El Búho’s ‘Balance’ – review

Balance opens like a springtime morning, with “Coro del Amanecer” nudging the door ajar to let in the light of birdsong.

It moves gently to add layered beats, the coming or going of footsteps, the tinkle of water and Veronica Valerio’s echoing voice. By the time we get three minutes into the song, we are up to full strength, but this is a soft power which fades to end.

The record is El Búho’s first full-length offering and, going by this example, there will be many people chomping at the bit for even more.

El Búho (‘The Owl’) is Robin Perkins, a British producer who has become something of a sensation in the folktronica scene. He has now moved back to Europe after a productive spell in Mexico, where he explored the country’s indigenous music, traditional instruments and – especially through the rivers, forests and sounds of the deep south – the overwhelmingly natural beauty.

It is the integration of natural elements into his work that makes El Búho stands out. This is not any old hip-shaking and rum-swilling Latin music (as enticing as that can be): this is organic electronica.

It is borne from simple ingredrients: the wash of waves, the calls of birds, the sounds of sunshine glinting through a million trees.

On “Tlacotlan” we hear the chirps of songbirds and the croaks of crows whilst “Ynglingtal” calls to mind sand through your toes against spilling breakers on the beach.

He demonstrates his depth of skill on “Papan” with the layered keys, strings and beats clipping together with nods to glitch-notes here and there.

Three-quarters of the songs are collaborations and El Búho reaches far and wide for his featured artists, from the madness of Cairo, to the floating airs and hills of Bolivia, via Mexican poetry.

The warbling on “Madre Tierra” may not be for everybody and “Brigantes” doesn’t really feel as though it goes anywhere as a piece but overall this is a beautiful record.

Balance is his first album and it drops just as he completes his move from Mexico City to Paris. We spoke to him before he left Mexico and we spoke to him again to find out a little more about Balance and the effect of Mexico on his music.

What’s the next stage for your music? What can you learn from this album?

I have a hundred ideas floating around in my head, going back to music inspired by birds, to music inspired by the folklore of my own country (the UK), making some EPs inspired by the places I have lived, another album. The other thing I would love to do is release a “tapes” or “beats” album of all the many, many unreleased tracks I have sitting on my hard drive! I think I learnt that an album should represent a period in your music growth or in your life. So much time passes between actually making the tracks and releasing them that to you they sound old even though no-one else has heard them! You have to just get to the point of accepting it and being happy with it representing a period of your life but I really think as a music producer you never stop learning and challenging yourself to improve.

Now that you have come back to Europe, which countries are you hoping to take your tunes to next?

Well, I played in Berlin for the first time recently and it was one of the best gigs I have played in a long time. Such an incredible, open-minded, approachable, respectable crowd of beautiful people dancing the night away to 80BPM music! It doesn’t happen everywhere. I will be playing in Spain soon and hopefully the UK for the first time soon as well (kind of crazy!)

And what’s your sense reflecting on the influence that Mexico had on you?

I think it was quite profound actually, going back to Latin America and understanding the incredibly different, complex and diverse context of Mexico, musically but also socially and politically. For my music it definitely opened me up to new ideas, to new histories, to new styles and genres and showed me, yet again, just how diverse Latin America is.

There was a bunch of music I made there on the Tamoanchan and Chinampa EPs and I feel it is pretty different, you can’t put your finger on it. I also always forget that Cenotes, which I kind of see as my breakthrough EP, was written in Mexico as well as most of tracks on the album! I think the other thing was the incredible reception I received in Mexico at shows. I felt a bit like an adopted Mexican to be honest and I’d love to go back and play soon.

What does the future hold for Shika Shika, the collective you run with Argentinian producer Barrio Lindo?

We are astounded by the incredible music that surrounds us. We just put out three beautiful edits of South American folk by our friend, the Argentinian producer Barda, and in a few weeks we are going to release our third compilation to celebrate our two-year anniversary! It is called Eco and it has some absolutely beautiful, killer, slow, deep, textured global sounds on it.

This article first appeared on Sounds and Colours.


