In 1777, English writer and poet Samuel Johnson was a dapper man about town. An engaging and charismatic figure, he was a prominent member of the London social scene, preferring to be out and about than at home alone with his thoughts. Such was his delight with the city that he assured his good friend Boswell, then based in Scotland, that; ‘when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.’
Today, this statement is a popular refrain and many believe London still lives up to this description. However life in the capital since 1777 has changed; or rather those that bring life to the city come from further afield. For when a Londoner now wishes to eat out, listen to music or meet with friends, it is no overstatement to assume that any palette can be satiated, any tune can soothe the ear and that any language can be spoken. London is international and life is as colourful as ever. Could Samuel Johnson have ever imagined that one day, he could be sipping Margarita cocktails and swaying his hips to salsa music on, say, a Tuesday night? Not an unreasonable assumption, he may have replied.
Highly possible even, for as any great commentator on life, he surely would have recognized how in the last decade, Latin American immigrants have come to represent a significant part of the city, influencing the cultural landscape and our culinary habits. Expressions of Hispanic and Latin art, music and dance have popped up across London, from Elephant and Castle to Shoreditch, and regularly headline popular venues such as The Forge, Houtananny and Rich Mix. Aside from the artists, key movers and shakers from all communities have really got the motor running, spurning on this flurry of creative activity. Passionate promoters of art, avid cultural consumers, local collectives and international institutions all play a vital role in shaping both what London offers today and sustaining the varied cultural identities that feed into it.
As Battersea Spanish prepares for its Cultural Cabaret on the 20th of November, I started to reach out to some of the many promoters and cultural figures here in London, to see what and why it was that they worked so hard to bring Latin culture to this big old city.
The Bolivar Hall Cultural Centre in central London is one example. Serving as the cultural branch of the Venezuelan Embassy and under the direction of Cultural Counselor, Maria Alejandra Rivas, the Bolivar Hall is an important component of the Latin live music scene, promoting and supporting Venezuelan, and then more broadly Latin American musicians and artists here in London. So considerable is its role that directing the centre is a job that has far outgrown a typical, nine to five shift for Maria. Aside from her office duties, she attends all the gigs of the musicians she brings over, as well as supporting acts at other events that may not have a direct link to the Bolivar Hall, but are still part of the wider family of Latin American artists in London. She is hard-working and at times apparently ubiquitous, as I bump into her at yet another event in London, at the Brixton Come Together festival the first weekend of October. It’s a grey day and in the evening it starts to rain. Still, a live reggae act and a mini carnival procession have got all of us dancing, including Maria. ‘I was really tired today but I came down anyway as this is my local community, it is important to be here’.
This sense of community underlines much of the work that is done at the Hall, and reveals just how much promoting art and music is also about connecting people. As a cultural centre, it has consolidated both national and international ties, becoming a point of reference not only for artists, but also for other Latin American cultural missions in the UK.
‘Different embassies have different purposes here in London, whether it is for political, cultural or economic reasons. For example Honduras is an embassy with very little staff, located on a single floor, representing as few as 600 Hondurans here in London. However, those 600 people are successful businessmen and entrepreneurs, with an economic status their country has deemed important enough to warrant a diplomatic representation. However, they do not have a cultural space such as ours, so we often collaborate with them and set up Honduran events here too’. According to Maria, the Hall has become an instrument of cooperation, with many Latin American embassies now using the space to celebrate their national saint days, folk music and up-and-coming artists. ‘The great thing is that despite an economic crisis present across Latin America, our budget for culture and the arts has not been cut, meaning that we can continue to support and represent all that our wonderfully diverse continent has to offer.’
Diverse indeed, and a lot more complex than what the stereotypes of Latin America would have us believe. Maria explains that integral to the Bolivar Hall’s mission, is the idea to propagate and sustain a more complex Latin identity. ‘Not everything is big mariachi hats and maracas! For example in Venezuela alone, there are 17 different types of musical rhythms, from Afro-Caribbean drums to the four-string guitar riffs from the plains. When we bring this new music, some people say; “But this isn’t Salsa! You can’t dance to this!”, but you can, I tell them! It’s just different’.
Someone who definitely has an ear for what’s different is Callum Simpson, co-founder of the Latin American music platform and label, Movimientos. Born and raised in London, Callum has been promoting Latin American music for over 10 years, a surprising turn of events he comments, as he never really knew much about it. “I come from a Hip Hop and Drum and Bass background and I was never really drawn to the Salsa scene. But I started to hear DJs and bands who were mixing together different genres and different generations of South American music and the sounds they were producing really chimed with me and my musical tastes”. This new perspective was consolidated when he met his good friend and now co-founder of Movimientos, DJ Arias, with whom he has set up numerous nights across London, from the Notting Hill Arts Club, to the Salmon and Compass venue in Islington and the Bussey Building in Peckham. From Colombian parents, DJ Arias grew up in the UK and brings to his set both Latin and urban rhythms, a fusing together of worlds that sits well with the mixed London crowd. “At the time, I didn’t know what the difference was between Salsa and Cumbia — I was like, what is this? But there he was mixing it up and it sounded great. He used to say to me, “Don’t tell anyone but this is my grandma’s CD!” ’.
Reaching out to new audiences and fusing different styles has always been the founding principle of Movimientos, since its early stages as a local night to now a successful promoter and label of Latin bands, supporting live acts and releasing their music across the UK. As we meet up for a quick drink one Tuesday afternoon, Callum stresses to me that Movimientos has always wanted to create a scene which is accessible for all, rather than a niche night only appealing to a specific community or diaspora. “It’s never been a purist Latin night, and we have always sought to bring people together from all walks of life, incorporating at first films and documentaries to our evenings, and then a wide range of DJ sets to live acts; a night where someone like for me for example, who is English and who doesn’t dance salsa, can still go along, get a drink and have a nice time just listening to some good music”.
Since its involvement with Global Local, the Arts Council project that looks to support UK-based artists making global music and putting them on festival stages across the country, Movimientos has also started to sign up non-UK based bands, such as La Mamba Negra, a Latin music orchestra, incorporating elements of Jamaican and Colombian music, Funk and Hip Hop. Much like the work undertaken by Maria and her team at the Bolivar Hall, Movimientos is now a key instigator in representing a more authentic scene of Latin American music, informing new audiences and changing cultural perceptions. ‘It has always been about trying to make people think a bit differently.’
Using culture to build bridges is also in tune with the thoughts of Fernando Villalonga, Counselor for Cultural and Scientific Affairs at the London Spanish Embassy. It’s been a busy week for everyone but he kindly agrees to share his vision with me over the phone, ‘Spanish culture here in London is everywhere, but these artists do not necessarily identify as such — they are as much part of the London cultural scene as the British are. These distinctions between French artists or Italian or Spanish ones are not really made anymore; everyone here is contributing to the scene’. Why then, I ask him, is it so important to promote and defend Hispanic art? ‘Because culture creates an understanding and a necessary dialogue between nations. It is what really unites us and helps us overcome political differences. Nations can be at war and destroy themselves, but culture will always survive.’
A defiant statement but a reassuring one. It appears that what makes up Spanish and Latin American culture has seeped into London with ease, creating new identities and evolving platforms for everyone and anyone. I am also sure my friend Samuel from 1777 would wholeheartedly agree with this. I can just picture him now, telling me; ‘if you’re tired of London, you should try dancing Salsa’.
To enjoy all the variety that Hispanic and Latin art has to offer, join us for our Cultural Cabaret on the 20th of November, a truly special evening that brings together some of the most exciting artists and cultural figures here in London. TICKETS