Snow Owl (Juan Garcia-Herreros) is a Latin Grammy nominated, world renowned electric bassist and composer. He has been credited by many bass publications as being one of the world’s most influential bassists of all time. He has worked with numerous outstanding artists – Pee Wee Ellis, Al Jarreau, Elton John, Greg Osby, Oscar Hernandez and many more. Born in Columbia, he was forced to leave – a refugee – moved to Florida, then studied at Berklee College of Music and eventually moved to Vienna, a place that is now his home. His story is incredible.
I was first introduced Snow Owl when I was invited to the London Bass Guitar Show a little while ago to meet him. During his masterclass he explained that when he first picked up the electric bass, he got an electric shock and even heard the military radio through the pickup. Literally, an explosive moment for him. On stage, he was charming, impressive, technically outstanding and motivational. Off stage he was all of things and so much more. He is quite simply an inspiration. His combined passion and drive for music in an inexplicably gentle and humble manner, together with his fierce and unstoppable dedication to supporting refugees, is quite honestly awe inspiring. The warmth he exuded was breathtaking. I feel truly honoured to have had the opportunity to speak to him – and I genuinely feel like I have met a hero. The pressure of being able to ensure you can hear his voice through this interview, was significant – and if I have failed, please, go look and listen to his work.
Fiona Ross (FR) Interviewer Snow Owl (SO) Juan Garcia-Herreros
FR: Your name Snow Owl. I did some research on this and the Owl is said to symbolize wisdom, insight, freedom and stealth – but also deception and mystery. Is any of this correct?
SO: The owl has multiple meanings and characteristics and in a way, it is my crucifix. When you are born, the leader of the tribe gives you a tribal name or a spirit animal name that he sees inside of you. The chief looks at you and tells you which animal from the spirit world you are. Some of the characteristics you talk about are true but some are not – the characteristic that you can walk in the snow without leaving tracks is very symbolic of letting go of the past. The snow owl, and I guess the person that carries the snow owl, is able to see within people’s darkness and bring them back to the light.
FR: There is a book ’39 moments that changed life’ written by Brigitte Lendl, which talks about people from around the world that have made their home in Vienna, after incredible, life changing journeys. This book features your own journey that led you to the country that you now consider home – Vienna. Has your direction always been clear?
SO: I’ve never had to find myself – the character has always been very stable and very focused. I always knew which direction, and what purpose I have in this life – this has been very clear to me since I was a child. I don’t know where it comes from but I am blessed that I don’t have this confusion that so many people seem to suffer with.
FR: Yes! So many people struggle to find their place or know what they want to do and I must say, it’s something I find very hard to understand, as a musician. Music seems to ‘call’ us right from the beginning.
SO: We call those people butterflies or chameleons – because with the butterfly, although the transformation occurs and it is so beautiful, it is very short lived. With the chameleon, they just adapt – and adapt and adapt and adapt….so that might be the source of a spirit animal for those journeys.
FR: You said that sometimes your Snow Owl name is like a crucifix. What do you mean by that?
SO: Well, you know, when I introduce myself, people are immediately confused – their programming is challenged. If I say my name is Juan, they are like oh that’s ok, that’s like a legal name etc. – but that’s not my real name.
FR: So how does your music and your spirit animal connect?
SO: I’ve been truly blessed that I could work with so many Jazz legends. When I was in Florida, like half of the Duke Ellington band retired there, so we were meeting in jam sessions all the time. I have had very, very special access to the lineage of Jazz. The reason why I bring this up, is because the musicians of today, they think, ok Jazz is a place where we can just go and be weird, or we can just go and jam – nobody will say anything because it’s jazz. Ha ha ha. But the social responsibility of what Jazz was birthed out of – the civil rights movement, New Orleans, the Creole society, African slavery – this is a music that has always been very impacting in the sense of communicating the voice of the suffering of the people. So, I feel that when it came to be my turn, my turn to speak up and say, ok what is going on in my time – how do tribal, indigenous beliefs survive against an iPhone today? How does the spirit world exist anymore when every day we are asked to buy something? And of course, the social injustices that are happening with human rights around the world and the corruption that we are facing everyday. So I put all those elements into the music, as to say, hey, my responsibility is still to keep these traditions alive of these indigenous beliefs – but, they have been updated to 2018. So in a way, you have to be stubborn and delicate.
FR: I was talking recently to Terri Lyne Carrington about the role musicians have to raise social awareness – and I know she played on your first album – she said the art should be used as a social weapon.