Un shock ao sistema

From Brazilian hip-hop to the social commentary of a Chilean MC, the London Latin Music Festival served up a strong variety to thrilled crowds

London has a vigorous Latin American side to the capital, especially south of the river. But venues in Shoreditch and the Barbican were the hotspots for the 15th London Latin Music Festival. The talent ranged from the Equatoguinean singer Buika, to Uruguay’s Academy Award-winning songwriter Jorge Drexler to the Mexican flautist Alejandro Escuer and guitarist Morgan Szymanski.

 Source: Emicida

On 24 April the Brazilian MC Emicida played at Rich Mix, in Shoreditch, to a sweaty crowd of buoyant Brazilians. He wore sunglasses for most of the performance and the only adornment to his baggy grey t-shirt was a green, yellow and blue national flag, grabbed from someone in the front row. He sauntered on stage to a roar from the floor and plunged straight into his repertoire, aided in some of the rap sections by his band members. There was a good feeling in the crowd, as punters paused between numbers to refresh themselves with lager in plastic glasses.
Source: Author's own

Source: Author’s own

The sunny morning beats of ‘Levanta e Anda’ stretched through the jumping pack, with its laid-back under-rhythms and old-school R&B-tinged chords. The rapper from São Paulo played ‘Zica, Vai Lá’ (see below for video) in full early on, gearing the hordes up for what would become a staple throughout the show. The song tumbles straight into its chorus from the off, its steady accumulation giving the audience ample opportunity to shout along.
Source: Author's own

Source: Author’s own

He returned to ‘Zica..’ – which is one of his most well-known songs – later on, giving the baying, dancing crowd the chance to belt out one of their favourites themselves, as he stood off, acting up. At the end, quick queues formed as the hip-hop artist agreed to sign copies of his latest CD at a table set up at the back of the hall.
Source: Emicida
A sold-out Rich Mix went wild again on 30 April for French-Chilean MC Ana Tijoux. From the moment she jumped up to join her ensemble the hall was captivated, with her borderless rap-rock reverberating around the joyous bunch.
Source: Author's own

Source: Author’s own

Wearing black cycling shorts under a lace bodycon dress, she bounced happily in her white trainers, rapping out her numbers thick and fast, and crooning slowly where choruses demanded.
 Source: Nacional Records
Her well-known ‘1977’ was accompanied by a mad echo from the packed mass in front of the stage and the galleries above. Those sweaty bodies were moved to ska-jive in the pit by the funk notes of ‘Los Peces Gordos No Pueden Volar’.
Source: Author's own

Source: Author’s own

She paused for a notable interlude early on to explain her politics; how she sang for the masses as she saw them: an interconnected world free from national boundaries and patriotic sabre-rattling. She stood up for the lowly and denounced capitalist colonisers.

‘Shock’ was adopted by students in her homeland in 2012 as part of their demonstrations for education reforms since promised by the new socialist government in Santiago. Although the video is focused on the protests and dozens of the student activists, Ana makes a brief appearance, holding a sign showing her support for the demonstrations.

In her London show, the vibrancy of her beliefs coming through her music resulted in a firm message underlining the dancing and mirth.

 Source: Nacional Records

The political drive reached its zenith in the mad ‘Somos Sur’, a punchy concoction of international support for the “quietened, omitted, invisible”. The Dominican Republic, Algeria and Tanzania are all among a selection of Latin American, North African and sub-Saharan African countries celebrated with Tijoux’s power Spanish overlaying stylised Arab wails.

This leads into the Arabic attack rap section of the song from Shadia Mansour, introduced as a ‘sister’ to Tijoux. The British-Palestinian MC lays down her message enthusiastically, rapping in a colourful full-length gown.

A mesmerising gig.

 Source: Nacional Records

Time to retake the Latin exam

The British government shows some determination to address its lack of commitment to Latin America

They say Latin is a dead language. Sometimes it seems that many in different British governments have believed Latin America is dead too. The visit of the British Minister for Latin America to Bolivia from 26-27 July went almost unnoticed in the UK press. The BBC had one online page of coverage of the trip; a YouTube video Jeremy Browne, the Liberal Democrat MP with responsibility for Latin America, put online had only been viewed 42 times by the time this blog was published.

