We set the meeting point at the cafe/bar of “Penicheiros,” a local cultural association housed in a water green 140-year-old building in the old part of town. I reached ahead of schedule, ordered an espresso and sat at one of the small square tables covered with a green and white checkered plastic tablecloth. Behind me, a TV loudly broadcasted a daytime show that no one seemed to be watching and three men played a game of dominos. On the wall behind the bar a series of sketches of famous musicians on display: Billy Corgan, David Bowie, Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder. Slightly to the right, a movie poster from Tarantino’s “Death Proof.” The set was perfect for a conversation about music, art, culture, youth, and how all those (should) come together.
“Nick Suave” may be his stage name, but he’s far from being a presumptuous rock star who is too full of himself, with the proverbial stick up where the sun doesn’t shine. “Nick” is your everyday guy, the boy next door if you will, with a passion for making music and entirely at peace with where life has led him so far. After a few detours with potential career choices, he soon realized the 9 to 5 corporate job just wasn’t his thing and chose to dedicate his full time to music instead.
When I asked him if he had a genre he smiled and said “for me, it’s always rock and roll.”
In 2000, almost 15 years ago, Nick founded a non-profit cultural association called Hey, Pachuco! The local cultural and music scene needed a serious boost and he decided to take some of the matters in his own hands to promote and support talent and creativity. That same year, the association founded one of the most prestigious European music festivals: Barreiro Rocks.
His projects all revolve around making music but his goal is much higher than that (even if he humbly believes he’s just doing his small part): art as a form of education. Nick acknowledges that “it’s not that [the authorities] don’t care about art and culture. It’s just that it’s frequently the least important on the list.” When talking about the influence of politics in how things come to terms, he declares to be “nonpartisan but not apolitical”.
By focusing on the educational side of music, he wants to break the obstacles between will and action of the younger generation. “Kids lose interest fast if they are not given the conditions to experiment and discover what they like.” That was the whole idea behind the Music Room, a space in the local mall where kids could go for free and listen to music, study, practice their instruments.
Here we are at the table in our late thirties discussing education and art, and suddenly the expression generation gap pops up. “We can’t say that back in our day we knew better than these kids. What has changed is how they communicate, and we have to take advantage of that.” Kids these days (quite often driven by their parents, in this quest to be “the best”) are a lot more competitive than we were for sure. Unless you were doing some sport, we didn’t care much about competing.
These kids twenty years younger than us, seem to take competition very seriously which makes them enjoy activities like talent shows and band contests. When we met, the Talent Contest “Nick” had organized earlier that week had just ended. He thought of it for the sake of attracting the younger crowd to the music scene, by speaking this generation’s new language of direct exposure. A lot of people asked about the contest, many of them actually signed up but, in the end, only three bands showed up for the final in March 18th: “Cruzados”, “These Are The Droids You Are Looking For” and “Rap Flow Crew”. Much fueled by his disaffection for artistic competitions, in the end all three bands won the first prize: the chance to record on Nick’s studio Estúdio King.
“It doesn’t make sense. I can tell when a football team wins a match. It’s simple: the winning team is the one that scored more goals. But saying that this band is better than the other? I can’t tell. No one can.” Parents seem to be more focused on their kids winning than on the experience itself, which makes the purpose of education to fade. Ironic as it may seem, most of these parents are not that older than us.
For the first time last year, Barreiro Rocks had special activities for kids around music and art. An experience that they are longing to repeat later this year. “For one of the activities, the kids had to listen to Presley’s “Blue Suede Shoes” and Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and tell, in the end, what both the songs, “told” them. They said stuff like one was more for dancing and the other was more “crazy,” like a trip. The final activity was to create their art piece based on this experience and take that home with them.” The kids get it.
As we walk towards the Escola Conde de Ferreira (the old elementary school now turned into Centre of Artistic Production and Participation) he points out the degradation around us, the boarded up abandoned buildings, the places where some iconic bars used to be (and are now simply vacant lots). Similar to a living being, the city will gangrene and die if movement stops. If people stop flowing to these sites, businesses will close, it’s a snowball effect. In the last four years, the economic crisis seems to be the scapegoat of choice, but I believe there is a difference between not being able to do and not being interested in doing.
“This school was abandoned, closed and pretty much falling apart. We have a lot of work ahead of us to restore this.” As you can tell by now, Nick doesn’t shy away from a challenge. Partnering up with two other non-profit organizations (Rumo and Out.Ra), he is sure that by transforming this space, giving it a new life and constantly promoting activities, it is possible to restore the old part of Barreiro.
Before writing this article, I was determined to call this series the “B-Side of Tagus.” I asked if Barreiro was the B-Side of the river Tagus and Nick sharply answered: “it’s not! Lisbon is the b-side of Tagus, not Barreiro!” I was kind of going for B-side as alternative but his remark stroke another chord: the A-side was usually where all the “good” stuff was, the hit songs; only a handful of people had the curiosity to flip the record and listen to the B-side, get to know the “other” side of the band. I certainly don’t want the artists of Barreiro to be there for just a handful of people.
Barreiro Rocks 2015 is already in the making. As he puts it, he’s already thinking of the next year the second the festival is over. What can be the downside of working on your passion? You never stop, you never take time off, a two-day vacation seems like more than you can handle. The upside? Bliss. Pure bliss. And for many, that is a measure of success.
It’s hard to keep up with all the projects of “Nick”, aka Carlos Ramos (his official name), so start counting. Ready? Here we go: the bands — Bro-X, The Act-Ups, Nicotine’s Orchestra, The Jack Shits; the art school / concert venue / community center — Escola Conde de Ferreira; the music festival — Barreiro Rocks; the business man — Estudio King. Click on the links to follow all his personas and stay tuned for news about the festival dates and lineup. We’ll keep you posted.