Interview: Congalita – Voodoo Love Orchestra (September 2016)

They just released a new album, are ready for a new tour with a brand new show, choreography and tricks, but they still preserve the same old Carnival attitude, which characterised their career since their debut. As a matter of fact, you can be dead sure that with Voodoo Love Orchestra you won’t get bored. After being exposed to their music, you’ll end up contaminated, poisoned by the liveliness and all-year round spring fever of their vibe. They will inevitably cheer up your ears and mood with their Latin soul, New Orleans brass-inspired sections, afrobeat arrangements and expansive upbeat character.

We felt the need to brighten up a grey London afternoon with VLO’s sunny spirit. We reached by phone in Brighton the band manager, front-woman and founder member Cicely, to have a chat about VLO’s music history, Brighton music scene and their latest work titled, Inglorious Technicolor, and released by Movimientos Records on the 30th of September.

We started asking Cicely about VLO’s calendar, because of their album launch and Halloween period it is becoming really busy.

We got two album launches happening soon: one in London at Rich Mix, and another one in Brighton at Patterns. As said, these gigs are directly linked with the release of our new album, but they happen to be in October, when we usually have tons of gigs anyway. We play a lot of shows with a Day of the Dead’s sort of theme, so it’s hard to keep track of all our gigs in this period.

However, to confine VLO to the Halloween period would be a crime. Their sound is indeed good for all seasons, and ranges from one shore of the Atlantic to the other.

We encompass a lot of different sounds and musical concepts. In terms of the music we play, we usually describe ourselves as a ‘globetrotting brass ensemble’ that delves into the sound of the Tropics. In fact, our music encompasses a lot of Pan-Atlantic styles. So, along that kind of global thread, we focus on West African high-life and afrobeat, then Latin cumbia and Cuban comparsa, but also Jamaican sounds like ska. Then, we use brass to reinterpret that Pan-Atlantic sound. We really like New Orleans Brass ensembles as well, and we also aim to explore brass interpretations from contemporary brass bands as it’s happening in Brazil. There’s a whole movement at the moment.

This can only happen thanks to the practical education and direct music experience developed by the members of the project. For example, as Cicely told us, she has always been surrounded by music…

I’ve been a musician my entire life. I experienced a lot of music that had brass in it when I was a child, so I think I always loved it without necessarily thinking about it very much. In addition, I grew up loving percussion, but not really knowing how to access it. I’ve been studying percussion since I was 16. I went to West Africa and studied with a Ghanaian group for a year, and I also started to play Afro-Brazilian stuff, like Congolese-Brazilian and samba. When I got that kind of mix of styles, I decided to set up a group which was able to combine brass, percussion and dance. It was a kind of a Carnival-like concept: an amalgamation of different styles. We worked with a Caribbean costumer to learn how to make costumes, and a choreographer who came from a street dance background. We had ten brass players involved with that project and we used to do very choreographed shows. We also liked the energy of groups like Stomps. So, we brought lots of different styles and I was already doing brass and percussion arrangement. It’s like if I was already doing what I’m doing today, but ten years ago.

Despite the fact she embarked on another meaningful music project named Kalakuta Millionaires, her original idea has always been there.

Then, I got more into Cuban percussion playing rumba, and I formed another band called Kalakuta Millionaires. Once we were touring, we met a brass band from Spain. It was the energy of that band that really reminded me of all the things I loved from the previous group: to play on the street, being able to interact with the crowd, do a lot of street art shows and energy from the brass. So I said to the other guys ‘let’s do this as well!’ So VLO grew out of Kalakuta Millionaires. In fact, most of the players are coming from that band, but it was this kind of bringing in new music elements.

To finally convince her to set VLO’s experience on motion was a TV series portraying the New Orleans brass band scene.