In November, the Foreign Secretary made this speech about the relationship between the UK and Latin America. He was right that Britons have played a role in forging Brazilian and Uruguayan independence and being the first European nation to recognise Mexico. Welshmen took football to Argentina. Cornishmen helped develop the Mexican silver mines.

But it seems that there has been an invisible colonial barrier barring the UK from closer relations with the region; a whispered admission that this was Spain and Portugal’s domain. Africa and the sub-continent have received far greater attention from the UK, mainly owing to the colonial links. Millions across India, Pakistan and sub-Saharan Africa speak English. Charities and aid workers regularly channel their efforts (rightfully) on the many social, political and medical needs of these nations but Latin America also needs support. And the UK can help the region in a different way.

It need not abandon Uganda or Bangladesh but the old colonial frontiers that stood are long gone. New-age imperialism is booming. China has already muscled in on the old UK ground: Beijing is a massive investor in many African countries now, often exchanging construction workers and architects for coal. India is turning into a global power capable of looking after itself. South Africa has now joined Brazil, Russia, India and China in their strong, emerging-powers BRICS bloc.

Latin America is full of successful, healthy and democratic countries. Mexico, Argentina and Brazil are in the G20. The region does not need stabilising support but it would welcome closer trade and investment links. As Mr Hague noted in his speech “We export over three times more to Ireland than we do to the whole of Latin America”. That needs addressing fast. China is becoming the dominant power in Africa. As Brazil outgrows Latin America and sets its sights on global ambitions, the UK would do worse then re-focusing a little of its ring-fenced international development budget and a lot of its trade desires on Latin America.

Where there’s muck there’s brass

Culture seems to be flourishing in Serbia whilst its politics still stumbles

The arrest last week of the former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic was rightly welcomed by Europeans from across the continent. Overall, European foreign ministers have quietly agreed that Serbia has ticked one of the boxes required to join the EU. Other boxes do still need to be ticked though, including ‘capture Goran Hadzic’, another man wanted in the Netherlands on charges of war crimes. But generally the news was well received.

Serbia’s strides to present a cleaner and fairer face of itself on the international cultural stage have also been applauded. Its sports sides have enjoyed recent success: the national football side made last year’s World Cup Finals and the men’s tennis team won the 2010 Davis Cup. Tourists are starting to look past the beaches of Croatia to Serbia.

And Serbian gypsy bands such as the Boban and Marko Markovic Orchestra are at the heart of the ‘Balkan Brass’ music that is gaining popularity across Europe, with Romanian band Fanfare Ciocarlia a big rival to Markovic. ‘Balkan Brass’ calls on gypsy rhythms, Latin beats, acid jazz and big-band brass. It typifies co-ordination between different movements and feelings as bands regularly gather a dozen or more musicians on stage playing many different instruments at once. This harmony would be welcome in Serbia’s political world.

The arrest of Mr Mladic stirred large protests by right-wing Serb nationalists, a worrying sight for moderate and expansionist European politicians, and not exactly what president Boris Tadic would like to see, bearing in mind his desire to achieve full EU membership by 2018. But the rise of the right has been under way for a while now in Europe, with the success of the True Finns in the recent Finnish general election and the popularity of Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France the two main examples of this pan-continent electoral shift.

So how worried should EU expansion officials be by the reaction of Serb nationalists? The whole Balkan issue is of changing concern. Certainly, the Bin Laden-esque nature of Mladic’s capture (quiet village in remote countryside; politicians’ complicity and secrecy surrounding his location) is cause for concern. The open politics of Tadic seem friendly to outsiders but to other Balkaners, (for example Kosovars, whose independence Serbia, amongst others doesn’t recognise), it is nationalist and intimidating.

Ethnicity, language and religion have divided the Balkans for centuries but perhaps Serbia can now lead a Balkan turn to a new future post-Mladic and post-genocide. It must not be forgotten; but nor should Serbia’s history automatically preclude it from European modernisation. The government in Belgrade could do worse than calling to mind its rising cultural power and the harmony and respect inherent in ‘Balkan Brass’ to sort out political disputes. The music is gaining Serbia lots of friends on YouTube at the moment and it seems that now a few more are starting to shake hands with Belgrade on the diplomatic as well as on the musical stage.

