Alumni Profile: Alejandro Cajiao '05

Brenda Pike
March 26, 2012
EMMAT directors Mateo de los Rios '00 and Alejandro Cajiao '05
Photo provided by the artist

Alejandro Cajiao '05 didn't plan on opening a music school. When he attended Berklee from 2000 to 2005 he majored in film scoring, not music education—after an economics degree at Boston University. Post-Berklee, like many alumni, he made his way to L.A., but it wasn't until he returned to Colombia with some fellow Berklee graduates that he found his true calling. Together they founded EMMAT (Escuela de Música Moderna, Audio, y Tecnología), a school inspired by their Berklee experience. And there are more Colombian alumni than you might think—among the most notable are saxophonist Antonio Arnedo '94 and vocalist Marta Gomez '02.

A month after Berklee's first audition and interview visit to Colombia—which Cajiao in large part arranged—he took some time to talk about how his film scoring degree led him to start a music school. The following is a condensed and edited version of that conversation.

Why did you decide to come to Berklee?

The first time I knew about Berklee, I was a teenager, and I wanted to come to the five-week program, but I didn't get to come. When I came to Boston, I studied economics at B.U., but I realized I didn't want to do it for the rest of my life. I used to play the piano and a friend from Berklee, my associate Mateo de los Rios, was telling me, you should study at Berklee.

How did you come to found a school as a film scoring major?

Sometimes things happen for a reason. When I graduated from Berklee, I started looking for a job in L.A. After a couple of months I just got tired of knocking on doors. A friend of mine that I had met in Boston, he asked if I wanted to open a recording studio back in Colombia. It all started around that. So when I went back to Colombia in 2006, we got together with a group of Berklee graduates and decided to found a school inspired by the experience we had at Berklee.

We rented a small building, and we opened to the public in 2007. When we opened the school, the first semester we had 12-14 students, and we were around 10 teachers. We were almost one to one, the ratio. Now the school oscillates between 130 students and 200 students, and we always have around 45 teachers; around 25% are Berklee graduates. We have become a Berklee community around the school.

Did many of you meet while you were at Berklee?

Rodrigo Tenjo and I met in a Writing for Salsa class at Berklee with Bernardo Hernandez. He's a bass player; he's also 2005, like me. It was a lot of fun. Rodrigo has been a teacher with us for five years now, and he's one of the best teachers we have.

What degree do you offer?

In Colombia we call it a technical formation. We have a two-year basic program and then a one-year program for specializations. We offer contemporary composition, performance, music production, engineering, and music business. And we have a program for high school kids who want to start getting prepared to study music as a professional career.

Have any of your students gone on to Berklee?

Since we opened five years ago, 13 students have applied to Berklee and been accepted, and a couple of them received scholarships. We feel very proud of these students.

How did you help Berklee organize its first auditions in Colombia?

The auditions in Colombia were something that we'd been cooking for two years at least. A couple years ago I met Greg Badolato at CLAEM [Congreso Latinoamericano de Directores de Escuelas de Música]. Last year we met again in Chile, and we decided that we should go with it.

When Berklee came to Colombia we did a roundtable with all the music schools and universities in Bogotá. Never before have the music school directors in Bogotá gotten together. We also had a day of clinics and workshops at a theater that can hold 500 people, and it was full. All of those kids wanted to know more about Berklee, and at the end of the day, they were playing jams, and everybody wanted to play. It was amazing.

Berklee first planned one or two days of auditions. In fact, so many people wanted to do the auditions that they had to open a third day of auditions, and still people were applying. They had to expand the schedule, from 9:00 to 5:00, to 8:00 to 8:00.

We decided that the first thing that we shouldn't do was to have the auditions at our school. We had to find a neutral ground. So we decided to do the auditions in the same hotel where the Berklee team were staying. I think that set the basis of trust between the music schools in Colombia. One of the things that Beklee did that was excellent was that they sent somebody from the admissions office to visit 14 music schools to give them information sessions about Berklee.

Read more about the auditions on Berklee Blogs.

Is this collaboration between schools something that's continuing?

Our relations with different schools have gotten stronger. For example, in March we had a Berklee teacher in Colombia, and it's a joint venture between a university and our school. It's one way in which we're learning together. So things are changing, and it's for the good of all of us that we should work together. 

CLAEM is an international association of schools from Latin America, including Berklee and a couple of American schools. The founders of that association are Oscar Stagnaro and Mario Cunha, the director of Souza Lima in São Paulo. There are a lot of things going on thanks to this association. Two years ago, with a group of students, we traveled to Argentina to a music festival. Our school has been able to have relations with other music schools in Argentina, in Chile, in Mexico.

How does what you learned at Berklee help you now?

It's been very helpful, because when we have to contract new teachers, all the background that Berklee has given me and Mateo helps us. It's given us a way to understand and organize the musical elements in order to teach them. It has given us the open mind that you find at Berklee. That's very important, because schools down here in Colombia only focus on certain musical genres: some schools teach classical music or folkloric, but they're not open to other types of music. And that's something that Berklee has given us. It has inspired us that our school will be at the edge of technology in Colombia. We know where we want to get, but we're still getting there.