Brandon Valdivia’s “Momento Presente” is like a subpoena. On the catchy track from his September album ‘Máscaras’ an unusual, not quite footwork rhythm rumbles under the swirls of a tin whistle. A bell rings and before long the divine voice of an elder raises a call to action. “Right now, the oppressors and the oppressed are being separated,” it reads in Spanish. “We are not going to wait 2,000 years for the good to be on one side and the bad on the other. We live in that moment now.”
This is the kind of militant magic that Valdivia, 38, better known as Mas Aya, evokes in his music. “I try to combine a political view with a very spiritual view,” he said in a video interview from his studio in London, Ontario. “You must act; you have to be in the moment; you have to be in the world.”
That sense of quiet urgency permeates “Máscaras” (“Masks”), his first album since 2017’s LP “Nikan” At times, the project refers directly to revolutions in Nicaragua, his homeland. (The example in “Momento Presente” comes from a gathering of guerrillas in the late 1970s led by liberation theologian Ernesto Cardenal.) But “Máscaras” doesn’t rely solely on explicit allusions to power. It also takes into account the small curbs embedded in immersive moments of silence.
Valdivia said the album’s title describes the masks used in political marches and indigenous ceremonies, as well as his own compositional practice. “Instruments hide themselves in the cloud of textures,” he explained. The album’s songs are like impressionistic sketches, trading focal points for cool fluidity. The quena and bansuri flutes float over drum loops. The clatter of claves or maracas turns into waves of crisp synths and strange electronic beats, changing shape into sweet gusts of harmony.
Valdivia grew up in Chatham, a small Canadian town about an hour from Detroit. He was one of the first Latino families to arrive and he often longed for comrades in music, community and art.
In Nicaragua, his father was a long-haired hippie who listened to Black Sabbath and cumbia, smoked marijuana, and dropped acid. Valdivia fell in love with music at the age of 12 and learned to play the recorder and eventually drums. He watched MuchMusic (Canada’s MTV) and listened to public radio in Detroit. He read French poetry and ordered a copy of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” from the local record store. It took a comically long six months to arrive.
“I knew I was crazy,” he said of the conservative world that surrounded him. “I wanted to leave as soon as possible.”
He escaped college and studied composition at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, where he found “people who were creative, who were interested in pushing the boundaries,” he said. “Like, madmen. I use that word a lot.”
In the years that followed, Valdivia became a respected multi-instrumentalist and percussionist in Toronto’s experimental and art-rock scene, playing in groups such as Not the Wind, Not the Flag and I Have Eaten the City. He has also collaborated extensively with his partner, Grammy-nominated genre-shattering recording artist Lido Pimienta, who can be seen on ‘Máscaras’. In his early twenties, he traveled to Nicaragua, where he visited relatives in Managua, Esteli and Masaya, his grandmother’s birthplace, and studied the country’s folkloric music traditions. After returning to Canada, he decided to embark on a solo project, inspired in part by his frustration with the Toronto art scene.
“Nobody talked about politics. Everyone was actually making weird nihilistic experimental music,” he said. Mas Aya takes its name from his grandmother’s house and from the Spanish expression “el más allá”, which means “the afterlife”.
Valdivia described his practice as “harmonious,” a term borrowed from jazz musician Ornette Coleman. “This kind of music where melody, harmony and rhythm are all in service of each other,” he explained. It’s a vision that captures Valdivia’s true musical approach, but it also evokes the spiritual tones of the album as a whole.
On the song ‘Quiescence’, Valdivia uses the mbira dzavadzimu (a kind of thumb piano) as percussion, even though it’s an instrument typically plucked on metal keys. Over feather-light flutes and shimmering synths, the sound of hammers striking the mbira melts into a peaceful liquid ripple. On 18 de Abril, he samples audio from a protester during a 2018 university demonstration in Nicaragua, linking current resistance efforts with movements of past decades and presenting the political struggle as a continuum. The result goes beyond mere fusion or ancestral tribute. It articulates prismatic, poetic language, demonstrating that political expression is not always self-evident. It can also come in moments of quiet contemplation and connection.