I started watching Treme at that time. It was a wonderful HBO TV series produced by the same makers as The Wire, and based on a Spike Lee documentary about the Hurricane Catrina in New Orleans. But then they fictionalised it: they used some characters from The Wire, but also local people. One of the storylines within that was very much following the brass band of Treme, which is an area of New Orleans. It was also aired in a period when those kind of bands were becoming popular here, too. They were touring here. For example, Tru Thoughts were championing Hot 8 Brass Band. So I started to get more and more excited about brass and I really wanted to make something which was more street theatre based as well. For this reason, in 2012, I got a little Arts Council funding from Kemptown Carnival (which is a Carnival in Brighton), and that gave us a bit of money for our rehearsals and the impetus to forge ahead with that. So, yes, that’s when VLO’s story officially started, but actually it was a while before I was thinking about it and I’m attracted by that style of music.

From that moment on, the music path of the band was straightforward, and the funky and sparkling music scene of their city and its extrovert brass players facilitated it.

“I’ve a reputation of brass collector because when I look for new players for the band I find them really organically and it’s fantastic. It’s easy, because you have this healthy ska and jazz scene in Brighton and, occasionally, I don’t even need to go out to find a new musician. For example, that usually happened with some of our trumpet players… because trumpet players aren’t the shyest and most retired type, all I had to do was to look on Facebook and I realised that all of the trumpet players have always got photos of themselves playing trumpet. Saxophone players don’t do that. I found one of my now favourite people to gig with just looking on a friend’s profile and seeing who had pictures of him playing.

So, I met this guy, and this is a really good indication of who this guy is: he’s very open and enthusiastic, and plays in lots of ska bands. There’s indeed a very anarchic quality in many players of the band; there’s this kind of open-mindedness. Maybe they have studied for years and were very disciplined, but now they are open to every style. The energy of these individuals really permeates through the group, and when you play parading gigs like we do, you can really interact with each other. That mirrors the character of the group and we really enjoy that. We love to interact with each other and the audience.”

As Cicely confirmed, Brighton has the most fitting music environment for a band like Voodoo Love Orchestra.

Brighton is quite an eccentric place to live. We got a fantastic and open-minded arts scene. Also, its LBGTQ scene is well developed. There are two universities, so there are a lot of students coming through. I think it changes very quickly here. For example, things change name quite rapidly. I tour a lot, so I don’t have the chance to go out in town very much. But I’ve been last week and it was like… hey, that pub changed name! or… that place wasn’t here! Obviously there’re people who have been here for a long time and I’ve been here for 16 years, but there’s definitely a sense of movement. Things never stagnate!”

That’s also reflected by the cohesiveness of the local music scene, which is characterised by an incessant artistic and cultural exchange between musicians and bands.

There’s a band which has been playing at a lot of our same festivals and is called King Lagoon’s Flying Swordfish Dance Band. A couple of its band members play in VLO, but also in our other sister band, Lakuta. Then, our trumpet player, Matt, plays in a ska band called Meow Meows, and recently we have collaborated with one of their sister bands called the Town of Cats, which is mostly ska-reggae style with an MC. By the way, yes there’s definitely a lot going on and a lot of interesting things coming out of Brighton music scene. At the same time, there’re also groups playing that have been going for quite a long time and are well-established. I think that we are really lucky to have labels like Tru Thoughts and Mr. Bongo. They’re great labels and there’s a really good interaction. They run their own regular night and always play good music to go out and listen to.

We are pretty sure that some now and then also play some tracks from Amor y Muerte, the first VLO album.

With the second album coming out, we noticed that more people are sharing our first one. We were absolutely amazed and really pleased about the reaction to our first album: we didn’t expect it! We got repeated plays on 6 Music and also by Jamie Cullum on BBC2. Then Craig Charles really championed us. We got really fantastic coverage from him. It was great to listen to our songs on the radio maybe at 11 o’ clock on a Saturday morning. It was like ‘What? Really?’. We were amazed because we recorded the album in one room in one day. Our woodwind section was really behaved, but the brass was really hangover. So it was amazing to have that fantastic reaction.