From a musical standpoint the Latin genres are one of the, if not the biggest sector of the industry on earth where there has been a longstanding history of some of the biggest names and hits in popular music having crossover success into the English-speaking mainstream including where songs have been commercially successful when performed in native Spanish. Julio and Enrique Iglesias from Spain, Gloria Estefan and Camila Cabello from Cuba, Ricky Martin, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee from Puerto Rico, Carlos Santana and Becky G with Mexican heritage, US boyband CNCO whose members were born or have ancestry in Ecuador, Puerto Rico, Cuba and Dominican Republic along with Shakira from Columbia are just some of the names we are all too familiar with across the musical spectrum. Given the success of Despacito featuring Justin Bieber and Little Mix reworking CNCO’s hit Reggaeton Lento the impact and influence of Hispanic music and Latin flavours continues to grow and be more prominent in so many genres.
Country music has been going through an evolution where the intertwining of rock, R&B, Hip Hop, Rap and Electronic genres is becoming very familiar but surely these Spanish vibes of amore and the cultural similarities should have allowed Latin music to be more prominent in today’s country music? Kane Brown recorded his duet “Lost in the Middle of Nowhere” with Becky G in both English and Spanish, The Mavericks last year released their first Spanish language project “En Español” which celebrated lead singer Raul Malo’s Cuban heritage and the bands Mexican influence, Californian ray of sunshine Leah Turner is very proud and vocal about her Mexican heritage, you have Angie K who was part of last year’s CMA KixStart Scholarship being from El Salvador, Scotty McCreery having Puerto Rican heritage through his grandfather and newly signed Sony Music Nashville duo Kat & Alex who hail from Puerto Rico and Cuba but it really hasn’t come to the forefront and isn’t celebrated or driven as much to grow as we are seeing across other diverse backgrounds. The key question is why? Why is the biggest genre of music on the planet not crossing over into country music in the way that other genres are? One artist who is trying to change that is Octavio Stokoff. Despite being born in Germany, his family heritage is Colombian where he moved to during his childhood and lived prior to his recent move with his family to Nashville. He discovered his passion for music while living in Latin America and wanted to challenge the boundaries of Spanish music and as a way to express his feeling after his parents divorced when he was a teen. His singles “Si Tu no Estás”, “Quiero Ser” and “Todo ha Cambiado” hit the top of the charts in Colombia and if that is not enough, he also has a master’s degree in Physics. He took some time out to speak with Jamie about his heritage, its impact on his music and the challenges that are presented by delivering country music in Spanish along with telling us about his new single in English “All About You” which features our good friend Maggie Baugh.
When you cover music, you receive a lot to listen to from so many different people that are billed to have a cool and interesting backstory but Germany to Nashville via Colombia in South America is one that stands out a bit: “My mother is from Germany and she met my father in college, my father is from Colombia. I was born in Germany in Bonn and when I was seven or eight years old, we moved to Colombia, where I lived and went to college in South America, then went to college in Germany where I lived again for a few years. After moving back to Colombia, I spent some time in the US and finally moved to Florida six years ago before Nashville became home about six months ago. It’s been a crazy journey where I’ve done a lot of stuff and doing a lot of different music in my life, like in Germany I was singing in a heavy metal band, maybe I had the look because I don’t have hair but I’ve done a lot and also learnt a lot!” For anyone that has spent time in Nashville, you will be all too aware how it is a crazy world that is so different to anywhere else, particularly when you have grown up in Europe and South America: “It’s been quite an experience to live here, I have been made very welcome in Nashville and always have been because I record all my album here but it’s very challenging. Everybody is so good and I’m singing in Spanish so nobody understands what I’m singing but the level of artistry here is so high. The songwriting and everything is so good and if you are surrounded by people like that, automatically you will become better because all the time you are looking at everybody around you. It’s more about the music because all the time you talk to guys about music, songs, how to write the perfect song and how to connect with people because songs are made to connect and that is what you are trying to do when you are writing a song. Then if you go to a bar in Nashville you can see crazy people playing, like Eric Clapton was playing maybe one month ago. He had a show and went out after and played with another guy who liked to play blues, Nashville is like that. Before it was LA but now everybody is in Nashville so it’s also very difficult. In my case I’m doing something completely new, country music in Spanish, I think I’m the only guy really but I’m learning a lot. I moved here because I wanted to be here and be surrounded with all this culture and learning a lot about writing songs.”
