Eliane Correa talks to LAB’s Tian Spain about Wara, a Cuban-Latin-London group whose members are an awe-inspiring mixture of Spanish, British, Cuban, Argentinian, Chilean and African nations. Yet it’s hard for them to break down the stereo-type images of salsa and rum and project not only the varieties and diversity of their music, but the realities confronting immigrants. “There’s so much heartbreak, nostalgia, broken families and disappointments in migration,” they say: and they try to reflect this in their lyrics.
LAB: How did the group form and where are you all from?
Eliane: I’d been wanting to do something with my songs for a while when, at the end of 2009, I said to some of my music classmates at the School of Oriental and African Studies, ‘Hey guys, let’s start a band’. None of my material was anywhere near finished at the time, and I just wrote out ‘Pretty Cliché’ on the bus on my way to the first rehearsal so that we had something to do! Callum from Movimientos saw us at one of our first gigs at SOAS and offered us a gig at Notting Hill Arts Club, then Glastonbury Festival, and it’s just been gigs and more gigs since. Movimientos has really helped us out a lot. There have been changes in band members over time, and the line-up is now pretty crazy – on the Latin front, the lead singer Juanita is Congolese-Argentinian, backing singer Nana is Ghanaian-Spanish, Lele on drums is Chilean, Ernesto on percussion is Venezuelan, and I’m Cuban-Argentinian-Spanish. On the London-grown front, Taurean on sax has Dominican-Kenyan heritage, Greg on guitar is Spanish-British and George and Josh are also Londoners. So, that’s 9 people altogether and 10 nationalities.
LAB: How would you describe your sound?
Eliane: I hope Wara can become a genre of its own as it develops… We are heavily influenced by modern Cuban music, mainly timba, songo and nueva fusión, which you can definitely hear in our music. But we don’t really sound Cuban-Cuban, for the obvious reason that we’re not Cuban-Cuban and we’re not in Cuba… So instead of trying to make 100% Cuban music, we try to use the unique cultural mix we have in the band to our favour by adding some of the ‘London stuff’—funk, soul, hip-hop, reggae, ska, and others. The sound of Wara is like Havana meets London via the rest of the world, not five or ten or fifty years ago, but right at this moment.
LAB: What do you write about in your songs?
Eliane: I’m glad you ask—just because there are high tempos, loudness and big dancing going on, people shouldn’t ignore the lyrics. Most of our songs have some sort of political or socially-aware content. The main topic is migration: some songs, such as ‘Flesh and Bone’ (on our last EP) and ‘Leave to Remain’ (in the upcoming album), criticise the UK Home Office’s treatment of immigrants and immigration policies, while others are about the emotional aspects of migration. This last is a huge topic, there are so many stories to be told, especially concerning Cuba which has its own travel restrictions: people leaving their whole lives behind to try their luck in the ‘North’, and trying to make it there in any way possible: by raft (‘Pide a Yemayá’), by marrying a foreigner—usually older and wealthy (‘No se Vende’, ‘Allá en París’), with their music (‘Somewhereland’). There’s so much heartbreak, nostalgia, broken families, moments of truth, hope and disappointment in migration, and I think it’s an aspect that many people don’t understand. Also, since last year’s student protests and riots, we’ve started touching on the topic of police violence (‘Run for Cover’).
LAB: What has your experience been of living in London as a Latin American?
Eliane: London is an interesting place for Latin Americans at the moment because it’s an identity that’s being formed as we speak—it’s only recently that the national media and politicians have started to recognise Latin Americans as an existing community in London and the UK. For the moment your average Londoner’s image of ‘Latin America’ is very limited, because of this lack of exposure. So while salsa dancing and Mexican restaurants are all very trendy, Latinos suffer from pretty scary unemployment rates in London, and they are usually stuck in unskilled jobs such as cleaning or bar work, even people who have university degrees in law, engineering, etc. It’s hard to break the stereotype sometimes. London is interested in us because we’re those unknown, cool exotic people with the salsa and the rum, but when it comes to being taken seriously, we still have a long way to go. The ever-increasing restrictions on non-EU immigrants imposed by the UK Border Agency is really not helping, either.
LAB: What is your impression of the Latin American music scene in London?
Eliane: Existing, but limited. There is a very developed pan-Latin salsa/reguetón scene in London, but when it comes to live bands, it’s a different story. First of all, there’s the Buena Vista Social Club obsession—everyone loves a bit of Buena Vista on a Friday night—but a lot of people don’t seem to realise that this is music from fifty, sixty years ago and that there have been plenty of really interesting developments in Cuban music since: songo, Cuban funk and jazz, timba, Cuban hip-hop.
Also, London’s Latin musicians have really felt the crisis. There’s not so much money in Latin gigs these days, meaning nobody has the time to really rehearse and put together full sets of original, fresh material. It’s a shame – we could have a buzzing scene with incredible quality. It’s not the musicians that are missing, there are some unbelievable Latin musicians here. It’s the investment from organisers that we need most. I work mainly in the Cuban music scene and when I look at the variety of Cuban acts from all sorts of genres and backgrounds that are gigging around mainland European cities, and then I look at London, famous for its multiculturalism and full of interesting musical cultures but with so little fresh activity on the Cuban music front, it makes me sad. At least, Latin music is on the map, but there is so much progress to be made.