Interview – Andy Wood: Director at ¡Como No! & La Linea (April 2016)

La Linea Festival, the Latin music bonanza, is on its way once more for its 16th edition and we couldn’t think of a better occasion to have a chat with Andy Wood, La Linea Director and the founder of ¡Como No! (one of the most renowned Latin events promoters in the UK).

We met him at ¡Como No! HQ in South London. A place where, despite its geographical setting, is subject to some frisky Latin American vibes.

Our interview begins asking Andy about the birth of ¡Como No!:

I founded ¡Como No! in 1986 and before that I worked in theatre for a couple of radical companies in the UK, but even then I was very interested in music. My link with Latin America started when I did some volunteer jobs for an association called ‘Nicaraguan Solidarity’, which was working to support Nicaragua after the Revolution. That was a very big organisation and helped to build a bridge between Nicaraguan and British music. They were quite big promoters. When Rúben Blades, the Panamanian musician, played two shows at the Brixton Academy they promoted it. They offered me a Nicaraguan theatre company to bring over to the UK and I set up a tour for them in 1986. Then, they offered me a Cuban music group, the band which worked with Silvio Rodriguez and I set a a six-day tour up for them. Although I was working professionally in theatres, music was kind of my first love”.

But, at that time, Latin music wasn’t his ‘cup of mate’:

I really liked the people who I was working with and it’s much easier to work internationally with music than theatre, because of the language barrier. It’s quite interesting when we talk about world music and its different perceptions, because this has always been related to people’s individual background and how they came in touch with this music.

I grew up with glam rock and punk, then I got interested in funk and soul. Once I started to work with Cuban musicians, I eventually found a link with their instrumentations. Later on, when I started to join the dots, I understood how music went from one place to another. How the ships went from New Orleans to La Havana and jazz went through that route too”.

We asked Andy what was happening in London during that period and if the British capital was ready for the big ‘world music’ leap:

1986 was sort of the dawn of world music, but there was something which was already going on. There was already World Circuit, which wasn’t called World Circuit then, but they were already promoting some live shows and bringing artists. There was also the beginning of the Latin American wave coming to London; they were economic migrants coming from Colombia because of what was going on in their country at that time. So there was a series of promotions, for example at the Empire in Leicester Square every Sunday night. It was interesting for Latin music because there were underground clubs, like salsa ones, which were beginning to appeal to a wider London audience. It maybe wasn’t particularly Anglo, but in many other communities like West Africa and Japan people were being touched by Latin music at large.

There was also a place called Bass Clef in Hoxton Square, before Shoreditch and its gentrification, and it was quite interesting because none of the Anglo audience knew how to dance then, so people just danced in the way they thought was right. There was also a good live music scene for London-based Latin bands with important clubs in Vauxhall and Brixton like the Mambo Inn. You could find really good seven or eight-piece bands playing there. Mambo Inn was a really nice venue with a huge crowd too, it had three rooms and its audience came from all over London. They had tropical dance, Latin and African music usually”.

¡Como No! made its first (dance) steps around that time too, which was the beginning of a new wave of live music for London.

When we started to organise our events, it was at the Africa Centre [a cultural centre in Covent Garden] on Saturday nights. We did a lot of shows with Cuban bands. It was the period when Soul II Soul took off with Jazzie B, they were playing on Sundays and there was this kind of parallel between the English soul scene on the Sundays and our world music scene on Saturdays”.

So was there a moment or a revelation which convinced Andy to organise his own live music events?

Different things happen in different ways. I was just doing club shows because I was used to going to clubs or events in rock venues. Then, I was approached by the Southbank Centre and asked to organise something there, and that was the beginning of the Golden Age for world music in the U.K.

Andy’s answer then led us to the origin of the U.K. world music scene:

The idea of world music was opening up and you finally started to have the right marketing channels by being in one of these big venues. They were producing a calendar and were able to promote and introduce people to world music. In that pre-internet age we were bringing in bands with no digital music, so the chances of anybody actually having heard their music before they came were really small. You were selling the idea of how that band might sound.

There was a little bit of world music on the radio, and it was around that time that Charlie Gillett started to play non-Western music on his program. Sometimes John Peel and Andy Kershaw on Radio 1 were playing those artists too, and you had to ring them up, send them the records and they eventually read out the tour dates. Magazines weren’t really active about world music”.

Despite his direct involvement, Andy revealed to us that he wasn’t a part of 1987’s think-tank which defined the style. However, not one to make a drama, he instead decided to seize his opportunities starting with Buena Vista Social Club:

Although I was working and active in the scene, I didn’t take part in the famous meeting where everybody sat down and decided what was world music. The main reason is because I wasn’t in the record business and I wasn’t on the radar of those people, I was just putting on my shows and finding my audience. But post-that various things did happen in terms of big waves. I was there at the beginning of the Buena Vista thing which has just come full circle with their last tour. I first met Juan de Marcos from Sierra Maestra when they were on tour here in London. Then, through a label in Mexico called Corason Records, I started working with Eliades Ochoa in 1994 and he came here in London three years before the Buena Vista project. People started getting interested in Buena Vista part thanks to Sierra Maestra, a band of students who did a lot of research into Cuban son”.

¡Como No! will celebrate its 30th anniversary this year and there are many moments to be proud of across the three decades:

The things that you better remember are the things which were harder to do. One of my favourites, just because it took so long to make it happen, was the Juan Luis Guerra gig, particularly the one we did at the Royal Albert Hall [in 2013]. I had been trying to get him come to London since 1992 and then finally he showed up 20 years later. The good thing about London is that lots of artists who are popular elsewhere want to play here. It’s a benchmark for themselves and everybody kind of loves English music. That’s why people would come and that’s why Guerra would come. The same happened with the show that we have organised with Carlos Vives who plays Brixton Academy on the 24th and 25th of June. Another one I really liked was Mexrrissey, because it took me back to the period when I was working with theatre, when I could shape a project and follow every step”.