“Too many Latinos”

Yesterday I attended Day 1 of the Big Church Day Out – a two-day Christian music festival on the grounds of a stately home situated at the foot of the South Downs, on England’s South Coast.

One of my reasons for going was that Salvador were playing. I’ve interviewed their lead singer Nic Gonzales several times in the past (and also his wife, the singer Jaci Velasquez) and a follow-up interview was, in my mind, long overdue – especially since I’ve now kind of started playing in a Latin band myself…

A few days before I was due to see Salvador, the Internet threw me another good reason to want to speak to them. A certain right-wing commentator had decided to spew some bile on immigrants (again), and had written a column basically claiming that there were “too many Latinos” in the USA (I’m not even going to dignify such nonsense by naming the person or posting links to their writing; I suggest you google ‘too many Latinos’ yourself if you want to know who it is and what he/she/it wrote). And so when it came to my turn to fire a question at Salvador during their press conference, I knew exactly what I was going to ask.

“As a multi-cultural Christian band that plays Latin music, how do you respond when someone says ‘there are too many Latinos in America’?”

Step forward Nic Gonzales and saxophonist Craig Swift:

NIC: “I think that any time people talk about there being ‘too many’ of something, it’s spoken out of frustration. We certainly give grace where we believe grace would be given. People who speak that way have obviously come into a bad encounter with a person of Hispanic culture, or maybe they’re frustrated by something. Any time you’re overwhelmed, or feel like you have a lack of something, you’re looking for someone to blame.

“Being Hispanic is one thing. But being Christians overall, we certainly feel that grace needs to be given. Maybe they just don’t understand. Personally, those comments don’t hurt my feelings because I probably don’t dig into them as much; I kind of live in a bliss that I’m working as hard as I can, and I’m going to do the best that I can by my family and my bandmates. And I think that as long as I do that, I can certainly feel good about who I am and the colour of my skin.”

CRAIG: “As a white person, I think it probably offends me more than it would offend them [cue laughter from the Hispanic band members]. I think Chris (Bevins, the band’s keyboardist) would probably feel the same way. It kinda baffles my mind, the small thinking of some people.

“Being around Latin culture, as a white person I’ve gained a lot. I love how Latin people place such a high priority on family. It’s beautiful to me to see that. Loyalty is another thing I see throguhout the Latin culture. I think that’s something that we all gain a lot from. We all need to put more emphasis on our families. And we all should be loyal friends and loyal husbands and wives and churchgoers. So as a white person, I probably shoulder more offence and am in more of a ‘fight’ mood than these guys.” [cue more laughter]

Oh yeah – I also mentioned to the guys that I’d started playing in a salsa band, and asked if they could offer me some survival tips. Percussionist Alejandro Santoyo offered this advice:

“I would go back and listen to Santana. Listen to the rhythm section that’s going on; it’s very simple. as you start to listen to more salsa music, the montunos get more and more difficult. As far as percussion goes: if you have the rhythm here, and you learn the two different claves, you’re on your way.”

Muchisimas gracias, hermanos. And now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time I got some montuno practise in…

Salvador at their press conference. Nic Gonzales is second left (in the blue shirt); Craig is on the left. Alejandro is at the other end; on the right.
Salvador at their press conference. Nic Gonzales is second left (in the blue shirt); Craig is on the left. Alejandro is at the other end; on the right.
Advertisements

Review: Alexander Abreu y Havana D’Primera

Review: Alexander Abreu y Havana D’Primera
The Electric, Brixton, Friday 12 April

Spring’s finally arrived in London. I know that not because of the weather (heck, it might as well still be winter), but because that delightfully eclectic Latin music festival, La Linea, is here once again. And it kicked off in grand style with one of Cuba’s most popular bands at the moment, Alexander Abreu y Havana D’ Primera, in their debut UK appearance.

Manos pa'arriba, CUBA!!!
Manos pa’arriba, CUBA!!!

I’d come to the Electric tonight mainly to discover an artist I didn’t know. As it turns out, I was already familiar with more of Alexander’s music than I realised. The song ‘Pasaporte’ is a firm favourite at the salsa dance class I frequent most Friday nights, and I had tried several times to find out who the artist responsible for it was, without success (seriously, Shazam – does every salsa track in the world have the title ‘Sorry, We Couldn’t Find a Match for This Music’? But I digress). Long before the band took to the stage, a massive poster up on the stage informed us that this gig was in fact the London leg of Alexander’s ‘Pasaporte Tour 2013’. So now I know, I can go and buy his album. But anyway, back to the gig…

Alexander and his backing dancer "throw down".
Alexander and his backing dancer “throw down”.