Time for a Latin lesson

Despite the disaster in Japan and the alternative power sources, dozens of countries have an unstoppable thirst for nuclear power. They should have a look at what is going on in Latin America and the Caribbean.

70% of the electricity that Latin America and the Caribbean region use comes from renewable energy sources, according to a report published last week by the Inter-american Development Bank (BID). The BID has ploughed millions of dollars into energy development projects across the regions in the last decade or so, and the results have been admirable.

Arnaldo Vieira de Carvalho, an energy specialist at the BID, said that, after the conferral of the loans:

“The only obligation that they [national governments] have with us is to work in two areas: on the generation of renewable energy and on climate change. These are long-term loans for more than 30 years, and this gives them more freedom for their work.”

After what happened in Japan, Germany, (which has 17 reactors on the go at the moment), announced an immediate review of its nuclear programme. The UK and Indian governments (19 and 20 reactors respectively) both asked for safety reviews. Even China (13 reactors) postponed the approval of any more for the time being. It has plans lined up for an astonishing 160 new reactors.

But the desire for nuclear energy is weak in Latin America and the Caribbean, where there are only six reactors in total (Argentina, Brazil and Mexico have two each). The three major players in the region are leading the way in their renewable ambitions and the BID is excited about what has been achieved so far from its support. According to Vieira de Carvalho, the renewable energy output of Brazil and Costa Rica is more than three times the global average.

What is also pleasing is that others seem keen to follow. Nicaragua, dotted with volcanoes, has just secured a $30.3 million loan to overhaul a geothermal energy plant in the west of the country.

According to the Financial Times, coal and gas make up 62.2% of the annual global energy consumption, whilst nuclear (13.5%) lags behind hydroelectric (15.9). And although more than 20 countries have more than 400 new reactors in the pipeline, none of them are in Latin America or the Caribbean, where nuclear power is used sparingly. There the plans are very much for a greener, cleaner future.

Reporting the dead: Part Two

The Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) has published its end-of-year report and it does not make easy reading for journalists. This is the second part of a two-part blogpost. Here we analyse the figures since 2006.

  • 2006 – 2010 – Death toll: 529

a) The five most deadly countries

1. Iraq 127

The ongoing insurgency has caused the most problems for reporters but religious conflict between the different Muslim congregations and ethnic troubles towards the Kurdish north of the country have contributed to make Iraq the most dangerous nation for journalists in the last 5 years. The withdrawal of UK and US combat troops was meant to herald a change in the fortunes for Iraqis but the militancy has continued.

2. The Philippines 59

Developing fast with a mushrooming population, the Philippines is becoming a deadly platform for reporting. Inter-religious divisions and ethnic bonds spill over into the politics, which sees a number of assassinations every year. Journalists are regularly caught up in the shootings.

3. Mexico 47

Five years ago, Felipe Calderon was sworn into office as Mexico’s president. In the same year he launched his ‘war on drugs’, an aggressive policy of taking on the gangsters head-to-head with the military spearheading the campaign. Five years later and a staggering 28,000 people have died in the violence. The majority have been gang members, but thousands of policemen and soldiers have died too. And so have 47 journalists, unsure over what to publish and what to broadcast as the cartels’ media influence grows. As the war intensifies and continues, it becomes an increasingly deadly news story to report.

4. Pakistan 38

The NATO coalition’s war in Afghanistan has spread to Pakistan and although operations began in Afghanistan in 2001, over the last 5 years there has been increased activity in Pakistan; both by the Taliban and by mainly US forces. When the militancy is added to religious strife, the ongoing Kashmir situation and corrupt politics, it is clear that the journalistic atmosphere is particularly dangerous.