SO: Yes, absolutely. We are on the same page.
FR: Your journey, from being born in Columbia, becoming a refugee, to finding your home in Vienna, is, well, epic and we could talk about it for literally hours. Is there anyway you could summarise your growth, your journey?
SO: A summary would have to be – that the hardest tasks are assigned to the strongest warriors. And I feel that with all the blessings and privilege’s that I have in my life, they have been thoroughly earned. Each battle, you know, ha, in this war, ha, has been a lesson, and, erm, ha……well I feel like there is so much more that I can give and learn – and therefore, keeping in truth to the Snow Owl thing. But you know all these awards and achievements, don’t mean anything to me right now, because today is today – and today I have to create, today I still have to be me.
FR: You run an amazing organization called Unity Through Arts. This is very close to your heart – in fact, I would say, part of your heart. Can you tell us a about this?
SO: I feel a great amount of pity for the politicians in parliament in most countries who have abused the fear factor of foreigner’s and refugees coming into their countries. Because, once these people are elected, then they realise – guess what, you have an economy to run, you have unemployment, you have this and that – and all of a sudden their like ok, lets get rid of refugees. The purpose of Unity Through Arts is to say, let’s look at the refugees as an investment. Let’s look at it as diplomatic relations – we’re building the future by providing education to the refugees that arrive here who cannot speak the language – get them to learn the language. Do they have trade they can study? Do they have a talent? If so, amplify it. Because in the future, and I use myself as an example, as a refugee who had to leave the war in Columbia – I had to leave the war because of my Uncle. My Uncle turned in Pablo Escobar, he is the one who turned him into Jail – and this forced my family to leave. The people in the United States and in Austria invested in me. They invested in helping me start to learn to grow – and the result is the social warrior you see right now. It is my responsibility to guide these young people and you know, some of these people are orphans that walked from Afghanistan to Austria. I meet with them and I say, if you had the guts to walk from Afghanistan to Austria, by foot, you are a champion. A champion. And one day you will return to your home like a King. Use the opportunity to learn here in Austria and never forget the people that have helped you because one day, you will be able to help them. It is the balance of all things.
FR: You are such an inspiration, seriously. My questions have gone completely out of window now….
SO: If we recognize the symbiosis, half of these catastrophe’s would be prevented. So invest in the refugees – and that, is what I try to do.
FR: If only more people considered themselves warriors. Many musicians get wrapped up in their own worlds and do not consider the societal role they could/should play.
SO: It is the role of the artist. Some musicians all go on stage, dressed poorly and jam. That has no impact or development for society. What that does is feed the ego. The responsibility – and privilege – that an established artist has, is a conversation between the powers that be and the people – because, they have access. As musicians, we need to play for the greater good, not the inner ego.
FR: Your current music projects – The Blue Road has been out a little while now – and there are other roads planned. Can you talk us through these?
SO: They are the three spirit paths. The Blue Road is the sprit way, the second one coming up is the Red Road, which is the warriors way and the Yellow Road, is the balance between the warrior and the spirit. The Red Road is practically composed and hehe, to switch paths was not easy…
FR: Ha, yes, I was going to say, how do you move between the different mind set for each path?
SO: Well, one of the reasons the Red Road is not out yet, is because I am planning on really, really, training my body to be physical – that transformation, it’s more physically based than mentally based. I have to do a complete transformation to my body and my way of thinking. The way I experience things, the way I look at things – more like a warrior. That’s the last step that is preventing me from recording the album – I’m not there yet. There’s multiple levels of meditation and physical exercise. It’s going to take about a year to get into the shape I need to prepare for this role.
FR: That’s incredible. And then after that, you will have to transform and prepare for the Yellow Road of balance…what will you have to do to prepare for that?
SO: I won’t know until I have walked the Red Road first. It will be very clearly revealed to me when I am on it.
FR: So, from a music business point of view, you don’t think about timeframes and release dates?
SO: No, no, no. The time will be revealed when it is right.
FR: I love that. There is so much pressure on musicians to promote, release etc. Not sure many people just wait for the right time.
SO: Give your music the attention it deserves.
FR: Thank you so much for talking to me. I cannot begin to explain what an inspiration you truly are. Such an honour to talk to you.
SO: Thank you Fiona.
Text: Fiona Ross
YT Video: Juan Garcia-Herreros (Snow Owl)
Last modified: July 15, 2018