Abe Dunovits

‘Sometimes melodies come in dreams, and I wake up singing … Spontaneity is very important. Something spontaneous is truthful, real, fresh and human.’

Abe Dunovits is a musician, poet, performer, visual artist and teacher who is passionate about sharing his art.

He has six albums available on Spotify, several published poems, and was a 2022 finalist in the Australian Training Awards for Excellence in Language, Literacy and Numeracy. Abe can be found reading poetry at A Voz Limpia or playing music at events across Australia.

He spoke to Silvia Rojas about the multiple shapes and sources of art, music in the times of COVID-19 and collaborating with other artists.

You were born in Argentina, lived in Spain and then moved to Australia. How did you forge your identity and art during these stages?

The [artistic] vocation came through my family. My dad was a musician who played the trumpet in classical and jazz styles. He gave up music to provide for the family, but our household was filled with creativity and music thanks to my brother and sister, who had an enormous influence on my artistic journey.

When I turned 13, my father encouraged me to learn to play an instrument—the guitar. My brother further fuelled my musical growth. He made mixtapes for me and gave me my first electric guitar. During our time in Spain, he lived with us and had a practice drum kit, which allowed me to explore percussion on my own. In Spain, I also absorbed the fusion of flamenco, rock, and pop that was happening at the time.

When I moved to Australia at the age of 17 or 18, I purchased a small keyboard and taught myself to play piano. My brother, who had also moved to Australia, taught himself Latin percussion, and we started playing music together. He introduced me to new rhythms and showed me how to play the congas and timbales. This musical partnership led us to form a band called Funkalleros in the late 1990s.

Your music has been described as mestiza, a creative place where different sounds converge. Beyond the diversity of sounds, what is mestizo music for you?

Mestizo music encompasses the experiences of Latin Americans who are of mixed heritage, blending European, Indigenous and African influences. It acknowledges the rich culture, spirituality and language that arise from living in a place with indigenous roots.

‘Spontaneity is very important for me. Something spontaneous is truthful, real, fresh.’

While I haven’t traced my family history in Argentina, I recognise the possibility of having Indigenous and Brazilian roots, which adds to my identification with mestizo music. This genre embodies multiple layers, including language, culture, sounds, textures and rhythms. Many worlds collide here.

How do you decide which shape to give to a creative piece?

I often feel that a higher force or entity dictates this. For example, my latest album, Charango Unchained, is a collection of 14 songs that came together simultaneously. It felt like a burst of creation. Also, my writing rarely undergoes editing. If something comes out and I like it, I leave it unchanged.

Occasionally, I work on projects that take longer as they come out in dribs and drabs or need to be shaped to fit a purpose. If I’m collaborating with another artist or submitting something for a magazine, I will accept the editing process, but, in most cases, my creations emerge all at once, and that’s it. Spontaneity is very important for me. Something spontaneous is truthful, real, fresh.

I get the impression that sometimes you make art with a bit of cheekiness. Do you think that art should sometimes be more playful and maybe not take itself so seriously?

Absolutely. Cheekiness doesn’t diminish the depth or meaning of art. It is another way of expressing oneself. Sometimes, poetry readings are [very] serious, which is understandable. However, I often like to inject a sense of humour or light-heartedness into my work. It’s about finding a balance between the serious and the playful. I enjoy taking the mickey out of things.

How would you describe your art to someone who doesn’t know you?

Since I started making art, my focus has been on drawing and sculpture using found or recycled objects. I have been writing music and poetry since I was 14, both in English and Spanish.

Another significant event in my career was moving to Melbourne about ten years ago. Prior to that, I had established myself in Perth, Australia, where people knew me well and were familiar with my music and art. However, after the move, it took me a while to gain recognition, particularly within the Latin American community.

Many people were unaware of my background, partly because I didn’t have a website back then, and it was also more challenging to establish an online presence in a larger city like Melbourne. It feels like being a small fish in a big pond now. Before I was a bigger fish in a smaller pond. I prefer to live my life and create art and music based on my vision rather than worrying about others’ opinions.

Can you tell us about your collaboration with Little Chilli on the song ‘Inequality’ for Charango Unchained?

Little Chilli has always been a supportive friend. We share a similar social mindset, and I really admire her, her knowledge of history and political stance.

I’ve always wanted to collaborate with her because she used to be involved in music back in Chile. However, when she moved to Australia about ten years ago, she seemed to lose touch with that passion. I knew she was eager to make music again, so we began exploring the idea of working together before the pandemic, but the lockdowns disrupted our plans.

I wrote the chorus of the song ‘Desigualdad‘ (inequality). One day, when Little Chilli was over, she jumped in and recited the words off the top of her head. It was very spontaneous.

The title of the album Charango Unchained brings Quentin Tarantino’s film Django Unchained to mind. Are films a source of inspiration?

Absolutely, I love films. I love watching, recreating and quoting from them. Tarantino is a master. Akira Kurosawa, Scorsese, the offbeat John Waters, Kevin Smith … but my daughter, she’s my favourite filmmaker.

Going back to your music, Sigh of the Times, Transparent and Saved by the Taco Bell make up the COVID trilogy. How do they come together apart from having been created during the pandemic?

‘Sigh of Times’ holds a special meaning for me. I have a close friend and performer, Ashley Higgs. He has this unique sigh to express emotions, whether good or bad; it’s a way of releasing something from within.

During the first year of lockdown, I found myself copying that same sigh, which served as a release because my father had passed away in 2020. The sigh became a moment of reflection on his loss.

The song carries a reflective tone but represents moving forward after the death of a parent. It made me realise I carry my parents’ genes and continue their legacy. It’s a scary and empowering realisation, especially as a parent myself, knowing that my daughter will carry on my actions and their consequences.

The album also touches on various inspirations, including the #metoo movement, global crises and environmental issues.

Transparent represents a cathartic release after the lockdown, mixed with a sense of anger because of the extended confinement. It captures the emotions of being unleashed after feeling trapped. However, the album also has moments of triumph, celebrating our resilience and the ability to move forward with our lives.

Taco Bell serves as the pinnacle of this journey, presenting a more positive outlook on life. It signifies the liberation and openness that we experience. The album’s overall tone is optimistic and inclusive, touching on social issues like Give Back the Land.

If art is this liberating process, then how do you deal with a creative block?

It’s tough, but I just keep doing it. Pretty much anytime I have an idea, I record it, draw it or write it, so I always have a backlog that I can work on if I’m stuck. However, I always have confidence that things will come. Sometimes melodies come in dreams, and I wake up singing, I record the melody, and then I listen to it again. Dreams are a source of inspiration.

What are you reading?

I’m reading It Gets Me Home, a book that I got from my friend Ashley. It’s about music and has essays on artists like James Brown or Frank Sinatra.

What is the best advice you give to your students? What do you teach them you would have liked someone to teach you?

Just to try everything. Experience as much as you can in your life as an artist through movies, books, art, music and people.

Always keep your mind open to opportunities to create something and trust your gut. Be creative, make things up. It doesn’t matter if no one listens. Time keeps ticking, so just do things for yourself.