5. Somalia 23

A country without a full-functional government since 1993, Somalia has been the scene of fierce fighting and warfare mainly between government troops and Islamist militias, of which Al-Shabab is the most prominent. Recently, African Union peacekeepers have been trying to improve stability in the capital, but intimidation and violence from the militants have meant very little press freedom.

b) The rest of the world

Africa (18): DRC 7, Nigeria 7, Angola 4

Asia (70): Sri Lanka 15, Afghanistan 14, India 14, Nepal 9, Thailand 6, Israel/Gaza 5, Indonesia 4, Lebanon 3

Europe (26): Russia 21, Georgia 5

Latin America (44): Colombia 19, Honduras 14, Venezuela 7, Guatemala 4

The politics of the presidenta

On Sunday 31 October, Dilma Rousseff became the president-elect of Brazil, replacing her mentor and supporter, the outgoing Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva. Modernists hailed the election of the first female Brazilian premier, and Rousseff became the ninth Latin American presidenta. But do female politicians in the Latin America have to rely on the support of men to get into power?

Machismo prevails across the Latin world but although men have dominated the political sphere, women have been increasing their presence over the last 40 years, since Argentine Isabel Martinez de Peron rose to prominence as the first elected female head of state in the Western Hemisphere. She was also vice-president during her husband’s third stint in the Casa Rosa. Argentina is no stranger to matrimonial politics and the current president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, took over the presidency from her husband, Nestor Kirchner, in 2007.

But on 27 October he died suddenly of a heart-attack, leaving Cristina on her own, both maritally, and politically, for although he had stepped down from the presidency, Mr Kirchner still had a major seat at the top table, running the Partido Justicialista (Justicialist Party) behind the scenes while his wife shook hands with other world leaders.

Such was the force and influence of Kirchner that commentators rushed to point out that ‘Kirchnerismo’ passed with the death of Nestor and that the key aim for Cristina now would be to try to see out the rest of her term in office and reaffirm her political principles, goals and direction, all of which were thrown into disarray by her husband’s death.

Indeed, some critics argue that all the objectives she has outlined so far have been her husband’s policies, and that her challenge now is to show that she is not just a puppet and demonstrate that she can lead her nation without the support of her husband.

In the case of Brazil, a different sort of wedding has been the main reason for the success of Dilma Rousseff. The marriage is purely political but it has been a conjugal arrangement which Rousseff has flouted to the maximum, using her proximity to Lula (and his fanatical popularity) to carry her to victory in last Sunday’s electoral run-off.

Once again, just like Mrs Kirchner 3,000 km to the south, the case arises of a female president facing the challenge of defining herself to the nation and displaying distinct political objectives. Brazilians have been extremely pleased with the direction in which Lula has been taking Brazil and they have chosen a politican built in very much the same vein as the outgoing premier.

Moreover, the fact that the new incumbent of the Palacio da Alvorada is a woman means that she has an extra responsibility to use her new position to show to the world that Brazil can be as successful under uma presidente as it was under Lula. To her credit, Rousseff has already made it clear that social and sexual equality will be a flagship policy of her period in office. She is caught between maintaining the popularity of Lula and not being seen as purely an inexperienced pawn of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party).

She has acknowledged the rise in status of the Green Party, whose presidential candidate in the first round was also a woman – Marina Silva. Indeed, the fact that many first-round votes which Rousseff had expected to go to her in fact went to Silva necessitated a run-off a month later. Rousseff has accepted the need to follow a green agenda in power, a possible policy declaration which shows that she has already recognised the challenges which a popular Green Party, led by another popular female politican, could create for her in office.

But these two Latin giants have not been the only countries where females have flexed their political muscles and over the years Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua have all elected female heads of state. From 1999-2004 Panama was led by Mireya Moscoso although her waning popularity towards the end of her term affected her chosen successor, Jose Miguel Aleman, and he failed to follow her into office, showing that the ‘Lula’ affect has not always been the case. In addition, Michelle Bachelet was in power in Chile until earlier this year when she was defeated by Sebastian Pinera. And the current president of Costa Rica is Laura Chinchilla.

The majority of these women have run on centre-left manifestoes and have been leading campaigners of social reform. But often the closeness of ties to men means that there are inevitable restrictions to navigate. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner lost a pillar of political support when her husband died and Dilma Rousseff cannot spend her whole presidency invoking her mentor; she has to continue Lula’s popularity while carving out her own policies to carry out which can define her as a separate success in her own right, not just one who basked in the glow of a former, male president.

Latin-Persian alliance on the way?