We touched upon where other genres have infiltrated and integrated into what is coming out of Nashville commercially yet Latin music which is the world’s largest and continually growing genre has not had the same impact beyond the few examples that I identified in the into so I posed Octavio that key question of why he thinks this is? “It’s not working and I think I know why. You have to understand the other culture in the way you can connect with them. The people that speak Spanish in Spain or Latin America, they have a special taste for music so if the country music fans want to hear the song, they want to hear the song in Spanish but you have to sing all of the song in Spanish. You look at Becky G who is well known but she is not country, Carrie Underwood sung a song in Miami with a guy from Spain who was singing in English whilst she was singing in Spanish and I couldn’t understand why they did that? My logic was he is from Spain and should sing in Spanish, it was not a country song but a pop song and I understand what they are trying to do to put the songs on the radio. Country music is still radio and everywhere else is Spotify, Apple and Amazon driven. In the US they have these radio stations for music in Spanish but it’s a different genre and the followers from this kind of music are not followers of country music. If I’m singing in Spanish, it’s still country music. The Latin market is the biggest growing genre in music but you can’t fake it, you have to be true in what you are doing and then the fans come to you. It’s not easy, it’s new and you’re just one guy doing that where you may not fit in the Latin market but in the American market people can do blues, R&B, Hip-hop, country or rock. In the Latin market, if you are not doing what they are used to, you have to be independent because the radio stations don’t pay the music. When I put out a new song it is very hard to get on country playlists because the songs are in Spanish but I understand and I’m still working on everything, I think it’s coming looking at the results with what we are doing and I think the artist has to still be country leaning towards that market.” Whilst he had been recording in Spanish, he recently joined up with Maggie Baugh (who is a big favourite of ours here at Country In The UK and you can check out our recent catch up with her HERE) to release “All About You” in English so we talked about working with Maggie and whether the process and opportunity changed when releasing in English: “She’s very talented and in Nashville there are a lot of people like her, but she’s very young, she’s fresh, she’s fast and she knows what she wants. She’s very nice and one of the first people that I met when I came here, she’s very talented. I did the song in English because everybody was asking me to do that, I didn’t set out to do that because I’m singing in Spanish. I released a song at the start of the year that was doing well but someone asked if I was sure it was country music because I’m singing in Spanish because it sounded country but was in Spanish so do I need to do more the Mexican style thing. I decided to the song in English to show that if you take a song in Spanish which is country and you translate it to English, it is still country. I did it because I also met Maggie, liked the way that she sings and it fits very well. At the beginning I thought of singing in Spanish and her singing in English but then I thought that is not what I want to do. Releasing a song in English when you’re in Nashville, you have to compete with everybody putting songs out but the reaction was very good, we were looking for a reaction that people understand that I’m doing country music no matter which language and it worked. It showed I can sing in English but am Latino, then secondly that it’s country but in the near future I’m not going to release in English, I did id it because I wanted to try something different and show that a song in Spanish can still be country. For the last two years what I was doing was covers of well-known country songs in Spanish and when you translate to Spanish it’s country and it’s the same if you go the other way.”
The album he released back at the start of the year is titled “Country Music Hits en Español y Más” which is a collection that contains songs of his own along with interpretations of modern country hits performed in Spanish. We went further talking about the process of working songs between the two languages and how his version of Kenny Chesney’s “Get Along” sounds equally as great in a language I don’t understand. “That was actually the first one, it wasn’t really a plan to do those country songs in Spanish but I was always a big fan of country music and also a big fan of rock music. I liked the Kenny Chesney song and I am always doing songs that I like more for the message of the song rather than how catchy it is. It’s more the message or the lyrics because I thought in Spanish this could maybe connect with that community. I remember when he put out the song there was no video for the song, I started playing it on guitar and working out the lyrics then thought let’s try all of the song in Spanish but never thought of doing something with this song. I played it in a few bars with a few friends then at a few shows in Colombia and Argentina, where everybody loved the song but they don’t know Kenny Chesney in Buenos Aires. They have a country music culture but it is more like from the seventies so they don’t know about the newer country music. It’s interesting and something happened when we did the video in Nashville for “Embrujo” at Nashville Palace where we just rented the dancing hall but on the other side in the bar were regular customers listening to country music and if they wanted to go to the restrooms, they had to go through the dancing hall. I had the idea of doing the song and people line dancing with the song in Spanish so as we were doing the video and people were passing through to the restrooms. There were two older ladies who were sitting there looking at me saying hey young man, that’s not English. I said no it’s Spanish and they said Oh, it sounds so good and that shows that if you are drinking a beer and you are not really listening to the lyrics, you think it’s country in English. If you like the music and like the vibe, that’s what I’m trying to do. Every song that we are releasing and the new album that is coming out next year has to be better than the last one. I still think it’s important to release albums because when you are writing songs it is like a story book but we are working on new songs, lyrics and connecting with people.
