Rebecca Wilson discusses music as message and therapy, gigging in Bristol and the ever-changing tropical folk sound of Cuban-Colombian band Ají Pa’ti.
I met up with Julián (guitar player, band director and songwriter) and Indira (lead singer), of modern tropical folk band, Ají Pa’tí (roughly translated as Chilli For You), as they had just played their last concert of the year at Left Bank, coincidentally where they also played their first gig together.
After three years without leaving the country, and with their inquisitive baby Gabriel, they both feel it is time to fly back to Latin America. This will be Indira’s first time in Colombia, and Julian’s first time in Cuba. This does not, however, mean a break from music, quite the opposite in fact. They have ideas for videos, hopes of recording more of their sound and of setting up innovative gigs around Ibagué, Julián’s Andean hometown, which he left ten years ago. “It will give a lot to our music”, they tell me, throwing around sensuous ideas, “inspiration”, “family”, “friends”, “heat”, “sound”, “writing”, “mountains”, “beach”!
It will be Gabriel’s first time outside of England. They never thought about having children, they told me, “and then, look! Suddenly you’re in love with a baby.” A Bristolian baby. I ask the couple to what extent they feel Bristolian. “It’s our home”, they tell me, “but we will have to leave Bristol to see how much we miss it and how we are affected by it every day.” It’s in the small things, we agree, which they’ll only be able to really gauge once they’ve left Bristol. Perhaps they feel American in England and British in America. “The baby makes us Bristolian. I’ve met a lot of wonderful people here”, Indira tells me, “and culture, food, music, everything! I have a great connection with all that. I feel a bit of Bristol in me…this is my place. I’ve been here 5 years now.”
Indira met an English producer whilst living in Antigua where she used to sing. They travelled to Southport (West Lancs) in 2009 where she took part in, and won the competition Salsa Kingdom. After that she continued with the same producer in Manchester before coming to Bristol with her then boyfriend, as he had friends in Bristol”. Julián had arrived 5 years prior. “I never thought about coming to Bristol or to England. I left my city and came straight here with a girlfriend. We split up, I stayed. It was never part of my plan but now it is my life!” It turns out Julián’s friends were also those of Indira’s boyfriend. Chance brought them together in November 2010. By December they were playing together, a Colombian song, at the open mic at Left Bank.
The band rapidly grew, “people were interested in Latin music and everyone would just say ‘I want to work with you!’ and then we did!” “Last year or so we decided to make a smaller band and use computer effects for the background sound”. I ask Julián why and he describes the impracticalities in management. Organising rehearsals was a great challenge, travel was a difficult and pay was arduously split, sometimes between twelve people! “We can now work faster. We produce all of our own music, and find it easier with fewer musicians.” They tell me more about the electronic sounds they are using, “the computer is really great for music, it’s popular right now to work in production, building sounds is a very quick way to work, it’s more specific- you can achieve what you really want to hear in your music”. However, the tech side is a ‘whole world’. “We’ve been learning bits and bobs, but it’s huge. We want to produce, write and show what we do, to have live performances and be able to record.”
So how has the music changed and adapted? “Initially the music was very Andean. It became more tropical and Cuban after meeting Indira. We try to find a sound that combines both places and assembles traditional folklore. We want to unite the Caribbean and the Andes through our music and I think we’ve done a good job with that.” The sound of Ají Pa’ti changes every year, as they work with different musicians. “This creates space for additional sounds, it keeps moving” Julián explains. They were predominantly acoustic to begin with, a more delicate sound, which has now “blown into something bigger.” Originally they were described as the ‘new tropical folk sound’, however with the electric guitar, the drum kit and the computerised aspect, their sound has developed into something more modern, influenced by Rock ‘n’ Roll beats and melodies from the UK, but forever based in the folk roots of Cuba and Colombia: the Caribbean.
