[Nick MacWilliam talks to Callum Simpson, the driving force behind London-based music and activism project Movimientos]
Music and Movement
Nick MacWilliam Alborada Magazine (Issue 1 - Spring/Summer 2015)
It doesn’t take long in the company of Callum Simpson – better known to London’s late-night fraternity as DJ Cal Jader, the brains behind Movimientos, a familiar name to Latin music enthusiasts – to realise that it’s not only the tunes he plays that bounce around a lot. Getting him to sit still for 15 minutes to do an interview is proving something of a challenge.
I’ve come to East London’s Rich Mix cultural centre, where a day of human rights and socially-themed seminars organised by Global Justice Now has attracted a horde of conscientious citizens to the venue. As is often the case with events that straddle the political and cultural spheres at which Latin America is represented, Movimientos is in attendance, part of an eclectic bill of poets, musicians and other DJs for the after-party.
Rich Mix is busy, but nobody really seems to know exactly who’s doing what and when. Jader is a one-man beehive, dealing with and speaking to, in no particular order, the organisers, the sound guy, other performers, friends and associates, reps from other organisations, and me, all the while ensuring the mix stays fresh. Just as I’m starting to contemplate bagging him, rendition-style, and forcing him to surrender a quarter hour of his time, he sashays – ever the dandy – over in my direction. We find a quiet nook and he begins telling me about the project that has largely swallowed up his life.
There’s an element of coming full circle in events like today’s, for it was volunteering in the social justice field that encouraged Jader and his friend Jess Crocker to found Movimientos. 'It was initially set up', he says, 'in collaboration with various solidarity groups, NGOs and organisations, like Global Justice Now, or World Development Movement as it was called then, as a means of promoting Latin American music through activism and vice versa.'
As with other world regions, Latin American music has a tradition of addressing social and political themes, having long been used by activists, communities and grassroots organisations as a means of spreading messages and ideas in the absence of access to mainstream media. But music is also about having a good time and a typical Movimientos night merges the promotion of important issues with packing the dance floor. Even for resolutely uptight Londoners such as yours truly, for whom dancing usually invites ridicule, it’s hard to resist getting involved.
However, according to Jader, there’s more to Movimientos than simply putting on throbbing nights. 'It’s a sprawling, amorphous entity that has taken various shapes in the last ten years, encompassing mostly music-based events', he says. 'It’s also an artist agency representing bands and a label for local music.' The Movimientos label has signed up a string of acts that reference the Latino sound, with the most recent being The Fontanas, whose debut album Purple Patch was released in March 2015. As with label-mates Wara and Los Chinches, The Fontanas blend various South American genres with a more recognisable sound from closer to home.
'The Fontanas are mostly English musicians, with an US singer', says Jader. 'I think the generation of bands currently working in the UK are people who were brought up listening to Latin music and were influenced by the first wave of world music or whatever you like to call it.' The popularity of older styles from different parts of the world – cumbia, bossa nova, afrobeat and so on – has grown exponentially in the internet age. 'That vintage sound through Soundway Records and a lot of these reissue compilations celebrate the vinyl, old school culture of music and the heritage of Afro-Latin music. I think a lot of people have grown up listening to that and a lot of Brazilian music - and the likes of DJ Gilles Peterson have been key. I think The Fontanas and Wara just came out of that cliché of a melting pot of London.'
But artists still need the support of promoters, backers and, of course, an enthusiastic public. 'The label was set up to give a platform, which was sort of a natural extension to our work at Movimientos', says Jader. 'We started working more closely with artists who had developed out of the scene, people like Los Chinches, a cumbia-chicha band, and Wara, who do a sort of high tempo fusion of Cuban rhythms and Latin funk, hip-hop and jazz. We got involved in a project called Global Local, an Arts Council project to support the emergence of local acts, fusing music from the communities with UK-based music.'
