Alumnus celebrates heritage, languages, individual identity through Latin/world music group
Members of the Latin/world music group KoTolÃ¡n, which was founded by alumnus Otto Granillo ’04 and his partner Junko Seki, play on Cal State L.A.’s main walkway. The multicultural group aims to celebrate culture and heritage through song.
Growing up in one of the city’s most historically diverse communities in Los Angeles, music alumnus Otto Granillo ’04 developed an appreciation for heritage and culture early on.
He recognized and was often awe-struck by the vibrant sights, sounds and stories of different immigrant and ethnic communities captured in murals, family-owned stores, restaurants and religious centers throughout the streets of East Los Angeles. The blending of cultures—even in the most unusual places, like a “mariachi band playing at Shakey’s Pizza”—struck him as being bold and beautiful; something everyone should aspire toward creating.
“I just loved how it all came together,” he said.
It should be of little surprise then, that when Granillo had a chance to professionally pay homage to multiculturalism, he did. And he has done so through the one medium he knows best: music.
In 2008, Granillo founded the Latin/world music group KoTolán with his partner, Japanese singer and accordionist Junko Seki. The international group of young musicians blends traditional mariachi music with contemporary Latin and jazz sounds, and languages from around the globe. Seki, who was born in Japan, sings in English, Spanish and Japanese.
“Multiculturalism is a really wonderful thing,” Granillo said. “And rather than running from our cultures, we wanted to hold them up, highlight them. As Americans, we have heritage, and we need to celebrate that.”
The name of the group, KoTolán, is actually another layer in the fusion of cultures. It combines the last two letters of the founders’ names—Junko and Otto—with “lan”, an Aztec word that means a place with abundance. The ensemble is abundant with culture.
“Our music depicts how different cultures are constantly interacting with one another,” Seki explained. “It’s a representation of our daily lives. For instance, I speak English with most people, Japanese with my Japanese girlfriends, Spanish when I do tours at Universal Studios or when I sing.
“We are living in a place full of diversity,” she added. “There are people who can relate to this and have similar experiences, and there may be others who would like to discover some of these experiences.”
For many of the group’s followers there is a bit of “nostalgia” that comes with listening to KoTolán, Granillo said. That is largely because the group has taken traditional songs that were played generations ago and added a new twist and sound—bringing a band of songs to a new generation of listeners. (Listen to KoTolán.)
Granillo credits a lot of his success in the music profession with his time at Cal State L.A. He was a regular fixture on the campus for more than a decade—he attended the music program at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts before pursuing his bachelor’s degree in music. (He still teaches at LACHSA.)
While on campus as a student, he said, he played in the college band, and worked one-on-one with some of the city’s top musicians. That allowed him to hone his craft and network to find unique opportunities to play.
“Cal State L.A. has a small music program, but it had a great influence on me,” he said. “I got to learn from a great trombone and sax teacher…and I think one of the best things it did for me, was gave me a lot of time to practice. If the rooms were locked, I was playing outside.”
Granillo returned to campus with KoTolán last spring to “play outside” again, performing at the University’s Cinco de Mayo celebration.
“It’s wonderful to perform for conscious-minded students who are putting in the time and effort to enrich themselves,” Seki said of the Cal State L.A. campus. Cal State L.A.’s students will help the group bring their “music and message of multiculturalism to the world,” she said.