Cuban meets African, in Devizes: All About Grupo Lokito

You know, I have my ska-reggae show on Boot Boy radio, that’s while I’m so looking forward to Barb’dwire playing the Devizes Arts Festival in June, but feel I differ from its, generally, skinhead cohorts with instantaneous love for all Caribbean styles of music.

There’s something so colourful and lively in these many styles from the islands in the sun, but in my excitement for the ska night, I’ve overlooked the other intriguing main musical booking, London-based Afro-Cuban group Grupo Lokito, and wow, they sound tremendous!

Rhumba down to Corn Exchange on Saturday 15th June, where Grupo Lokito fuse contemporary Congolese and Cuban; I leave a few videos here, certain to wow you as they have me. In addition, we’re lucky enough to have Lokito’s manager and keyboardist, Sara McGuinness to enlighten.

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Keen to scoop some background, I asked Sara about managing a number of Cuban groups in London, Grupo Lokito being just one, and if they were Cuban by birth.

“I have played Cuban music and salsa for most of my life, as a piano player on the UK Latin scene,” Sara tells me. “In the mid-2000s I decided I wanted to investigate Congolese music, found a, at that time, vibrant underground Congolese music scene and started playing keyboards in a Congolese band. Congolese music is one of the few styles that is popular pan- Africa. The fact it has a modern but distinctly African sound is often cited as one of the reasons. It’s vibrant, fantastic music. What became clear to me the minute I started working with Congolese musicians within their community was that the music the African audience, the ‘home’ audience if you will, liked was quite distinct from the music favoured by the world music audience. The Congolese liked the old and the modern stuff, whereas the tastes of the world music audience stopped in the 60s. I loved the modern music that I was playing with the Congolese bands. Furthermore, I could see many similarities in performance practice and musical structure between that music and Cuban music. So, together with a Congolese singer, I wrote some tunes and we brought together musicians from the two traditions.”

“We were lucky as, working within both scenes, we had insider knowledge about who to work with. What was striking was that the two groups of musicians had never met each other or mixed at all before we brought them together in this band. Together in the band we worked hard to absorb each other’s musical styles. I was determined not to have a ‘fusion’ group which played a pastiche of the two styles. Grupo Lokito have a large original repertoire which combines different elements of Congolese and Cuban music. All of the band are dedicated to playing the music well and with an amazing groove.”

I asked Sara to breakdown the band’s origins.

“I’m the bandleader, born in the UK. The two lead singers, the lead guitarist and, on this occasion, the drummer are from the Democratic republic of Congo. The bass player and the percussionist are from Colombia and the trumpet player who is guesting with us on this occasion, is Cuban. What is more important than our origins are we are all Londoners, we have all chosen to make London our home and contribute to the rich cultural fabric of this great city.”

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This Cuban/Congolese fusion, I had to ask; are African fusions common in Cuba’s contemporary music scene, or something unique to Lokito?

“Absolutely not. My experience of Cuba is that most Cubans know very little about contemporary African music. Yes, there are many African derived musical traditions in Cuba but these hark back to an imagined Africa and African of 200 years ago. My experience is that initially the Congolese musicians I involved in the project had more idea about Cuban music, albeit a little old fashioned, than the Latinos did about Congolese music. The band is unique.”

The idea of an “imagined” Africa of yore is interesting, I think akin to all Caribbean music, particularly reggae. On Cuban styles though, I can’t believe it’s been over 20 years since the Buena Vista Social club album when, Ry Cooder popularised the genre. I wondered what Sara thought about this, does she think it’s been good for Cuban bands in the UK, as it’s probably the only album the masses would recognise from a bucket of “world music” albums.

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“The Buena Vista Social Club project certainly was part of the opening up of Cuba and popularity of Cuban music in the world,” she explains, “It is often said to be a Ry Cooper project, but was actually a consortium of Juan De Marcos Gonzales, Nick Gold (World Circuit) and Ry Cooder. They decided to bill it as Ry Cooder in order for the project to gain wider popularity and not just end up in the world music bin; it worked!”

“In terms of it being good for Cuban music in the UK there are positive and negative consequences. On the positive side; many people became interested in Cuban Son and there was more call for Cuban bands to play old style, Cuban Son. On a negative side, it did create a nostalgic, polarized image of what Cuban music is and created a standard repertoire that bands were required to play. In fact, the island of Cuba has a huge number of musical styles which have come out of the island, a product of the mix of cultures on the island: Mainly European and African but also Chinese, and other.”

My research suggested Cubano Son is the style associated with an African and Latin fusion in Cuba, which has been around since the 1920s. So, is Grupo Lokito similar? But does Sara think this wouldn’t be popular in Cuba today.

“I don’t agree Son is the style associate with African and Latin in Cuba,” Sara corrected me, I’m here to learn! “There are definite African and European roots to son,” Sara continues, “Son has been constantly developing since the 20s and, as you point out most people are not listening to son in the style of the 20s. Cuba has definitely opened up to the world and there is a lot of music coming out of Cuba now, from Jazz to Hip hop, timba, son.”

But Grupo Lokito brings together contemporary musicians from two musical traditions, okay, similar more so to Soukous, a popular dance music from the Congo Basin derived from Congolese rumba, or better still, stop pigeonholing Worrow! Grupo Lokito write their own original tunes: stories of life ranging from love tales, reflections on the trials facing musicians trying to make a home away from home, the wisdom of the elders, to the simple joy of dancing, and sounds awesome!

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To return this fascinating and enlightening chat to the beginning, what of reggae and ska, surely the most popular forms of Caribbean music in the UK, due to the Windrush generation. I asked Sara, what she thinks African, or Cuban styles would have to do to become as ingrained in our culture as them, is that even possible does she think, and is it something to aim for?

“I think it depends who ‘we’ are,” Sara replied. “There are many second, third and more generation British people of African descent and for them, the music of home is embedded in their culture. Latin-American music, in cities such as London, where there are large Latin American communities, particularly Colombian and again, second and third generations have Colombian musical styles ingrained in their culture. I definitely think that multi-cultural society is something we should be proud of. I do realise the London is a cultural bubble and the rest of the UK, particularly outside the large cities, is far less multi-cultural. If you look at some of the new music being created in the UK cities it will all be in there.”

Ah, but this be Devizes me lover! I’m extremely grateful for Sara’s time in chatting with us, must say, it’s a great example of the diversity on offer at this year’s Devizes Arts Festival, and something exotic and exciting for us bumpkins!

 

Tickets to Grupo Lokito are on sale now at £18.

 

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