Interview: Cubafrobeat – London and its Afro-Cuban Flow (September 2021)

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On Friday, they are going to be one of the very first acts to walk on the Woolwich Works stage and launch the Black History Month event calendar of the South-East London brand spanking new venue. 

But that’s nothing less than what they deserve because Cubafrobeat, the album-grown-into project conceived, launched and developed by fusionistas-par-excellance Lokkhi Terra and afrobeat Eminence Dele Sosimi, is “London-fusion” to the nth degree.

A similar collaboration can indeed hardly come to life in any other city of the world because it represents the quintessence of what London is, its social and cultural fabric.

To discover more about Cubafrobeat, its protagonists and for an “official” invitation to the show happening on Friday, we had a chat with Kishon Khan, band leader of Lokkhi Terra and prime mover of the collaboration.

Cubafrobeat is by definition an album released by Lokkhi Terra and Dele Sosimi in 2018 on Funkiwala Records. However, to describe it, you have to go far beyond the phonographic boundaries and involve the London soundscape, its cross-cultural soul and the absolute quality of all the musicians participating. That’s how we wanted to set our interview with Kishon in motion, from the inception and basics of Cubafrobeat…

Cubafrobeat started around 2012 and grew over a number of years. It’s quite an organic process. It’s a meeting of two bands. It’s the meeting of Lokkhi Terra, which is my main band, and Dele Sosimi’s band. There’s already a natural link between those two bands, and so far, we’ve shared a lot of common musicians

From the mid-90s, from the beginning of my career, I’m from the London afrobeat community and that’s how I met with Justin [Thurgur, trombonist, composer and arranger of the band] and Dele. I’m also in that little Latin community, which is at the basis of Lokkhi Terra. Then, when we started doing festivals, we usually invited Dele to come and jam with us and that’s how Cubafrobeat started to come about.

The first gig when we started to do something “officially” Cubafrobeat was for a peace event organised by Wallee McDonnell in 2013. That’s when we formally did something called “Lokkhi Terra meets Dele Sosimi.” We wrote one song appositely for that set and Dele started to jam on it. From that song, other songs came. The song is called ‘AfroSambroso’ and is part of the album we released in 2018. 

We played it with Lokkhi Terra and then invited Dele to put some vocals on top of that for that occasion. He formally did that rather than jamming. In 2014, we headlined the La Linea Festival, which was meant to be a Lokkhi Terra gig, but we also presented Cubafrobeat and that was kind of like a new direction for us.

Then there were a couple of years where we’d still bump into each other. And then it was finally like, let’s get this recorded and start a new project!

Moving our attention back to the album itself, we were more than thrilled to learn that (fingers crossed) Cubafrobeat will see a follow-up quite soon…

We started recording the Cubafrobeat album in 2016 and it came out in 2018. In 2019, we had a remix album and there’s a new album already in the mix. I mean, we’ve kind of recorded most of it, I just need to find the time to go, mix and produce it. I’m just working out how to do it. Maybe we want to record another song because we’ve only got three long tunes at the moment. So, I’m thinking, maybe I should do a few shorter songs…I would like it to come out by 2022 for sure, but I’m almost scared to mention it.

I’m also working on how we put it out. There’s a good chance that we’re going to start a new project and properly call it Cubafrobeat. At the moment Cubafrobeat was just the name of the album… So, are we going to make a new band, or should we bring it under the name of Lokkhi Terra and Dele Sosimi as we already did? If I don’t start a new project, then the album will happen quicker because it’s with other Lokkhi Terra songs. But if I start a new project, then it may be delayed.

Considering that collaborative projects between artists with such outstanding and distinct musicianship, experiences and sounds are not always long-lasting beds of roses, Cubafrobeat can already be seen as a remarkable example of musical teamwork and partnership. So, we asked Kishon to reveal to us the dynamics of the band and how their creative process works.

What I can say is that Cubafrobeat is focusing on elements that we’ve been focusing on in Lokkhi Terra for a while. In Lokkhi Terra, I personally take my own heritage from Bangladesh, and mix it with two huge influences in my career, which are the whole continent of Latin America, not just the Cuban or Brazilian sound, and predominantly West Africa, but also South Africa. So different Africa(s). When we do invite Dele on, we tend to focus on a more natural link rather than on this cross-continental link, which is the Cuban influence in Lokkhi Terra and Dele’s own African influence.

For me, it’s a dream band because it’s a bunch of fusionistas. So those of us from Europe myself, Justin Thurgur, Graeme Flowers [trumpet player], Tansay [Omar, who plays the drums and timbales]… We’ve spent our whole careers playing these musical languages. And then a bunch of musicians who have those musical languages in their blood. So, a bunch of Cubans who have their Cuban side in their blood, then Dele who occasionally brings Afla [Sackey, Ghanaian percussionist, vocalist, composer and bandleader of Afrik Bawantu], bringing in what he is a master of.

Sometimes there’s a collaboration. But when it comes to composing, I tend to generate the grooves, also the arrangements are generated by myself. But there’s no fixed rule.

