A Tribute to Ernesto ‘Teto’ Ocampo (1969-2023)

Sidestepper's Richard Blair remembers his late bandmate Teto

How do you sum up a man’s life? I mean beyond any feeling of the impression he made on me, the memories I have, the sense of who the man was?

I want to try and represent him well because he was my friend and I loved him like a brother. But he was a complex man — a big figure — and in the last few weeks there’s been a certain amount of wonder amid the outpouring of grief and shock and loss. He touched so many people, got right into their hearts and made a difference to every one of them. How did he do that?

There was something enigmatic about him right to the end. A sort of selfless power holding us all to the highest values. Something elusive he could express in sound but that doesn’t quite cover it. Was it an attitude? Well there was plenty of that. But maybe his son Pedro had it right when he said it was all about aesthetics.

Ernesto 'Teto' Ocampo. Photo credit: Carlos Solano.

Let’s bring it down a bit. Teto knew as a child that music was the language he was going to use. He was a musician with prodigious gifts, up there with the best I’ve ever heard. The technical ability to play the guitar was something he mastered very young. By the time he came of age Colombia was a pariah. Nobody came here and many were forced to leave. There was terrible violence in the war between the left-wing guerillas and the state, further complicated by vicious paramilitaries and the all-powerful narco gangs. It’s hard to convey the feeling of insecurity around Colombia’s sense of itself. The country was close to becoming a failed state. For a young musician finding his way there seemed to be few opportunities, in commercial terms, but perhaps there was nothing to lose by going all the way down the opposite path, back to a roots music as pure as it comes, protected and preserved by that very isolation.

I met Teto in 1994 as part of the team that actor and pop singer Carlos Vives had put together to realise a bold and visionary move: a celebration of Colombian folk music done with all the attitude of a rootsy guitar band. Teto was the musical director and the album La Tierra del Olvido became part of a cultural boom none of us thought possible. At the time nobody had any expectations beyond the joy of creating something new. It was a pure and humble attitude. The songwriter on the record was Ivan Benavides and the two of them went on to form Bloque and were signed by David Byrne’s label Luaka Bop. One US critic said that he’d seen ‘the future of rock’n’roll’, but this was a band that rolled more than it rocked. They had a sort of universal latin swing. They were heading for great things, but it was one of those bands meant only to shine briefly.

Teto wasn’t even thirty and had already played the big stages in Latin America, toured the USA, set down a few important cultural markers. But the signs were there. He wasn’t interested in fame or money. He wanted to push on, listening and learning from tradition and innovation wherever he could find it. He stepped out on this new life, investigating, playing and teaching and fully becoming the generous soul he was — a man of relentless curiosity, driven to get to the heart of things and tell us what he found there.

Sidestepper in 2015. Photo credit: Maria Cardona

Although he’d played on the records from the beginning, Teto joined Sidestepper full time in 2005. The deal was that he could play whatever he liked — the wild card was the only one I could offer. This was a dance band and he was a wicked rhythm player. I loved the vibe we shared. It was effortless. At times I could only shake my head in wonder as he played some exquisite riff that after seven and a half bars was already morphing into something else. Every gig was different. He certainly made me a better player, like he was a free spirit breathing possibility into all of us.

He was good company on tour, very funny, with that warm but cynical tone of the true romantic. Tolerant of all the usual shenanigans with travel and staying up late. I often felt like his nerdy younger brother, trying to get him to the gig on time, fretting as he smoked in the general direction of an open window in a no-smoking room. I think he enjoyed being on the road without having to be what he called ‘the enthusiast’ — the bandleader. He’d take his time to read and eat well, catch up on sleep and just be.

Sidestepper - Fuego Que Te Llama (from Real World Studios)

I was always learning about music from him and he never stopped evolving. I really got to know him as a player those years with Sidestepper. The thing that’s hard to put into words is not just about lead and rhythm, but harmony too. He could do it all at once, with such harmonic colour and light that it gave the music an ethereal glow.

"Three hours in the studio, ten minutes playing and the song would be transformed. Not so much an overdub as an intervention."

You didn’t call Teto for a standard session part. When he came round to my little studio it was first of all a visit to a mate. We’d light a candle and talk. Hours of it until eventually he’d say, “What about this tune then?” One pass to get an idea, a couple more takes and he was done. Then he’d put his guitar down and we’d finish our chat. A kind of zen way to record. Three hours in the studio, ten minutes playing and the song would be transformed. Not so much an overdub as an intervention.

He was a purist and some people found that difficult. It was not up for negotiation but I admired this courage to pursue the truth whatever the consequences. It was done with kindness and a big heart and he was following this thing all the way to the source. Free after breakfast and playing music with friends, his open house a scene of mellow gigs, talking and ritual — the hub of the community.

Improvisation Series: Ernesto 'Teto' Ocampo

Teto became close to the Indigenous people here, the Nasa from down south and in later years the Arhuaco from the Sierra Nevada up on the Caribbean coast. Here at last were spiritual teachers who could tell him where music came from and what it was for. In the Arhuaco language there is no word for musician — they have no need for that sort of specialisation. Music is for healing, a gift to honour the natural world, co-creation between the spirit and the material; an affirmation of the one single consciousness, gentle and freely given. A code for the knowing of life.

Mucho Indio - Ruinas
"He spent his life studying, but realised he’d understood the rules and all that was left was to let them go."
Ernesto ‘Teto’ Ocampo, Richard Blair and Ivan Benavides. Photo credit: Juan Carlos Vazquez, 2006.

He formed a band called Mucho Indio and found his truest voice — millennial Indigenous melodies played with flutes, seeds and guitar… even some electronics. It’s gloriously sane music, rootsy, ancient and modern, but he used a single word to describe it: paleofuturist.

Teto was a thinker, a theorist. He wanted to understand what made music good, why it had an emotional impact. He spent his life studying, but realised he’d understood the rules and all that was left was to let them go. Music comes from a whole cosmovision that begins in harmonious relationship with the earth, with our loved ones and the communities we live in. Maybe what he had been seeking through music was only a drive towards something higher. Teto was on a spiritual path, an adept, and music had become almost secondary — the sound of the path more than a destination.

There was some friction between this way of life and the practical demands on a musician: social media and self-promotion, a stage the size of an aircraft hangar, the appalling volume of a modern gig. We talked a great deal about all that. And yet, without participating any more than was really necessary, he was very influential — a pioneer of the astonishing musical resurgence in Colombia. His legacy will be huge and not necessarily the result of records sold or even made. Perhaps he didn’t need to. He was happiest playing to thirty people where you could hear every nuance and texture, under a tree or by a river where the music floated out on the wind, back to the silence it came from.

Ernesto ‘Teto’ Ocampo (1969-2023)

During the pandemic I made a record with the Dominican artist Vicente García. Teto was the inspirational presence in the band we put together for the studio. The album – ‘Camino Al Sol’ – mixed by ex-Real World engineer Patrick Philips won a Latin Grammy for Folk Record of the Year just after Teto passed on. Vicente dedicated the award to him at the ceremony in Seville.

Featured release

  • Supernatural Love


    Released 05 February 2016

    Sidestepper have long been pioneers, taking new directions with each of their albums - and that sense of innovation and evolution continues with Supernatural Love. Very much still a dance band, but here the beats are made with hand drums, seeds and shakers, kalimbas, flutes and guitar, driving the melodic vocals.

By Richard Blair

Main image: Ernesto 'Teto' Ocampo. Photo credit: Yuzzy Acosta.

Published on Tue, 23 January 24

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