A Quintessential Collaborator
Greg Landau hones his production skills in Alameda.
Photo by D. Ross Cameron
Greg Landau’s earliest memory of travel is vague images of Cuba circa 1960. He was 5 years old, and his parents decided to take a break from their college studies to get a firsthand look at revolution. In many ways, the trip planted seeds that continue to flourish, as Landau has spent his adult life as an essential conduit for Latin American culture.
Working from his home on the east side of Alameda, the five-time Grammy Award nominee has collaborated with some of the most important musicians from Cuba, Peru, Mexico, Nicaragua, and, of course, California. His music career took off not at home in the Bay Area, but in Central America, where he made his own pilgrimage to a country in the early throes of Marxist governance.
After years of working in the Nicaraguan solidarity movement, he made the trip south in 1979 to meet up with his sister, who had married a Nicaraguan. “We traveled around the country and saw the euphoria and the excitement of the cultural movement,” he said. Offered a job as a producer at Radio Sandino, he ended up staying for 10 years, touring internationally as a guitarist with Luis Enrique
Godoy, whose stirring nueva canción anthems provided a soundtrack to the Sandinista movement.
Returning to the United States in 1989, Landau earned a Ph.D. from UC San Diego (writing his dissertation on the role of music in the Nicaraguan revolution, naturally), and by 1991 he was back in San Francisco. Rather than trying to establish himself as a musician, he turned his attention to production.
“After touring all over the world, some 35 international tours, playing clubs didn’t seem like enough; just didn’t seem worthwhile,” Landau said. “I had gained skills as a producer. At the radio station, I did a lot of live recording and developed a style of guerilla production. At the time, getting a recording done quickly, cheaply, and well was not a valuable skill, but it became valuable.”
Starting as a producer at Holly Near’s Redwood Records, he quickly earned a reputation as a creative force in the studio. With his own label Round Whirled Records, founded with his nephew, guitarist, and producer Camilo Landau, he earned Grammy nominations for albums by Cuban conguero Carlos “Patato” Valdés and rumba legend Pancho Quinto, sessions now considered classics. He introduced Afro-Peruvian master Susana Baca to American audiences on her eponymous 1997 release for David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label, one of the projects that introduced his innovative approach to recording folkloric music.
He had learned the studio ropes documenting Nicaraguan musicians who’d come in and knock out an album in an afternoon, but he said “applying the same conception here was difficult because musicians weren’t as prepared. I had to fill in the blanks, and I got experienced using digital manipulation, changing arrangements after the fact.”
Drawing on production techniques common to hip-hop but largely verboten in folkloric music circles, he started subtly incorporating samples, re-imagining sounds and rhythms via remixing. On Susana Baca’s North American breakthrough album, he secretly beefed up the sound of the box-like cajón with 808 drum kit samples of “a big trunk-rattling bass drum,” he said. “People commented that we were able to get such a deep sound out of the cajón. How could you get that sound out of a wooden box?”
Landau and his wife moved to Alameda from San Francisco’s Bernal Heights in 2010 for better schools for their son and to be close to his father, the documentarian Saul Landau (who died in 2013). They’ve been delighted to connect with musicians on the island and in Fruitvale, some of whom were also recent San Francisco transplants.
“We’ve seen a lot of great shows at Rhythmix and catch Cuban music at Habanas on the weekend,” Landau said. “Sometimes, I’ll go to Cajun nights at the Eagles Hall, and there are a lot of street festivals and fairs all summer. I don’t miss San Francisco much.”