refocused the audience's attention by introducing the Aurelia Trio, forecasting a set full of “fiery latin rhythms.”

    The band immediately engaged the audience.

    “We actually played our first real gig here last year,” Bayan told the crowd. “We’ve played live 30 times since. We’ll be playing the same set we played last year to celebrate our anniversary.”

    Bayan then introduced the first tune “Icarus,” and the Aurelia Trio began to play. Suggs bowed a lyrical melody over Bayan’s flamenco style guitar and the percussionists’ gentle shaker rolls. This floating intro quickly gave way to a thunderous groove with a highly danceable backbeat. The energy hurriedly and constantly intensified from that point through the end of the show.

    Bayan’s rich vocal in both Spanish and English added playful excitement to the Aurelia Trio’s unique Latin-Pop hybrid style while his guitar was a constant explosive presence. Hunt and Gupta almost flawlessly interlocked technical rhythms to the audience’s delight and Suggs, clearly possessing a strong fundamental feel for Latin rhythms, helped tie all these elements together with his well projected in-tune bass lines.

    The musicians repeatedly involved the audience by urging them to sing choruses and initiating “clapalongs;" the crowd readily joined in on the fun. At one point, the incessant clapping drowned out Bayan’s dexterous guitar solo, but no one in the auditorium seemed to mind. After storming through their final solos and chorus, Aurelia left the stage and an enthusiastic audience that had been converted to the ways and virtues of salsa music. Back stage, the band who had seemed so professional and relaxed in front of a crowd was bubbling with childlike excitement. Teasing, joking and laughing, the musicians discussed their favorite moments in a successful performance.

    “A good performance suspends time to me. You start playing and then there’s no real concept that anything has happened or anything is going to happen while you’re playing in the meantime and so when you’re done it seems like time travel. It’s an experience you’re sharing with people, so you’re helping them time travel too,” Suggs said.

    The Aurelia Trio considers themselves to be more than just an average student-run salsa band — something that in itself doesn't sound very common.

    “We’re kind of getting pigeon holed into the Latin genre, but what do you call ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ when it’s half bossa nova, half swing and Kurt Cobain?” Bayan said, “That’s not Latin, that’s Aurelia… I think we deliver something very unique, especially on a college campus”

    Creating their genre blending style was not a conscious decision, band members said. According to Gupta, when the band played together for the first time, a wide variety of influences immediately lead to an original sound.

    “It wasn’t standard Latin, hip hop, rock or jazz; it was something totally unique none of us had heard before, “ Gupta said, “We said, ‘Okay, we’ve got this new thing and it works for us, let’s see if it works for others.'”

    The Aurelia Trio originally formed with the name Aurelia early last year when Bayan returned from a trip to Israel with a small catalog of songs he had written. The guitarist-vocalist decided to assemble a band to expand his work. They played an open mic night at the African Students Association’s Africafe at which they received enough support to justify trying to complete an actual gig, Gupta said. After some additional rehearsal, the Aurelia Trio performed at Espresso Expressions 2010 and received an overwhelmingly positive response, band members said.

    “If we didn’t have that gig, the morale would have been a lot lower. It definitely set us up for a lot of success,” Bayan said.

    Moreover, the band was playing a unique style of music and earning accolades from a diverse group of listeners.

    “At that point we had approval from the black community and approval from the Asian community," Gupta said. "That proved that this music does transcend cultural stereotypes. That’s what we wanted to do with this group, just the style alone expresses that idea."

    The members of the Aurelia Trio are serious and disciplined musicians, but they know how to have a good time too. Sitting down with the band minus Suggs, who had to leave after the video shoot, I asked how the group — which consists of four members — came to be known as a trio and this is how they responded:

    Bayan (satirically): It’s a dramatic story.

    Gupta: Originally it was Aurelia. Then pretty much I bailed because I said ‘Fuck these guys, I don’t have enough time. You three are all on your own.’ From time to time, they were like ‘Chirag, we need you’ --

    Hunt (mockingly): Please come back Chirag.

    Gupta: They were begging me day in and day out, we need you, we can’t do it without you. At that time, they had already created ‘the Aurelia Trio,’ so I said, ‘Okay, don’t change the name, I can just hop in and hop out whenever I can make it to a gig.’

    This good-natured teasing permeated my night with the band.