Will they keep evolving? “Probably, but it will still be us. Just like a person changing with time in their ways of thinking and dressing, but you are always you. You keep moving along with everything else.” Indira tells me how Bristol has exposed them to more reggae, dub, and rock. Hearing this has in some way affected the sound and the composition. Indira seems particularly inspired when we talk about composition and the current motivation for incorporating English lyrics. “There are strong, beautiful messages in our lyrics which are lost [in the barriers of language].”
In the song ‘Somos’, written by José Barco (charango and gaita player and singer), the [im]balance of order in the world is brought to the forefront:
‘E íbamos discutiendo lo difícil que es la vida
De los que estamos abajo mientras que los de allá arriba…
yo soy más que plata, vos sos más que oro,
alma carne sangre y hueso, mira’
[So we go on discussing the hardship that is life,
for those of us who are down below whilst they are up above…
I’m worth more than silver, you’re worth more than gold,
soul flesh blood and bone, look]
Simple but powerful messages are reiterated and current-day examples are incorporated, e.g. they privatise our services, they patent our seeds, they force our farmers from their rural homes. Focus fluctuates between the oppressor, ‘No tienen, no tienen no tienen corazón. Así tengan mucho dinero’ [They have no heart, that’s how they make so much money] and the people, ‘Somos pueblo lindo, somos ilusiones grandes, somos pueblo que camina, ay no me dominan’ [We are a beautiful people, we are hopes and dreams, we are a town who march, they don’t rule over me.] The song is catchy and rhythmic, but is serious and commands integrity in its tone. The feelings around most of José’s songs are a testament to his upbringing in a Colombian slum and his work as a community organiser, gaining inspiration from the people he has been surrounded by, whom despite economical poverty have been “full of dreams and potential”. “When we write lyrics we try to give a message to the world”, Indira implores, “the message here is to remind others and ourselves that people are people”. Is the message always the same? I ask. “The message is always different, whether it is peace, love, children… it’s not always social”.
‘A las mujeres como yo’, Ají’s single released last September “brings a message to all the women fighting every day for their dream”. It was initially written by Segura as a love song, but was adapted to become more relatable. The video features women of all different nationalities holding up a message in their language [it is a really beautiful, fun video, see if you can spot the people and places of Bristol! http://www.ajipati.co.uk/video/.] Their aim was to empower women through music, through film and through collaborative art, to promote respect and rights and to inspire. “As an artist with access to a microphone you have the ability to talk to a group of people, this is a huge chance to pass on a message and let it spread,” Indira tells me. But music isn’t always about lyrics trying to teach something, other times it is just for fun! “Since the beginning we’ve wanted the music to be dance music. We’ll play one or two ballads,” Julián explains, “but mostly songs for dancing!
Indira’s performance is a huge factor in the contagious motivation to dance and immerse yourself in the concert. It is how she shares her Latin roots with the audience; in the lyrics, in her movement, “in the way you are with people. In my case I take the microphone, sing, try to be myself…and people can feel this.” The response is beautiful. Indira wears flowing skirts in bright colours and flowers in her hair, she connects with her audience as individuals in warm, fun performance. Her smile and energy is infectious as she shows the audience how to celebrate, to enjoy yourself and others through music and movement.
Sadly, it seems Bristol’s venues are lacking respect and understanding for artists today, increasingly driven by fiscal, over artistic, endeavours. Ají Pa’ti have played almost every venue in Bristol now, yet they still struggle to find spaces where musicians are treated the way they should be. “Plantation is like our home, the manager is a friend and we play there each month.” It seems to be one of the only venues that treats musicians well and pays properly, whilst still charging no more than a few quid on the door. However, they are not pointing the finger in any direction: “It’s everyone’s fault. We have this attitude that musicians are entertaining and will do it for free. But we need to pay rent, this is our job. Our band is clear on this”. This clarity and drive is key to the success of the group, something I particularly admire in Julián’s leadership. It is difficult for a larger band, whose members all play unique instruments, to have a good sound quality in a venue which doesn’t care. Often the sound is good for the audience but the monitors for the band are useless, especially in picking up delicate sounds from range of strings, brass, percussion and woodwind instruments. “You want to play comfortably and show your music properly”. This, surely, is the point in a live music venue. If all we wanted was alcohol, we’d go to the off-licence!