The conversation moved to this view of a complete album and also how combining originals with reworkings comes across so well and is a great way to develop the brand of country en Español. “I released the album in January because I have a lot of songs, I have been working on a lot of songs over the last four years. Seventeen songs are a lot of songs on an album, people are like nobody releases things with that many songs but putting them all together is a part of my life and I didn’t want to release an album of say nine songs and maybe another one later with eight songs. I’m working on a new album that will be very different and much more country than the other one because I’m now in Nashville. It’s interesting because when I’m working with musicians, they don’t understand what I’m singing. I have a guy here who is a guitar player called Sol Philcox who like you is from England, he moved here maybe four years ago and he is so good, one of the best guitar players in Nashville for sure and has worked with all of the big guys. He couldn’t understand what I was singing but he connected with the music but him and all the band understand what I’m trying to do and want to know the story. It’s not just having musicians who simply play, everybody has to connect with the song which is important. It’s music and my audience are people who speak Spanish. I have experience of rock in Spanish from South America, like in Argentina and you may not know this but because of the Falklands situation, radio stations can’t play songs in English so it was local bands doing rock music in Spanish whilst all the bands doing it were listening to music in English so created this huge genre in South America of rock music in Spanish. That’s what I’m trying to do with country music and I think it will happen, I’m not sure with me or when I’m still alive but I’m sure it will because there are a lot of people that love country music and the stories behind the songs. I’m working on that and I love what I’m doing so I can’t imagine doing something different!” Where other genres and country music have found a way to integrate commercially, I hadn’t really considered the impact on Hispanic or Latinx culture on why this hasn’t looked to be capitalising bringing these genres together in the same way that rock or electronic music has found a relationship with country. In my naivety, there was part of me that thought Despacito which is delivered predominantly in Spanish, CNCO and the Iglesias’s for example have had substantial success as foreign language songs in the UK charts so there must be a way for it to work the other way? “You are right but that matches the same kind of music in different languages. Justin Bieber on Despacito is still Latin pop so it’s working but if you took say Jason Aldean and someone like J Balvin or something crazy like that, it’s not going to work because the fans of Jason Aldean are not going to be drawn to J Balvin because it’s different. If you like rock music and like listening to rock, you are not going to hip-hop because it’s not what you like. It’s difficult because the record companies are thinking let’s try this and if it’s not working let’s change the genre and do it more another way. In Nashville they have an idea of what they think Latino culture is and I’m from South America so listening to a lot of music and toured South America so I know what they want. I know there is an audience for something different, I have a lot of friends that like to go to reggaeton concerts but are not buying the music, they go to the concert because it is fun but in the car on the way home, they are not listening to that. There is a market for everyone, we have a lot of new songs coming out next year that I wrote with a lot of people in Nashville which feels crazy because they are used to writing in English and I’m writing in Spanish. In my case doing country music in Spanish, I can be a little bit more flexible because there isn’t anyone to compare what I’m doing with. I can do more country rock or country pop which in Spanish sounds very Latin almost like Luis Fonsi so I’m trying to stay more country than pop and you’ll always hear pedal steel, banjo and fiddle in my songs because I love the sound. The reaction of the people is very good but on the other side they don’t know what to do with my songs. I’m learning a lot here and trying to write better songs because I have to respect my audience which is the Latino audience and the followers ask me about songs. I do a Facebook live every week or two where a lot of people connect and ask me about the new songs. They want to hear me writing songs about the problems that they have and relate to them. I’m more the guy that is writing about feelings than about a truck, whiskey, tequila or something like that. You hear a lot of songs about whiskey and tequila here in Nashville but it’s not the same for the Latino people unless you are using the word to tell a story but I’m focusing on connecting with people.”
Then finally we talked about what is in store for his next project and the new song he has recently shared: “I’ve just released a song from Luke Combs, I heard the song for the first time many years ago, I loved the song and thought it would be great to do the song in Spanish. We released the song just as the video on YouTube and the reaction of the people has been crazy. I worked really hard on these lyrics in Spanish with a friend of mine who is a singer-songwriter from Chile and the challenge was to do a nice song with the same idea and country fans from Texas and California have sent me messages saying they like the two songs where one guy had said that when they are having some feelings, they are hearing it in English but if they were feeling different, they are hearing the song in Spanish. It was a rendition and it’s not my song but I’m doing a rendition in Spanish so everyone can understand what he’s singing. We are still going to work on more covers for next year because I think it’s important to connect both worlds but maybe one day if we are lucky maybe we can sing the original song with him singing in English and me singing in Spanish, you never know? You just have to dream and see what happens!
The latest album “Country Music Hits en Español y Más” from Stokoff includes his new single and features a variety of originals and hits of headliners like Jason Aldean, Tim McGraw, Old Dominion, Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban and Rascal Flatts translated to Spanish is out now through Independence Label Productions which you can listen to HERE. His new single “All About You” which features Maggie Baugh is also out now and available HERE.