    While exhibiting a strong sense of fraternity, the Aurelia Trio is not an exclusive community. They have at times expanded their ensemble to as many as nine musicians and have learned to adapt to different combinations of players to compensate for their busy academic schedules. Overall, the founding members unanimously agreed that the group culture is a major reason why they continue to pursue their musical goals together.

    “I think everyone does a really good job of leading without taking too much power over the group,” Hunt said. “If someone has a suggestion, they’ll suggest it without shame. We all share this credibility that we are all decent musicians and we all like to listen to each other.”

    Gupta said that this easy going yet ambitious attitude encouraged him to maintain his commitment to the group in the face of time-consuming academic barriers.

    “At first for me it was a bit shaky,” Gupta said. “At the time the other three guys were music majors — super talented kids — so I wondered, ‘How am I going to bring things to the table?’ Then I said, ‘Well if I love music as much as I say I do, I should be able to bring things to the table.’ I told myself to stop being a follower, and start taking ownership. With the culture of this group as a whole, everyone is contributing their own input and that’s not something you get in most student groups. With the band, I think you only get something out of it if you put something into it.”

    Reaching this state of preparedness and cohesion has been a tremendous learning process, Hunt said. Gigging regularly taught members of the Aurelia Trio fundamentals of managing a band such as reconciling schedules, marketing and advertising, drawing a crowd and maintaining a fan base. The experience has not always involved certainty, Bayan said.

    The band performed at last year's Afropollo Talent Show, an event hosted by the African Students Association. At Afropollo, the audience has the power to boo performers from the stage at any time. The Aurelia Trio managed to play for 15 seconds before losing the audience’s approval, Gupta said. Bayan said the lack of success was partially a result of the small preparation time allotted to the band. Event organizers hardly gave the band time to set up on stage or adjust sound levels, according to Bayan.

    “They just gave us mics and said play your shit. They couldn’t hear us and we sounded like shit as a result,” Bayan said.

    Overall, the originally demoralizing failure to impress the audience at Afropollo turned out to be an important learning experience, Bayan said. Afterwards, the band decided they needed to reconsider their approach to pleasing audiences and find a better way to appropriately convey their music to new listeners, Hunt said. In subsequent rehearsals they refined their now repertory methods for audience engagement, such as those implemented at the Jones Great Room, Gupta said.

    In addition to their new intensive rehearsal schedule, the Aurelia Trio continued to pursue any possible live performance opportunities, even if that required them to create a show by asking event organizers if they wanted live music at their event, Hunt said.

    “The essential element to actualizing all that work is performing,” said Bayan, adding that the band has performed at intimate events with as few as five to seven people as well as at bars containing hundreds of patrons.

    Communication senior Kara Goldsmith, president of Niteskool, has helped promote the Aurelia Trio and has performed with them on several gigs.

    “When they play, they make you want to dance. It’s really fun,” Goldsmith said.

    Goldsmith's band, the Cables, played with the Aurelia Trio at the Horseshoe in downtown Chicago earlier this month. She said the show had a typical bar environment — friends mixed with randomly chatting patrons — until the Aurelia Trio performed, energizing the audience.

    Freshman Wyatt Fair saw the band in action at Niteskool's Rock the Rock and said he was impressed by the band’s diverse performance.

    “I like how they combined jazz with a Latin style, it was something I had never heard before. The harmonies are just so good,” said Fair, suggesting another reason he enjoyed the show was because the musicians did not self-indulge in their own abilities.

    “They’re really intelligent musicians. The whole thing was really good because it wasn’t doing too much, it just settled into this really cool groove. They weren’t trying too hard, everything was in time and mellow,” Fair said.

    The band’s largest move to adapt their music to suit the needs of a mass audience came at Mayfest’s Battle of the Bands. Uncertain of a small Latin ensemble’s ability to interest the audience at a primarily rock and R&B show, the Aurelia Trio expanded their ranks to a total of nine musicians. Bayan said this was a culmination of the group’s year-long learning process.

    “We really built up the artillery. We added a bunch of percussionists, piano, horn players and a guitarist and we really plugged in and rocked the house,” Bayan said.

    They tied for runner up in the competition with the Shadowboxers, a national touring band who came to the show with their tour bus and equipment trucks, Hunt said.

    So far the Aurelia Trio has performed four times this year and they have achieved a long term goal by performing in Chicago. The band says they hope to perform at some of the larger events on campus this year and continue to expand their gigging territory into the city. And of course they want to keep devising new ways to get crowds on their feet.

    “We’re building a new repertoire," said Bayan. "Once we lock it in, it’s going to sound hot.”


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