Gypsy woman: Kukuly Uriarte brings jazz, music and the world to Brackins
By Steve Wildsmith (email@example.com)
Born in Peru, spending part of her childhood in Argentina, moving to Florida and then East Tennessee and currently playing jazz and blues heavily influenced by the Romani culture of Eastern Europe
— it’s safe to say that Kukuly Uriarte is bringing some international flair to Brackins Blues Bar on Saturday night.
Uriarte, front woman for the band Kukuly and the Gypsy Fuego, rose to local prominence as a member of Johnson Swingtet, a local Gypsy jazz stringband, before branching out on her own. Her new lineup, she told The Daily Times this week, allows her to incorporate everything from the blues to salsa music into her repertoire.
“Having a drummer adds a lot,” she said. “That gives it a real Latin flavor. At first, I was trying to do all strings, but then I realized it would sound so much better with the actual hand percussion and the Latin flavor. That was definitely a different thing.
“I’m also singing the blues. The other day, I did some Leola Manning (a Depression-era gospel blues singer from Knoxville) — ‘Satan Is Busy in Knoxville,’ but I’m doing it my way. She had this gospel style, but I can’t achieve that. It’s not me. With this band, I definitely feel more free to pick anything that I feel like represents me.”
Uriarte (her first name is pronounced coo-coo-LEE), born in Peru, moved with her family to Buenos Aires, Argentina, when she was 10. A guitar player at an early age, she soaked up the Latin sounds of her native continent before moving to Florida with her mother when she was 16. They eventually came to East Tennessee to be near family, and throwing herself into learning American rock ‘n’ roll, jazz and blues was as good of a way as any to soak up U.S. language and culture. She started with “The White Album” by The Beatles and started exploring the local music scene.
She befriended the members of Swingbooty, a jazz combo that included three of the guys who would become her Johnson Swingtet bandmates -- guitarist/founder Eugene Johnson, stand-up bass player Brandon Beavers and cello player Andy Bryenton. After Swingbooty disbanded, Johnson asked Uriarte to join his new band, and he and Beavers steered her toward a Gypsy jazz-oriented style of playing, a la Django Reinhardt.
Although she had only been in America for a few years, it wasn’t difficult for her to pick up an American art form influenced by Eastern European culture and adapted for performance in East Tennessee. With Gypsy Fuego, she has the liberty of adding in the Latin styles of her childhood — salsa, bossa nova, tango — and infusing it with her own unique personality and sunny disposition.
“I just wanted to have something different — I’m still doing the Gypsy-jazz stuff, because I feel related to the Gypsies because I was traveling so much and always feeling like a foreigner,” she said. “I’ve always been a foreigner for most of my life. That feeling of not belonging is very predominant in my life, and that translates to a restlessness in the music.
“But I also do a lot of Latin tunes, some bebop, American jazz and blues … it’s just slightly different. I just want to do my own thing.”
One thing she can’t claim to be any more, at least in East Tennessee, is a foreigner. She’s a fixture at The Bistro at the Bijou and a regular performer around town; last weekend, she took part in an all-star jam at Waynestock 2, singing vocals with the Band of Humans during a tribute set to late local musician Phil Pollard.
“There’s a strong sense of community here, and that’s definitely one of the things that keeps me around,” she said. “It is my own project, and every song expresses who I am or has signs of who I am. I’m looking forward to writing some original material, which is definitely a challenge, because English is not my first language.
“I just want to keep traveling and playing like I’ve always done. I haven’t traveled out of Knoxville much at all, and I really want to get out there and meeting people and live the Gypsy life. I’m just looking for a caravan.”