She was a close friend of this publication, both critical and kind. Some of the articles we ended up publishing in this magazine came from conversations with her. She was a unique woman who quietly but persistently championed many causes. She had a fierce and independent mind and a truly generous heart. Today, on her birthday, we remember her with an article she penned about the untold story of Latin American music in London. Unexpectedly, she passed away last November. We miss you Kate

Latin American music is only rarely part of the hit parade in the West, but at the same time salsa has become as pervasive as the yoga class from church halls to bars in London and across the country. Latin music is also associated with carnival, and an annual London event, the Carnaval del Pueblo brings together London’s Latin musicians and performers visiting from South America.

A couple of museums in London explore South American music, which in turn tells the story of movements of people. In the sixteenth century Hispanic invaders and the enslaved Africans they brought to South America both added to the indigenous sound. Then further migrations – brought about by political upheaval or economic necessity – brought the music and musicians to Europe.

Very early music

The Mexican gallery at The British Museum has objects associated with the earliest rhythms of South America. A pottery figure of a drummer with a flamboyant head-dress sits in one cabinet. Discovered in the province of Nayarit, he was made somewhere between 300 BC – 300AD. The music of this early drummer would have been mixed with trumpets, flutes and rattles at festivals.

This is an example of an Aztec slit-drum called a teponaztli in Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs. It was hollowed-out and carved from a piece of hardwood. Two tongues were slotted at the top, carefully carved to achieve different tones when struck with drumsticks. Teponaztli were generally decorated with designs in relief or carved to represent human figures or animals. The origin of the instrument is not known but it is likely to go back many centuries before Aztec times. Courtesy of The British Museum.

There are also some extraordinary carved drums from 1200 – 1521 just prior to the European invasions. They are carved with elaborate scenes – this one shows a creature of ill-omen, an owl, and may have been used at funerals. Another is carved in the shape of a bound captive.

The Horniman Museum’s music galleries also include some very early instruments. Some are familiar, like a metal flute, others are barely recognisable, like the composite whistling pot from Peru (made by the Chimu culture any time between AD 100 – 1470) Look for something that resembles two teapots joined together. There are also whistles about the shape and size of a yoyo and made into novelties like a bird and a rather fierce devil.

Carnival and struggle

The Horniman also displays instruments made by Cruz Quinal ‘the bandolin king’ who worked in a village near Cumanacoa in Venezuela. You can see both African and European heritage in the choice of instruments and, as the Horniman notes, the importance of one musical instrument or another can be symbolic of cultural influences fighting for dominance in the music.

A similar story underlies fabulous costumes from the Ororu carnival in the Bolivian Andes, which are returning to the British Museum’s Living and Dying Galleries in early July. This elaborate devil of the mines headdress, tells of the period where Indian miners had to endure hardship in the silver mines. Although the brightly coloured masks are modern, the carnival itself and its traditions stretch back to the 1790s.

The music comes to London

Arguably Latin music began to have visibility in London because of the Venezuelan Edmundo Ros who arrived here in 1937. Originally hired to play at select supper clubs, he eventually produced a diluted form of Cuban dance music that the British could dance to. His influence popularised congas and later the cha-cha-cha in the 50s. Now aged 97, he’s retired to Spain, having lived to see several reflowerings of Latin American music.

The arrival of people fleeing political persecution from the military dictatorships of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Chile during the 60s and 70s brought another dimension to the music. By the early 80s London already had some well-established salsa venues such as La Finca which continues to thrive in Kennington.

The Brazilian legend Caetano Veloso lived in North and West London as did his friend Gilberto Gil. Thrown out of Brazil for 2 years at a time when their brand of Tropicalist music was considered subversive, both went to London for the music scene. Veloso’s English language number London, London paints a picture of a benign, lonely, aimless existence in the capital, but his music thrived during exile.

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when Peter Gabriel created the World Music label. It was important because it opened the door for many British music producers to work with exiled musicians. Big concerts followed with artists such as Colombian Toto La Monposina or the Afro-Peruvian Susana Baca selling out The Royal Festival Hall in the mid 1990’s.

This Festival for Chile took place in 1983, as part of the Greater London Council Peace Year. It was organised in association with the Chile Solidarity Campaign and showcased Latin American music and crafts. Courtesy of Museum of London.

The influence of the Latin American community and the appreciation of Latin American music – particularly salsa and Cuban son – have allowed promoters to bring the big bands from the other side of the Atlantic. Big names in Salsa such as Ruben Blades, Celia Cruz and Tito Puente all came to London in the mid 1990’s. It was also the time of Buena Vista Social club and the rediscovery of the old guard of Cuban Son like Efrain Ferrer and others who toured constantly in Europe until Ferrer’s recent death.

At the end of the 1990s some Latin American musicians established a permanent base in the UK such as Toto la Monposina, Susana Baca and the Venezuelan salsa musician Oscar de Leon.

Ordinary exiles have also expressed their situation through music. In 2005 the oral historian and singer Sofia Buchuk interviewed a number of the refugees for a CD Crossing Borders available from the Evelyn Oldfield Unit . The singer Henry Bran, from El Salvador, is one of those she spoke to – he sings in English about the trouble in his home country.

Forget tame Salsa classes, this carnival -The Notting Hill Gate Carnival in West London- that takes place over a bank holiday week in August attracts over a 150,000 Londoners every year.

Credit: Omar Lee.

Recently appreciation for Latin American music has expanded to cumbia, Bosa Nova, Vallenato and indigenous folk music. Tango remains a performing arts spectacle and occasionally Londoners get to see the odd pop-hybrid band like the magnificent Los de Abajo from Mexico who are extremely popular but still play small venues.

For range and sheer spectacle though, the Carnaval del Pueblo en August is probably the best introduction to Latin American music in London. A carnival procession travels from City Hall to Burgess Park in South London. Originally a tiny event for 4000 people in 1999, now around 130,000 Londoners attend.

Kate Smith (1971-2022). Editor, museum researcher, cultural commentator and LGBT+ activist. Her obituary by The Museum Association can be read here