Interview: Ahnansé – Enter ‘Mestizo’, Where Colombia and the UK’s Music Scenes Meet (May 2021)

What’s it like when fresh Colombian sounds meet their sonic siblings from the UK jazz scene? Enter Mestizo. Rising names in the UK Jazz and Colombian new music scenes have reunited for a one-off streamed show as the collective Mestizo. The performance has undergone a creative reinvention following their first get together in Colombia pre-pandemic. Ten new music commissions have been simultaneously filmed in London and Bogotá for one unique stream going online on Sunday 2nd of May at 8PM (UK & Colombia-time). 

Mestizo has an international local sound that draws on the diaspora roots of the British and Colombian musicians: at one moment filtered through grime, at another via the haunting sound of the gaita. Like their UK counterparts, contemporary Colombian musicians have embraced different musical traditions to create new and refreshing music. Over years, young Colombians from major cities have been creating musical fusions between cumbia and currulao mixed with jazz, hip-hop, salsa, and electronica, and so transformed Afro-diasporic traditional Colombian music.

The Mestizo project has two musical directors: Wayne Francis, aka Ahnansé, of Steam Down in London and Daniel Michel of La BOA and Mambo Negro in Bogotá. Here, Wayne answers a few questions for Rhythm Passport about the new project.

Tell us more about this collective project?

So with Mestizo 2021, following our first meeting in 2019, we’ve taken the collaboration a step further and made collaborative compositions. This was obviously really challenging in the current circumstances. Originally the Colombian musicians were supposed to come over to the UK but it couldn’t happen. So we thought, we’re going to try and do it another way. 

We ended up having two groups, one side in the UK and one side in Bogotá. We had a group of composers in each of those groups creating the music. To start the process we sent across a playlist of music for inspiration because we weren’t with each other in person. And then after that, whatever idea we had, we got feedback from Bogotá and continued the compositions in London and vice versa.

That was our process, which was interesting because we’re so used to working in person. And that change was a really big change for most of the musicians. But I think it was a really good challenge to have.

Did this way of composing using technology inform or change your writing?

Yes it definitely does inform a different way of working. When I’m working more as a writer and composer, it’s very much about your own stream of consciousness. You build up the idea gradually, you don’t have five voices that are working at the same time. So it’s been about translating other people’s information, or their voice, and the sound and influences of Colombia. And then weaving that into your own voice. So it’s more like taking inspiration than a direct collaboration.

Was there anything that happened during this process that you didn’t  expect?

Music for me is always an adventure. The surprise in the process is what a lot of us musicians keep on making the music for. We enjoy that excitement.

For me, with the composition that I contributed to the project, I’ve never learnt so much about cumbia as I did this time. I spent a lot of time listening to it and got to learn about that musical language and culture. And really absorb the feeling of it. It was really enriching to have the time to get into the DNA of the music.

And when you embodied yourself in that sound of cumbia, what new things did you pick up? 

It’s always difficult to describe this in words. There is a particular rhythmic feeling. If you were to listen to some cumbia and then listen to some of the music that we wrote, then you’d hear some of the lilts in the rhythm. And there is also a similarity between the Afro-Colombian music and the Afro-Caribbean music that’s been a big influence in the UK Jazz scene. So there was a synergy in the rhythms already that we could jump off from.

And would you have any recommendations for cumbia for our readers that you’ve really enjoyed discovering?

Cumbia Rebelde by Puerto Candelaria

…and MESTIZO BOGOTÁ playlist by Diana Sanmiguel

You’ve brought together a large number of musicians, there are 21 that feature in the project. Can you tell us how you came to work with them?

I wouldn’t be able to mention everybody by name, but on the Colombian side, apart from the tuba player, we all worked with them in 2019 when we went over there. Our relationship with them was established then.

And they have some really interesting instruments they use such as the Marimba which relates to some of their indigenous regions. So there are a bunch of horn players and guitar and bass. And some amazing vocalists. Even more interesting is the gaita music, which I think is something everybody should check out. It’s a kind of Colombian flute. And they play these instruments in pairs. That was quite a big influence for what they created out there. We don’t have access to anyone that plays that over here in the UK.

From the UK side, the main writers were Theon Cross, his brother Nathaniel Cross and Yelfris Valdes, this amazing Cuban trumpet player. Yelfris has a Latin crossover so he was the perfect one to get involved. And then the rest of the musicians from Steam Down.

And how will the live streaming work for the performance?

Well we’ve actually done it as more of a documentary style. So the musicians get to comment on what it was like as well. So it’s more than just the performance of the songs but the story around the project as well. We’ve pre-recorded the elements, but that’s what makes it more than just a concert or show and makes a really interesting addition.

What exciting stuff is coming next for you guys?

For Steam Down specifically, we have the release of our debut album. The overall concept is that it’s a spiritual retreat and each song is a musical treat for your well-being. We’re going to release each of the tracks one by one so everyone gets to focus on the songs individually. We will release the first song on May 19th.

And in the longer term future, I’m definitely interested in going back to Colombia and just continuing that cross-cultural collaboration and seeing where it goes. For example Nubya Garcia, who wasn’t able to be on the project this time, collaborated with some of the gaita players on her album Source. And I think all of the musicians would be keen to continue that conversation and exchange as we move along.