This wasn’t so much a gig as a party – a six hour fiesta with Alexander and his band sandwiched between some of the finest salsa DJs the Big Smoke has to offer. The band took to the stage around 11.15pm. The sound seemed a bit iffy for the first number; nevertheless, the guys gave a stellar performance – tight as anything and with the larger-than-life Alexander proving to be an able ‘hype man’ as well as a good singer. The command “¡Manos pa’arriba!” (hands in the air) was never far from his lips. When they did play ‘Pasaporte’ (which they began with a cheeky nod to Barry Manilow’s ‘Copacabana’) the whole house sang along.

The hour and a bit that Alexander and his band were on stage for came and went a bit too quickly for my liking. But suffice it to say they made a great first impression – and what a way to kick off a festival! After this gig tonight and El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico’s gig last year, the Electric is fast becoming my favourite salsa gig venue in London…

Live review: Ruben Blades

Well, not so much a review as a collection of thoughts…

I’m on a 148 bus (hooray for smartphones! But on what planet do people say “hooray” when they really wanted to say “bootstraps”?), going home after a brilliant gig I went to mostly out of curiosity.

Ruben Blades has just come off the stage at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire (I know it’s not called that any more, but I refuse to give free plugs to mobile phone companies), after treating a packed house to two and a half hours of sheer delight.  Salsa fan that I am, I’ve kind of always been aware of Ruben’s existence, but not as familiar with his work compared to that of other salseros. So when I heard he was going to have a gig in London, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to acquaint myself.

Well, even though I didn’t know much of his material before, I thoroughly enjoyed the gig. And in his band was someone I was familiar with: the ace trombonist and salsa dura maestro Jimmy Bosch, who did a few awesome solos and a great ‘duelling horns’ battle with one of the trumpeters. In addition to his own songs, Ruben covered hits by Willie Colon, Hector Lavoe and Jose Feliciano, throwing in the ‘Thriller’ intro before going into ‘Mack the Knife’ (the only English song of the evening). He paid tribute to Facundo Cabral (the legendary Argentinean songwriter, who was murdered in Guatemala earlier this month); to Colombian salsa star Joe Arroyo (who’d died just a day or two earlier) and to Amy Winehouse. Later on, he talked about the mass murder in Norway as an introduction to an anti-racism song.

The older I get, the more I appreciative I am of people who love full lives – and I found Ruben’s life story (or at least the little of it he shared with us) quite inspiring. Neither of his parents made it further than the sixth grade (someone has to explain to me what the British equivalent of that is), but “we were never poor, because poverty is something up here.” He went to university in his native Panama, but left the country before his graduation – and is proud of the fact that he never served as a lawyer “under a dictatorship.” Most inspiring of all (to me, anyway) was the fact that he’s getting ready to head back to college, to do a doctorate!

I learned a few other things as the gig progressed. I learned that Gabriel Garcia Marquez (whose Love in the Time of Cholera is sitting in my office, waiting to be read) is a musician as well as an award-winning author. Ruben told us about their friendship, then played us a song they’d written together. I learned that the volume at salsa gigs goes up gradually – and if you haven’t got earplugs in at the start, you’ll certainly need them by the end (but then that could just be the Empire’s acoustics). But above all, I was reminded that you’re as young as you feel, and you’re never too old to learn something new.

Yep – I had a great time tonight. I want Ruben’s leather jacket. And his trilby hat. And to look that good (and move that well) when I’m 63…

Peace and Hope in Latin America

This past week has been one of those “hyper Latino” weeks I have from time to time.

Yesterday, for instance, I spent the afternoon in a farm somewhere in Reading, helping my friends at Latin Link with the orientation weekend for the batch of (mostly young) people heading out in short-term teams to various Latin American countries over the summer. I myself was once a fresh-faced ‘Stepper’ (exactly ten years ago, as it happens) – one of a team of 10 sent to work at a home for Aids orphans in Santo Domingo de los Colorados in Ecuador.

