Student brings Spain’s zest to Portland

Olas performs at Local Sprouts Cafe. Megan Keogh (left) and Lindsey Bourassa (right) perform an original, flamenco-inspired dance while other members accompany them.
Paz Garaloces
Olas performs at Local Sprouts Cafe. Megan Keogh (left) and Lindsey Bourassa (right) perform an original, flamenco-inspired dance while other members accompany them.

Posted on December 03, 2012 in Arts & Culture, Features
By Sam Hill

(From left to right) Olas members Anna Trunzo, Dylan Blanchard, Chriss Sutherland and Tom Kovacevic perform at Grace
Perce McCleary
(From left to right) Olas members Anna Trunzo, Dylan Blanchard, Chriss Sutherland and Tom Kovacevic perform at Grace

“I fell in love with the Spanish language and just couldn’t let it go,” said Chriss Sutherland, a senior Hispanic studies major at USM.

Sutherland has dedicated himself to studying, preserving and enriching Hispanic culture here at USM and in Maine through his work, and is a part of a successful Portland-based musical group of eight musicians and dancers that are inspired by traditional and modern flamenco, Andalusian and Arabic folk music.

The man behind the music

Sutherland was raised in Hermon, Maine and upon graduation from Hermon High School immediately began his higher education at Boston College. After two months at BC, Sutherland decided to leave school to start a band with a drummer he had been playing with from Berklee College of Music and a friend who had moved to Boston from Suth Portland. In 1994 the trio formed a band called Cerberus Shoal, which played until 2005. The group moved up to South Portland in 1995, and Sutherland enrolled at USM to “keep his parents happy.”

“After about a year and half I dropped out as work and the band proved too much, and I just wasn’t that into school,” said Sutherland. “My head was in the group.”
After that, Cerberus Shoal was writing, playing and recording music full-time. The band released 11 full-length records and numerous singles, touring all over the U.S., Canada and to Europe twice.

“But after 12 years or so we kind of imploded. The group went through many transitions, etc. and in 2005 we just stopped,” said Sutherland.

After the band dissolved, Sutherland went to Alicante, Spain, spending about a year between 2005-07 living overseas.

“There is a vibrant, musical community there, and I immediately clicked with an amazingly progressive and creative group of Alicantinos,” said Sutherland. “I spent a good deal of time alone in a city where I couldn’t speak the language, without a job or any large purpose.This was a very beneficial experience for me as I did a lot of self-searching.”

He returned to South Portland in 2007 and went back to living in the same house as he had been in (the Cerberus Shoal house) for 13 years before. The core members of CS started another group, called Fire on Fire, releasing a full-length and an EP on Young God Records while Sutherland began his own solo music project.

Sutherland re-matriculated at USM in the winter of 2010 as a Hispanic studies major with it in mind to become a high school Spanish teacher.

“My first semester I floundered a bit, but in my second, I had Latin America I with Professor David Carey, and everything started to change. I discovered a whole continent and sub-continent of history, culture, music and social and political movements, and almost all of it was in Spanish,” said Sutherland, “and things just took off for me from that point on.”

Through the nursing program at USM, Sutherland went to the Dominican Republic in collaboration with the language department as a student medical interpreter. From there he went on to volunteer for the Maine Migrant Health Program. He did translations for in-takes at clinics, and he helped to make a short film about MMHP services for a group of Guatemalans and Hondurans that were working packing potatoes in Fryeburg, Maine.

Soon after, Carey got him involved at The Special Collections on the 6th floor of the Glickman Library, classifying and organizing a collection of Guatemalan Municipal Documents that span a time frame of about 1829 to 1945. He has been working on the project for nearly two years.

Sutherland was awarded a research grant from the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program in the spring of 2011. His proposal was to study a Latino community that had settled in Milbridge, Maine during the late 1990s. Through the second half of 2011 to early 2012, Sutherland was traveling to Milbridge and the downeast region in an attempt to meet and speak with anyone he could about the post-modern situation surrounding Latino migrant agricultural labor and immigration. Through extensive conversation with the staffers from Mano en Mano, a non-profit that originated as a local grass-roots movement to support a new influx of a Latino population, he gained knowledge and understanding concerning the push and pull of free-trade economics. He learned of the strength of diversity and culture with regards to Latino responses to over a century of North American position of economic privilege in the western hemisphere.

“It gave me the opportunity to face some deep-seated fears and insecurities I have regarding my white, North American, middle-class privilege,” said Sutherland. “ The small town I was raised in had no ethnic diversity and class lines were ignored or blurred. My UROP project gave me a reason to talk to people about difference – difference of culture, class, ethnicity – and also forced me to use the Spanish I was studying in a practical and serious manner, which was a real challenge for me.”
While Sutherland’s research is still in progress, he will be presenting his dissertation on Tuesday, Dec.11 at 3 p.m. at 102 Bedford St.

Olas, the musical family

In the fall of 2008, Southerland became involved in a mIn the fall of 2008, Sutherland became involved in a musical project called Olas, an all-acoustic mash-up of very raw and passionate music and dance influenced by Andalusian Flamenco and Arabic folk music. He provides lead vocals and plays guitar for the group.

Olas began as a thesis project of Lindsey Bourassa, a friend of Sutherland’s and student at Goddard College in Vermont. Bourassa had studied Flamenco in Sevilla, Spain, and brought that passion back to the U.S. with her project.

Flamenco is a genre of Spanish music, song and dance from Andalusia, in southern Spain. It consists of singing, dancing, guitar and palmas (handclaps). The songs are in Spanish and are blended with original, non-traditional dance choreography, and traditional instruments such as the cajón, oud, ney and guitar.

“We’re more of a family than a band,” said Sutherland. “We all come from such diverse backgrounds, but we share this love for music and that keeps us together.”
After playing numerous shows and releasing an album titled La Perla in 2010, the project was over, but the band had grown close through performing and had been pretty successful, raising money through gigs to record and travel more.

“We were just having such a good time together. It was the fuel that made us say, let’s keep doing this,” said Sutherland.

With a few unrecorded songs in their back pocket, the band decided to make a film to accompany their new three-track EP. The EP, Tres Canciones, will be released on Dec. 15 along with the film, La Película, after performing a live show at SPACE.

The film project aims to capture and reveal the individual lives of the band members and show how they come together and blend when they play, joke and dance. It consists of studio footage shot during the recording of Tres Canciones at The Studio, a complete audio production facility in Portland, and individually designed vignettes by each member of Olas. Megan Keogh, who does vocals and palmas, films herself as she prepares a meal for her family and friends, while Bourassa is shown dancing in her studio.

“Everyone was able to represent themselves in any way they chose,” said Sutherland. “We wanted to show how everyone functioned in their respective lives and then show how we all come together, and how those real life relationships are mirrored in our performances.”