Mabe Fratti is inventing her own sonic colour palette

Words by:
Photography: Melissa Lunar

The Guatemalan-born, Mexico City-based cellist channels perpetual confusion at the world into a playful, experimental sound world that promises to reshape Latin America’s avant garde.

“Sorry!” Mabe Fratti apologises, falling into our interview frantically and out of breath. A friend had come over to lay down some saxophone tracks, she explains, and they lost track of time. “You might hear it in the background,” she giggles. The cellist turned avant-garde songwriter, whose idiosyncratic melodies and chameleon-like vocals yield music as haunting and strange as it is beautiful, is chaotically charming. Speaking from her apartment in Mexico City, a wave of long, dark hair tumbling over her big red T-shirt, she sits on her furniture cross-legged as the early evening light filters in.

Fratti first visited Mexico City in 2015 for a residency at the Goethe-Institut and quickly became enamoured. “The energy of the city bewitched me,” she notes, comparing it to the energy of the improv jazz concerts she loved to attend when she was younger – tumultuous, meandering and surprising. “I love to wander around here.” But it was the community of musicians who challenged her creatively that compelled her to move to the city permanently. “They awoke a spark of curiosity in me that was very beautiful. The papers were a whole other matter!” she jokes. “But in the end it was done.” 

Born and raised in Guatemala, Fratti describes her early years as somewhat sheltered. “The last time I said ‘censorship’ my mom got really mad,” she laughs, explaining that her mother, a deeply religious woman, exposed her only to explicitly Christian or instrumental music. “Let’s call  it curation.”

Raised at a time when crime and insecurity dominated public life in Guatemala, it’s no surprise that her mother, who raised her in the neo-Pentecostal church, would try to protect her through any means possible. But, despite the limitations imposed on her, Fratti’s early life was rich with musical influence. A look of awe washes over her face as she describes the classical section of the record store she frequented in Guatemala with her mother, and how fancy it felt compared to the other sections. “It had carpet!”

As far as her own playing goes, Fratti bounced around a number of instruments before settling on the cello. When she was very young she played the piano, but was often found sitting at the keys, drawing rather than practising. When respiratory issues ruled out the saxophone, which she was considering next, she went to the music school where her sister was learning the violin to explore her options. The moment she saw the orchestra director playing the cello, she knew it was the instrument for her. She was eight years old.

As a teenager exchanging music with friends, Fratti was exposed to a world of sound hitherto unexplored. She had the friend who sent her emo, the friend who sent her punk. Through these friendships, and the eventual discovery of Limewire, she ended up with an eclectic array of tastes, from reggaeton to Radiohead. “I like the reggaetoneros who have deeper voices,” she says, talking about the Puerto-Rican legend Don Omar

She kept at the cello all the while, going through moments of great commitment to her instrument, and moments where she decided she was done. But whenever she quit, she felt a horrible emptiness and would always come back to it. “Just because Guatemala doesn’t have the [music industry] infrastructure for something else,” she explains, “with the cello you either become part of the symphony or you have to pick a career that’s gonna make you some type of money, you know?” So she prepared for a life in the symphony – her only frame of reference for playing the cello professionally. To this day, Fratti is grateful for her immersion in classical music. “It gave me a colour palette that I could have fun with, but also destroy.”

“Being vulnerable can be very beautiful, because it allows you to learn. It keeps your ego in a healthy place”

This doing and undoing in service of arriving at core musical elements is present in Fratti’s fourth solo album, Sentir Que No Sabes. Produced and co-composed with her partner Hector Tosta (who also operates under the names i La Católica and Titanic), the album is experimental and meticulous, swinging from Jacob Wick’s riotous trumpet in Kravitz to the careful melodies of Oídos. Fratti uses her vocals as a versatile instrument, which, much like her cello-playing, has tremendous personality and range, from operatic to childlike, whispery to grand.

Unlike in Fratti’s previous work, where composition was the foundation of her process, for Sentir Que No Sabes, words were the starting point. It was Tosta who suggested an unusual arrangement: what would happen if she wrote a poem and went from there? “Sometimes… Well, often, I didn’t listen,” she laughs. “But that was the plan. To really concentrate on the words.” And Sentir Que No Sabes – which translates to feeling like you don’t know – explores Fratti’s somewhat fraught relationship with certain ways of communicating. “I’m not a person who is able to make a lot of imperative declarations,” she explains. “It’s very difficult for me to arrive at that point.”

The album became a meditation on perpetual confusion: with the world, with events around her, with the words used to describe them. “Being confused all the time is a little delicate, because it makes you very vulnerable,” Fratti says. “But being vulnerable can be very beautiful, because it allows you to learn. It keeps your ego in a healthy place. Maybe it can go too far, but it can help.” 


In Kravitz, she explores the pressure to pronounce our opinions and wonders if, gripped with anxiety to make declarations, people are speaking from a place that is true to them, or one that’s shaped by reaction. In the melodic Pantalla Azul, she uses the metaphor of a blue screen error to explore the overwhelming sea of information and knowledge available to us, and our capacity – or perhaps, lack thereof –to process so much information. “The more we know, the harder it is to land a thought, you know?” she laughs.

This deeply collaborative album was conceptualised in detail by Fratti and Tosta. “My last albums were more like blurry paintings,” she explains. “This one has more definition.” While her creative process is often playful, and about finding what she likes and then executing it with her instrument, Tosta, with his background in formal composition, tends towards precision. “I know that I like to talk with people about music, and to feel unsure about what I’m doing with music, creatively,” Fratti explains, when asked if she prefers collaboration. “But I also like solitude. I like to return to my self-reflection. My own critique and transformation.”

Now that the album is out, Fratti and Tosta are having fun reinterpreting the tracks live. They want to lean on live instrumentation as much as they possibly can, and take risks. They’re landing, she insinuates, on something quite special – where the songs remain the songs they wrote, but continue to shift in the way they sound.

Despite Fratti’s relentlessly playful attitude – to both life and creativity –  she approaches her work with total dedication, driven by a steadfast commitment to self-reflection and self-discovery. Even when she’s having fun with her process, she remains primed to fight off stasis – as is abundantly clear in her ever-shifting music. When Sentir Que No Sabes was finished, though, Fratti found herself feeling something almost akin to post-partum depression. A strange feeling of loss as she let go of something she had poured herself into. “I drank as if someone had broken up with me,” she laughs. “Or maybe I was just celebrating.”

Sentir Que No Sabes is out 28 June via Unheard of Hope

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