Earlier on in the week, I was looking forward to interview the merengue “leg end” Juan-Luis Guerra, who had his first ever London gig at the Apollo in Hammersmith. Sadly, JLG wasn’t doing any press, so that didn’t happen (and the ticket prices were slightly out of reach, so I didn’t go to the gig).

However, not being able to go to the JLG gig worked in my favour, because I ended up at Church.co.uk on Wednesday evening, at the launch of the UK branch of Paz Y Esperanza (Peace and Hope). Paz y Esperanza is a Christian human rights organisation dedicated to defending and promoting justice on behalf of persons and communities living in poverty or affected by different forms of injustice.

I met two key members of Paz y Esperanza at the launch. Here’s my interview with the founder of the organisation – Alfonso Weiland (pictured above), a human rights lawyer from Peru:

And here I am in conversation with Loida Carriel, who heads up Paz y Esperanza’s operations in Ecuador. Here, their main issue is women’s rights and combating domestic violence and its effects on women.

Throw in Friday evening’s salsa classes (at which I finally managed to master the dreaded ‘Setenta’) and it’s been a right old semana hyper-Latina. And now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just go and put on my bamba “100% Discoteck” reggaeton CD…

Africa Oyé!

Africa Oyé 2011
Sefton Park, Liverpool, 18-19 June

Liverpool’s African music festival has become a key event in my calendar. It’s a chance for me not only to hear great music and gather material for the Sounds of Africa show I produce, but also an opportunity to socialise and hang out with a few other World Music media types who’ve become friends of mine over the years we’ve all been attending the festival: people such as Geli Berg (a radio broadcaster and organiser of the Cultural Collage World Music festival in Manchester), and Maya Mitter of One Latin Culture. Sure enough, there were hugs all round when we caught up with each other.

Mariem Hassan

On Saturday afternoon I arrived at Sefton Park just as the first act of the day was being introduced. Mariem Hassan is incredible singer from the Western Sahara, accompanied by a pair of guitarists who played the blues with an unbelievable passion. Mariem was my first interviewee of the day, and set the pattern for how most of the rest of the day’s interviews would go; after agonising between her manager/interpreter (who’s German) and myself, I discovered that she spoke fluent Spanish and so I ended up interviewing her en Español. As Saturday progressed, language barriers proved to be more a source of amusement than a hindrance – especially when Maya, Geli and I did an interview en masse with the Ganbgé Brass Band.

the Ganbgé Brass Band in action

The band had a couple of members who spoke English, and at least one of us doing the interviewing spoke French. The ensuing interview was hilarious – but definitely gave you a sense of how the guys had become brothers purely by having played together for years and years. Questions and answers in English and French flew back and forth. The band talked to us about playing in the Shrine in Nigeria (they’re all big Fela fans, and covered his song ‘Shakara’ during their set). When Maya suggested to one band member that the easiest way for him to learn English would be for him to get an English girlfriend, the tent erupted with laughter.

Bonga

The legendary Angolan singer Bonga was also good fun. Again, we agonised over how to do the interview – and suddenly we discovered that one of the women on the Africa Oyé team was Brazilian and spoke perfect Portuguese! Problem solved! Maya and I were able to have a good chat with Bonga about what happens when the worlds of Angolan culture and politics clash – as they often do.

Amkoullel teaches some kids (and a few adults) how to rap at one of his workshops

Amkoullel (aka “the Fula Child”) is an upcoming young rapper from Mali, who uses traditional Malian instruments in his music. A very profound guy and a great interview. He did some workshops on the Saturday and performed on the Sunday.

This year’s Africa Oyé featured quite a few of the female singers (young and not-so-young) who are championing the cause of African women through song, and winning loads of friends and admirers with the

Kareyce Fotso

charm and humour with which they do it. The Cameroonian singer Kareyce Fotso was one such person. Embracing her acoustic guitar and playing a variety of percussion instruments, she charmed the crowd in no time. When Maya and I interviewed her afterwards, she told us the heartbreaking story of her elder sister’s forced marriage – one of the many issues she talks about in her songs.

Fatoumata Diawara: now she's on the ground...