Julián is delighted with their studio recordings, in which care has been taken over all of the sounds interwoven by Ají Pa’ti. “It’s hard to then play these songs and make them sound as they do in the recordings!” With the swelling DJ culture in Bristol, diverse sounds and compositions can be played through a mixer and properly amplified for the audience. Only one person needs a paycheck and time is saved in setting up. For a while Ají Pa’ti were the resident band at The Cuban, playing every Friday and Saturday before the later DJ set. Live music has now been cut completely. It’s a great shame that this is the case for such a musically vibrant city, and perhaps more reflection and pressure must be put in and on our favourite venues. The best gigs? St. George’s in Bristol, The Birdcage (for a Mexican Día de los muertes tribute) and Glastonbury (which they’ve played and loved multiple times).
So what else do they do? Julián is a Spanish teacher to adults in Stoke Bishop, has taught English in Colombia and has been involved in many different musical projects. He has a passion, and a real talent it seems, for music therapy. When Julián finished university and was looking for a job, a psychologist friend asked for his help in a charitable project. Many people had been displaced from their rural homes and were forced to sleep on the city streets, “there were whole families on the street: children, parents, grandparents… They were given four hours to leave the house.” This was (and still is) the case for thousands of people, because of the actions of shameful multi-nationals such as BP and Coca Cola, paramilitary forces and local guerrilla groups. Julián’s job was to lead music workshops and writing sessions, mainly for elderly people who had been displaced.
In these workshops, people were able were to recount their experience through the art of writing, in individual and group compositions, and then perform them. “These people were in a very difficult situation and the project gave them a space where they could forget about it for a second and enjoy the music.” He recalled how they would impatiently anticipate the sessions, delightfully childlike in their excitement. It’s a blessing that music allows people to feel young and animated. It was all traditional Andean music, which the participants were accustomed to, “they play this music in the countryside” [a foreign concept if you’ve always lived in England!]. Julián expressed how grateful he is for this experience, which no doubt is a reciprocated sentiment.
Indira, too, has brought music to the elderly and disabled in Southmead Hospital, singing for the “viejitos”. “They were so happy”, she tells me, a modest but great smile spreading across her face, “I was very pleased to make them happy.” For Indira, “music is health, it is everything. Even when we play in bars, people are affected. People get the vibe, enjoy, loosen up,” especially when moving and dancing together, I add. “It makes them feel better!” This is clear to Indira, it needs no forcing. Her ease with performing and welcoming, all-embracing nature plays a huge part in the response of their audiences.
Julián has also worked for The Playbus Project, a nationwide charity which uses art mediums to encourage creative expression, especially in those who are more vulnerable, or living in socially or economically disadvantaged communities. It offers an inclusive space (a decorated bus) for young people to play in. Julián recounts it being “really cool” and “really hard”. The Bristol faction, whom he worked with in rough areas around the city for two years, struggled with money and resources and the children were very difficult to work with, especially in a space where teaching was only to be offered if the child wanted to learn. Primarily they were there to facilitate the space and the instruments.
However, the power of music is shown throughout all of their adventures, and I can tell you, they believe in it with their whole hearts. To me it seems what they really want is to share this gift as widely as possible, encourage us to question, to care and to celebrate, to dance and to feel!
So what’s next? They will take part in the Bristol Salsa Congress 2016 in January (organised this year by a Guatemalan), before planning their visit to Latin America and they’ll be watching their beautiful son get to know the world. Songwriter José, along with Michel (Ají Pa’ti’s trumpet player), Justin (who plays drums with Ají Pa’ti) and a couple of others from BristoLatino favourite Baila La Cumbia, will be embarking on a new project (also named Somos), a more rootsy sound, playing Colombian covers and Jose’s more political compositions. It was an absolute treat to spend time with this wonderful band, we wish you the best of luck with everything, Ají Pa’ti, and keep an ear out for Somos in 2016!
Header photo by Ají Pa’ti. All Plantation photographs courtesy of India Rose.