What drew Jader, a native of the less-than-tropical environs of Hornsey, to Latin American music in the first place? 'It was mostly as a DJ in bars, playing soul, funk, rare groove, disco, hip hop', he says. 'One of the common unifying things and root of a lot of these genres is Afro-Latin music, especially in disco, house and subsequently modern electronic music. So when I recognised this connection to all these other genres I was hooked and it all made a lot more sense.'
This affiliation with regional music is complimented by a rooted interest in Latin American politics that was unearthed in his student days, under the tutelage of the academic Julia Buxton. 'She was a specialist in Venezuelan and Latin American politics and taught in a very objective but very engaging way', he says. 'She inspired my interest in the subject, and perhaps in some way I was naturally drawn to it anyway, and inevitably you can’t fail to be outraged at centuries of colonial and post-colonial persecution of the whole continent at the hands of the US and the West.'
The political awakening experienced in Buxton's classes gave Jader the impetus to become more socially active. It was here that he was able to combine activism with his musical passion. 'It came out of the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign, where I was volunteering and DJing at events like their night Club Sandino', he says. 'They were great events, but I think it was tough for them to maintain the momentum they had generated inspired by the Sandinista revolution. Part of our motivation was to try and reach new and younger audiences through Latin American music and politics. Club Sandino was an inspiration for their work in the 80s and 90s. On the back of the first boom in "world and Latin music" they toured some of the first Latin bands to reach these shores. The Nicaragua and Cuba Solidarity Campaigns were very influential in developing the Latin music scene here.'
While today there might be a vast catalogue of music – old and new – to sate the urges of the dance-hungry masses, Jader is quick to acknowledge those who actually provide the physical space to make it all possible. 'The venues we work with are crucial, to have someone at a venue who’s passionate about this kind of music. It might seem strange to say that, at a time when you’ve got a lot of venues closing, but the places we’re working with, like Rich Mix, Passing Clouds in Dalston, Hootananny in Brixton, Notting Hill Arts Club are great. We’re just a conduit, in a way, between facilitating and programming live music line-ups and DJs.' You’d hazard that the venues reciprocate the feeling, as a cursory scan of random flyers will throw up a range of options for fans of most music styles. While Rich Mix, Passing Clouds et al undoubtedly play an important role, it is Movimientos and their ilk that actually bring people through the doors.
There remain several challenges, however, in ensuring that the scene continues to thrive, such as laws which target large numbers of people who contribute to London’s creative output. 'In the last six or seven years it’s been harder for musicians and artists to come here', says Jader in reference to those from abroad who have done so much to establish the Latin music scene in the UK. 'Often you find that musicians are students, and there are certain laws prohibiting them from actually making money from music. The immigration laws have restricted it to a certain type of person who comes here, who’s maybe not so naturally inclined to be a musician.'
I can relate to this. When my aunt went travelling in South America in the late eighties, she came home a couple of years later with an Ecuadorian folk band – called Huellas – in tow. They eventually all settled here and had families, while continuing to work in music and other areas. Under today’s laws, this would have been impossible. To my mind, that’s a shame, and a smear on what the UK could, and should, represent.
As Jader glances anxiously at his watch, I realise there are tunes to be spun and a night to be attended to. He finishes up by reiterating the challenges faced by those seeking to preserve London’s alternative music identity, lest we wish to see Passing Clouds turned into an All Bar One. 'A lot of the big bands based in London that we’ve worked with, who play more traditional music, have stayed fairly strong, but in terms of the bands doing new fusion stuff, it’s still hard to sustain and support a band within a limited scene like there is in the UK. The venues we work with, and the festivals, are really crucial to keeping things going.' So too, it would seem, are the rest of us.
Nick MacWilliam is a freelance writer on Latin American politics and culture
Listen to an exclusive mix of socially-conscious Latin American music Cal Jader has made for Alborada here: www.alborada.net/movimientos
Support independent journalism and buy a copy of issue 1 of Alborada magazine here: http://www.alborada.net/mag1