I’d usually bring on Dele to play on a section, saying, “Dele let’s try to write a song over this section.” Then, I’ll bring in Javier [Camilo – percussionist and vocals] saying, “I’ve got an idea of a chorus, let’s develop that over this section.” With Justin we sit down and develop the horns. Sometimes I write a theme, other times it is someone from the group coming up with something cool… So, it is really a collaborative process, but I will be the one responsible if it’s not happening.

For me, band leadership is not about doing everything. Sometimes it is. But in these types of bands, it’s not about writing, it’s not about being the master of everything. Leadership is about who facilitates that collaboration and you have to be the one who takes responsibility for getting the guys together, getting things started, having the venue, and then you choose who is going to be involved.

Sometimes you’ve got a clearer idea of an overall plan, while other times you are very open, then you see how things develop. Some of these tunes have developed over time. For example, this one, which we haven’t recorded yet, but we play live, which is a tune in five that we wrote in Lokkhi Terra and invited them to come up with something that would make it a Cubafrobeat version.

As Kishon is involved in a dozen and more music projects, some of them long-lasting like Lokkhi Terra while others are more transitory, we wondered how he could let all those souls coexist and juggle between them. 

The way I look at all these projects is each band has a slightly different swing in repertoire. You will see this already in each one of these genres, let’s say the Latin genre, you have a tune like ‘Bilongo’/’Mandinga’ done by multiple artists, and each one has a different soul. So, we kind of follow that tradition. Even if it’s a song we’ve written, if I do it in Lokkhi Terra, I will bring out the time signature, which is an Asian time signature. If I do it in Cubafrobeat, I will focus less on that and play it as an Afro-Latin tune. But it’s still the same groove, the same melody that we’re playing around with using different arrangements. With Cubafrobeat, I always focus on Cuba and Nigeria. In that case, my heritage is less important, so I approach it as a Londoner and someone who’s been playing in those languages.

Approaching music and playing it as Londoners is one of the main features of Cubafrobeat. Despite the traditions the band refers to being properly West African and Cuban, the soul of the project is ultimately Londoner.

Oddly, with Cubafrobeat, the cultural link is an obvious one. But for whatever reason, it has not been developed so much. Still, the connection between Cuba and Nigeria is obvious in Yoruba. A lot of music from Cuba, especially the Afro-Cuban traditions, is Dele’s heritage.

The reason why you haven’t seen many of those types of obvious collaborations is because, traditionally, you’ve got all the people who are from one tradition living in one country, and all the people from the other tradition living in another country. We are of the generation where you have all those traditions living in a city and side by side. So, it’s very obvious London music. When I started Lokkhi Terra, all these mixes were remarkable and I’m happy to say now, with a new generation of musicians coming up, they’re not remarkable anymore. They’re just obvious languages that are living side by side in this multicultural city.

We chatted about the studio dimension and what goes on behind the scenes, but to truly understand and enjoy Cubafrobeat sound, one has to experience their live shows…

On stage it’s delightful. We’ve all been working together for, you know, up to 25 years, some of us have. So, we have a party. It’s in the rehearsals where things are more serious. By the time we get to the stage, everything’s like let’s go and party! And working with Dele, you’re working with someone when he speaks that tradition is delightful. Then having a combination of him and Oreste Noda or Gerardo [De Armas Sarria] or Hammadi [Valdes] who play bata, that combination is a dream line-up for me. Literally, globally I couldn’t think of a better line-up.

Also, the experience that these guys have. The experience in those languages. The combination of fusionistas we have been mixing for 25 years, of people who have the languages that we’re mixing in their blood, it’s a really interesting combination of musicians.

As we have mentioned, Cubafrobeat will be, in just two days’ time, one of the very first shows happening at Woolwich Work. Kishon already paid a visit to the brand-new venue performing with the New Regency Orchestra and he’s more than looking forward to coming back on Friday…

I’m always thrilled when new venues start, especially ones with decent capacities. I arrived today playing with another band, but the first thing I said to the organisers was… I really hope you succeed, also because it’s not as far as I thought it would be. It didn’t take me long and it’s really close to the DLR, it says 7 minutes walk on Google maps, but it’s much less than that. I live in another part of London, so for me it’s terrible to think how rarely I get to come here, especially in Greenwich and Woolwich. So, I’m glad to have the opportunity. Jokes apart, I’m glad that there are new venues that bring people together and I’m really hoping it will succeed in bringing together a mixture, not just of local audiences, but people from far.

Finally, according to our tradition, we wanted to close the interview with some sort of official introduction made by the band leader himself…

I would introduce Cubafrobeat as a London sound where you have different musical languages mixing. You have a Nigerian traditional afrobeat made famous by Fela Kuti mixing with various Cuban traditions ranging from son to timba and it’s the best of afrobeat and Cuban musicians on one stage!

 

 

– You ca still your ticket for Friday’s at Woolwich Works following THIS LINK –

Photo © Siobhan Bradshaw

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