Fatoumata Diawarafrom Mali was another one. I’d already seen her twice before – first as support for Staff Benda Bilili’s London gig, then at a showcase in an Islington pub called the Slaughtered Lamb (I kid you not!). On both those occasions, it had been just her with her guitar. This time she was with a band (and without the green tights that have kind of become her trademark),

... and now she's airborne! Watch her go!

and it was a whole different dynamic. She danced, she spun, she jumped… the energy coming off the stage could power a small city for a week. When I interviewed Fatoumata afterwards, she told me how Nick Gold (her producer – the man responsible for such World Music classics as the Buena Vista Social Club) had said he wanted the public to see all her different sides. Fatoumata (a former actress and one-time backing singer for Oumou Sangare) is another young African woman dealing with some of the heavy issues that affect African women, but doing so in a manner that invites people to join in with her.

It’s always a gamble recording interviews during Africa Oyé, as quiet locations for interviewing are very hard to come by. Listening to my recorded interviews later, I was glad to see that my “keep the record level low and the mike very close to the subject” strategy had worked – especially with Fatoumata’s interview, which we did whilst Marcia Griffiths‘ extremely loud band were on. We could hardly hear ourselves while we were doing the interview. But on the recording, Fatoumata came through crystal clear while the booming reggae basslines were distant enough not to be a problem. Yay for technology…

"Yo Liverpool, how you feeling?"

There was one point on Saturday afternoon when thought we were going to get washed out. But the very brief drizzle over Sefton Park was just nature messing with our heads (naughty nature!). The weather on Sunday held up even better than the previous day, give or take the odd occasion earlier on when the temperature dropped slightly and it got a bit windy. My first interview of the day was with Damily from Madagascar (with the help of a French interpreter), while the first act to perform was Steven Sogo from Burundi, with his band Hope Street. I interviewed Steve after his set, and he told me how some church musicians had taught him how to play guitar and bass. He’s only been making music a few years, but has already won an armful of awards from all over Africa.

Steven Sogo

The unscheduled interview of the day happened while I was watching (and occasionally photographing) the Ethiopian singer Zewditu Yohanes from the photographers’ pit in front of the mainstage. The set ended, and this lady who’d been standing next to me and simultaneously shooting the gig on a camera and a smartphone handed me a card as she walked past towards the backstage area. It read, “Princess Emmanuelle: the first Egyptian female rapper.” I wasn’t going to let anyone with such a claim to fame slip away, so I followed her and asked if she’d do a quick interview. Turns out she’d remembered my face from years ago, when she was on the performance poetry circuit and doing gigs with Soul artists such as the Escoffery Sisters. She was here as part of Zewditu’s team, and promised to help me get an interview with her if I was having any trouble. Funnily enough, so much stuff happened during the day, I ended up not being able to interview Zewditu – which was a shame, because she and her band and dancers put on an awesome show. But never mind…

The other act I didn’t see as much of as I should have was Khaira Arby from Mali. The little I did see of her set was amazing, though; another strong woman roaring on behalf of African women.

After interviewing him yesterday, this afternoon I got to see Amkoullel in action twice – performing on stage, and teaching a hip hop workshop. The audience at the workshop was made up mostly of young children who’d clearly taken to heart Amkoullel’s advice to rap about their lives and what was important to them; one little lad came up with the rhyme “Sometimes I wear a hoodie. But I’m not a baddie; I’m a goodie.”

Meeting the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars was definitely the high point of the second day for me. It was like a family reunion – even though we’d never met before! I interviewed two of the band members, Reuben Koroma and Ashade Pearce; between the three of us, we set all Sierra Leone’s problems to rights (as you do!); we discussed music, education, development and a million other issues, and I finally got some concrete answers to a question I’d been burning with since my trip to Freetown two months earlier: why had the All-Stars (easily the biggest band to come out of Sierra Leone in the last 10 or so years) not been a part of the 50th independence anniversary celebrations? (Let’s just say it wasn’t because they hadn’t wanted to take part). I missed their set because I had to catch a train back to London (the train I’m on right now, writing this). But phone numbers and email addresses have been exchanged, so I’ll be updated whenever the guys are in London.

"Me en mi fambul dem," Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars

And that was Africa Oyé 2011: a glorious two days of colour, vibrancy and brilliant artistry. Next year, the festival celebrates its 20th birthday. I can hardly wait…

In Conversation: To’Mezclao

DJ Lyng Chang on the "unos y doses" with To'Mezclao at Africa Oye

I’ve already talked about my time at this year’s Africa Oye festival in my last blog post. I’ve been beavering away with the audio I recorded there… and now, for your listening pleasure, here’s the interview I did with Lyng Chang, DJ with the Cuban band To’Mezclao.

