I’ve just returned from the annual B-Boy Prodigio event in La Paz, gawping at young, fit Latino men battling it out for this year’s 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 I’m guessing was pretty much La Paz’s 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 it’s 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 it’s 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 André de Oliveira and Jorge Zamora of local group Random were telling me, it’s 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 that´s coming out next year – which is basically an experiment.
André 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 didn´t 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 rock’n’roll… Talking Heads, New Order, a lot of postpunk stuff…
MR: You say there’s 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 don’t have the physical space to support us. We´re seven people, so it´s a lot of instruments…And what happened today will give you a good picture of the scene…We came here to make the soundcheck and the guy managing the soundsystem didn´t have any knowledge about what we were doing. He knows blues and rock bands – and that´s it. And besides that he didn´t even have the necessary gear to support us. It’s frustrating because we’ve both been in other places and know that these kinds of technical problems only really affect us here in Bolivia because…I wouldn´t say that they don´t have knowledge about electronic music, but they don´t have the technical knowledge about how it´s supposed to sound live.
But you know the problem is not money, that´s the funny part. You can say Bolivia, it’s a poor country…but 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, I´m 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 doesn´t reflect what people like you know? They don´t know what to like – they just get impressed by whatever the f*ck they listen to…And anyway promoters prefer to spend their money on safe stuff, things that people are gonna like for sure: pop music, tango, metal music…the biggest scenes.
MR: Metal is big here? How did that happen?
JZ: I don´t know. They’re pretty organised you know? With Indie and electronic music most of the people like to get high. They prefer to take drugs and they´re not that responsible. It´s like “where´s the guy that had to take care of this?”…”I don´t know, he took acid…he´s 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 we’re in a Spanish-Aymara-Quechua speaking country. But we think, aesthetically, that rock’n’roll is Anglo, so when we try to make music with Spanish lyrics we get a result that we don´t like. Our music is English in terms of language, but in terms of the concept it´s in Spanish. But it´s better to make music in English because how many people speak Spanish all around the world?
MR: So when you think about the audience you´re trying to reach, you´re thinking outside of Bolivia – why is that?
JZ: Because Bolivia is pretty narrow, musically speaking. And also the context we´re living in here, with an indigenous president and all of this indigenous philosophy – when you get into that kind of thing you´re going to get stuck. There’s a problem with this philosophy of equality. I think everybody should have the same opportunities as everybody else, but if people don´t 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! That´s not fair.
MR: So you feel that coming from the middle classes, and having privileges, you’re discriminated against?
AO: The government has to help musicians to grow more, help the culture grow, but it doesn’t. 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 aren´t enough people studying music here, but also here if you study music you´re going to be poor, you´re 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 aren´t interested in – when they see that it´s all classical they leave.
JZ: This country is so beautiful you know? Every time I leave to go study I get frustrated because I´m going to a city where the people that live there don´t need to leave, they have excellent universities and everything. Why do I have to leave my home? Because here we don´t have a single university that has a decent music major. And as for music technology – forget it, you can’t 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 Bolivia´s 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. It´s like all the art and culture and Bolivia, it keeps in small groups, in small mafias. There´s a lot of musicians in La Paz, but the best of them they´re not known. The best of them plays in his garage and that´s it, because they don´t have the opportunities to play out, with the narrow thinking that they have here…
That´s 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, it´s about arts generally – photography, digital arts, stuff like that. So it´s a big plan…but it´s hard to make it happen here. I think it´s 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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