Ive just returned from the annual B-Boy Prodigio event in La Paz, gawping at young, fit Latino men battling it out for this years breakdance crown (hard life). As far as I can tell the physical prize was a new phone and a skate helmet, but there was a lot of love and a lot of local glory for the winner from what Im guessing was pretty much La Pazs entire community of hip-hop heads, gathered in an an old art deco theatre. They kept us waiting enough time for the entertainment, and the repreated reeling off of thanks to a loooong list of sponsors was sad and irritating in equal measure (yes, Red Bull is everywhere here too, complete with pretty blonde girls to hand out the promo cans), but there were some nice hip-hop remixes of old funk tunes (even if played on a knackered soundsystem) and some quality performance including from the 12 year-old who made it to the last round, and tiny little Alvaro (no more than eight) who won the public vote in the open round.
Hip-hop is just one element of Western-derived youth culture that has its niche following here (not surprisingly). Last week I caught up with a couple of young musos who are trying to push things forward on the electronica scene. Below is part of the interview I did with them for Bolivian Express magazine, which gives you a little insight into what its like to be making music on the margins, as it were
I have to admit that I was surprised to arrive in La Paz and discover bands making music inspired by LCD Soundsystem.But perhaps my surprise was justified, since as Andr de Oliveira and Jorge Zamora of local group Random were telling me, its a major challenge just to get the necessary equipment and technical support let alone an appreciative audience for their brand of electronic music in La Paz. I spoke to them ahead of their second ever live gig:
Mads Ryle: Tell me a bit about how the Random project came about
Jorge Zamora: We just started jamming a couple of years ago, had an offer to play at a music festival, and then passed through a stressful six month recording process for the first EP thats coming out next year which is basically an experiment.
Andr de Oliveira: You know we wanted to do something new and creative and break the rules here in Bolivia. Here things are very narrowminded and we wanted to get out of that
JZ: We didnt like the rigid structure that electronic music has, so we decided to mix in the stuff that we listen to Hot Chip, LCD Soundsystem, a lot of old rockn’roll Talking Heads, New Order, a lot of postpunk stuff
MR: You say theres quite a restricted scene here that you working in? Why is that?
JZ: The problem is that all the clubs here are very small, and most dont have the physical space to support us. Were seven people, so its a lot of instrumentsAnd what happened today will give you a good picture of the sceneWe came here to make the soundcheck and the guy managing the soundsystem didnt have any knowledge about what we were doing. He knows blues and rock bands and thats it. And besides that he didnt even have the necessary gear to support us. Its frustrating because weve both been in other places and know that these kinds of technical problems only really affect us here in Bolivia becauseI wouldnt say that they dont have knowledge about electronic music, but they dont have the technical knowledge about how its supposed to sound live.
But you know the problem is not money, thats the funny part. You can say Bolivia, its a poor countrybut in other countries people have the same issues we have here. And you can find that all of your friends here who are DJs some of them mediocre, Im sorry make a lot of money out of it. So the problem is not money, the problem is culture. People are very easily influenced. When DJ Tiesto came here it was a very funny social experiment because everyone started to download Tiesto music and within the month before he came here knew all his tunes. And of course that doesnt reflect what people like you know? They dont know what to like they just get impressed by whatever the f*ck they listen toAnd anyway promoters prefer to spend their money on safe stuff, things that people are gonna like for sure: pop music, tango, metal musicthe biggest scenes.
MR: Metal is big here? How did that happen?
JZ: I dont know. Theyre pretty organised you know? With Indie and electronic music most of the people like to get high. They prefer to take drugs and theyre not that responsible. Its like wheres the guy that had to take care of this?I dont know, he took acidhes not here
MR: What would you need in order to have an audience that was familiar enough with your kind of music to be receptive?
JZ: We have a problem because we make music in English, and were in a Spanish-Aymara-Quechua speaking country. But we think, aesthetically, that rockn’roll is Anglo, so when we try to make music with Spanish lyrics we get a result that we dont like. Our music is English in terms of language, but in terms of the concept its in Spanish. But its better to make music in English because how many people speak Spanish all around the world?
MR: So when you think about the audience youre trying to reach, youre thinking outside of Bolivia why is that?
JZ: Because Bolivia is pretty narrow, musically speaking. And also the context were living in here, with an indigenous president and all of this indigenous philosophy when you get into that kind of thing youre going to get stuck. Theres a problem with this philosophy of equality. I think everybody should have the same opportunities as everybody else, but if people dont have the same opportunuties, what do they do? They sabotage the people that has more opportunities than others, and for what? So that everyone can be equal! Thats not fair.
MR: So you feel that coming from the middle classes, and having privileges, youre discriminated against?
AO: The government has to help musicians to grow more, help the culture grow, but it doesnt. So you have all the artists here trying to get out of Bolivia.
JZ: But not if you do folk music. If you do folk music you can stay here, and live kinda well.
MR: I know that music education here is very much grounded in classical music. But how important is it to study music? Or are there just not enough people studying music?
AO: Well there arent enough people studying music here, but also here if you study music youre going to be poor, youre never going to be somebody, so a lot of them decide to study law or something else. But also the universities teach stuff that most people arent interested in when they see that its all classical they leave.
JZ: This country is so beautiful you know? Every time I leave to go study I get frustrated because Im going to a city where the people that live there dont need to leave, they have excellent universities and everything. Why do I have to leave my home? Because here we dont have a single university that has a decent music major. And as for music technology forget it, you cant get it here.
MR: What would need to change in order for you to be able to have the opportunities you want to have, while at the same time preserving Bolivias unique culture?
AO: I think we need more cultural space. All the cultural spaces are managed by guys that only include their own groups of people. Its like all the art and culture and Bolivia, itkeeps in small groups, in small mafias. Theres a lot of musicians in La Paz, but the best of them theyre not known. The best of them plays in his garage and thats it, because they dont have the opportunities to play out, with the narrow thinking that they have here
Thats why I want to create a record label, to promote those other bands, strange bands to most of the people and expand the culture here. We want to create something really big not just about music, its about arts generally photography, digital arts, stuff like that. So its a big planbut its hard to make it happen here. I think its more for an external audience, but we wish to stay here because we want people here to see that there are oher kinds of music and other kinds of talent.
To sign off I wanted to share with you a musical discovery from over this side. Not Bolivia, but Argentina, where the wonderful Gustavo Cerati has tragically been in a vegetative state since June. Treat yourself to a listen.
Check Maddington Bear’s brand-spanking new blog holding more photos of Wander & Wonder… and lots more!
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