AFRICA OYE 2010

Man, this year has flown past. I can’t believe it’s been a whole 12 months since I made my now annual trip up to Liverpool for the Africa Oyé festival. But it has – and I’ve just enjoyed a brilliant day in the sun with a field full of friendly Liverpudlians and some awesome music acts.

Africa Oyé’s definition of what constitutes African culture and music remains as broad as it’s always been. Not that I’m complaining; the range is great, and it gets people in. Haiti featured quite heavily this year, represented by the folkloric stylings of Ti Coca, and Saturday’s headliners, the upfront Boukman Eksperyans.

I landed at Sefton Park just before 1pm. No sooner had I introduced myself at Event Control and picked up my press pass when I bumped into Maya, the friend I’d made at last year’s festival, together with her Irish radio DJ friend and his wife. Last year, he’d been unable to come, and Maya had borrowed my equipment to record interviews for him. Friendly hugs and handshakes all round, and then we headed out into the main area to see the stalls and see the first act on the bill.

The Cuban band To’Mezclao were the opening act. Unfortunately, their set was plagued with technical hitches; they barely made it through their first song when the power cut out. And again. And again (this time, during their second song). And yet again. Still, you have to commend them on their professionalism. The hitches didn’t faze them, and when the power problem was sorted for good, they delivered a fantastic set which spanned salsa, merengue, cumbia, reggaeton and more.

I saw a good chunk of To’ Mezclao’s set before retreating to the Hospitality tent with Maya and her friends, for an in-depth interview with the lead singer of Boukman Eksperyans. He talked about everything – Haiti’s history, the sore relationship between politicians and musicians there, rebuilding after the earthquake, all the things Irish mythology and Haitian tradition have in common, and his disgust at Monsanto’s “evil seeds” being planted in his country. I left the interview feeling somewhat educated, I don’t mind saying…

The Guinean band Les Espoirs de Coronthie were on next, and gave a dazzling display of kora playing, a nice fusion of bluesy guitar and ‘Cookie Monster’ style ragga vocals. Ti Coca and his group Wanga Nègès were mellow and easy-going. I particularly enjoyed their cover of ‘Bobine’ – a song I was introduced to by Ska Cubano (now that’s a band I’d love to see play here!). Halfway through their set, I nipped back into Hospitality and interviewed To’ Mezclao’s DJ, who talked about everything from younger Cubans’ approach to their musical heritage, through to what effect Barack Obama’s easing of restrictions on Cuba has had on the music coming from there. I kind of got the impression he wasn’t in any hurry to move to Miami…

After saying goodbye to Maya and her friends (who had to leave early to meet some other people), I caught some of Victor Démé’s gig. I was completely blown away by Victor’s guitarist. He looked rather unassuming when you first saw him… and then he’d pick up his white Stratocaster and suddenly turn into Slash Clapton. The moment Victor came offstage, I made a beeline for his tent and got a copy of his latest CD off his tour manager. After he’d rested a bit, we did a press conference-style interview together with some radio people from Manchester, and their French translator.

I’d first come across Victor’s music a couple of years ago, when he’d released his debut album at the age of 46 (or 47, depending on which magazines you read). I wanted to know if other late starters saw him as an inspiration for having started recording at that age (especially given that anything over 24 is considered ancient in pop star years).

“Yes!” was his short answer. “Young people do too,” he continued. “What a lot of them say to me is, ‘If you can do it at your age, then we can do it too.’ But one thing I do tell young people is not to be fooled into thinking that they have all the time in the world to do the stuff they want to do and achieve. Imagine that you’re already late, and act with that urgency.”

With the Victor interview done, I was free to enjoy some of Boukman Eksperyans’ storming set before heading back to my B&B with one of those legendary Liverpool-sized Chinese takeaways. Sadly, I couldn’t stay for the whole weekend due to work commitments (and trust me, that is not a complaint!). But I’m more than positive that Andrew Tosh (son of Peter), the Rasites, Carlou D (whom I’ll be seeing perform live on Tuesday) and les Freres Guissé will be every bit as entertaining as the line-up I did see were… and that To’ Mezclao will make it through their set without any hiccups.

Liverpool, see you in June ’11…