Is the confirmation by Bolivia of a loan of over $250 million from Iran a further sign of a growing alliance between the Islamic Republic and Latin America?

The thin air of La Paz can make first-time visitors feel faint. But the Iranian Minister of Industries and Mining, Ali Akbar Mehrabian, seemed completely at home as he signed an aid accord with President Evo Morales on 30 August. There are no specific demands placed on how Bolivia can use the money but it has been designated ‘development’ aid. It will probably go towards mining and mineral extraction; some believe that the small print of the deal includes details concerning the large uranium deposits located in the Bolivian region of Potosi. But the significance of the agreement really lies in the simple fact that such a deal has been done.

Morales used the press conference as an opportunity to denounce the UN sanctions placed on Iran, measures which are aimed at dissuading the country from developing a nuclear missile. Iran maintains that its nuclear programme is peaceful. In reply to the messages of Bolivian support, Mr Mehrabian replied “the two countries have good and common objectives in the world community”.

Pronouncements of shared ambitions and goals, usually doubling up as a chance to criticise the West are common when Iranians and Latin American leaders meet, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been obsequious in his comments towards Tehran. The BBC reported in 2009 that Venezuela and Iran had been trading and meeting for over five years, and the agreements they had come had been beneficial for the Venezuelan economy. The language has been truly brotherly with Chavez remarking that: “I assured him [Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] of our total solidarity as he’s under attack from global capitalism. He thanked me, and sent a fraternal hug to the Venezuelan people.”

Morales underlined the importance of the Caracas-Tehran link in last week’s meeting, announcing his ambition that Iran and Venezuela will join together to end the “unilateralism” of the world powers. And he also highlighted the growing friendliness between La Paz and Tehran by confirming that his Development and Planning Minister, Elba Viviana Caro, will visit Iran at the end of September to thank the Ahmadinejad administration for their backing and monetary aid.

But the movements by Bolivia and Venezuela are eclipsed by the actions of Brazil in fostering goodwill, teamwork and support between Latin America and Iran. Earlier this year the president, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, led calls not to approve a new round of economic sanctions on Iran. Although the Security Council voted convincingly in favour of the measures, Brazil, along with the Turkish delegation, faced up to global pressure in offering a hand to Tehran.

And although last month government sources confirmed that Brazil will now accept the Security Council’s decision to impose further sanctions, Foreign Minister Celso Amorim made it clear that this decision did not mean that there had been a change of heart by Brazil, saying again that the government did not agree with the coercive measures.

Brazil has taken up an indisputable place at the global table as the most influential Latin American nation. It is fast becoming a very important country to the rest of the world, particularly in food production. Two weeks ago, The Economist investigated the meteoric rise in farming output in the country, stating that Brazil has no superiors in the export of poultry, sugar cane and ethanol, and only the US is ahead when it comes to exporting soyabeans.

In addition, the newspaper noted that Brazil has as much renewable water by itself (more than 8,000 billion cubic kilometres per year) as the whole continent of Asia. All this means that the Brazilian star is rising and the outgoing president has made sure that the foreign policy side of his star does not necessarily shine on the Western giants. It is now a political giant itself, and the administration believes that Iran is not simply a Western irritant to be dismissed and denounced.

Yet that does not mean that the relationship is problem-free. On 31 July, President Lula offered refuge to Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian woman who has been sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, although that sentence is now under review after international condemnation. Interestingly, officials in Tehran gave the impression that they believed that Lula had simply been mistaken in his offer of asylum and did not have sufficient information on the case rather than rushing to reject Brazil’s actions. Ramin Mehmanparast, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman stated that: “as far as we know, [President Lula] is a very humane and emotional person…we will let him know about the details of the case.”

But Brazil cannot have its cake and eat it. In playing down the incident, Tehran has underlined the value it places on Brazilian support. If Lula wants to portray Brazil as a nation freely offering refuge to victims of capital sentences and maintain the country’s unique position in the world, he needs to balance his actions carefully. Close interest will be paid to the direction that his successor wants to take the country. Opinion over Iran will be high on the agenda, and, with Venezuela and Bolivia embedding themselves ever deeper with Tehran, the chance to build a strong Latin-Persian alliance may become increasingly alluring.