8 Minute read

The Culture Interview – singer/songwriter Luz Elena Caicedo

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8 Minute Read

Luz Elena Caicedo, in her 50s, is the brilliant Colombian singer/bandleader with Conjunto Sabroso, a world-class Latin band who has performed everywhere from the UK to China. Luz has just released her FIRST VIDEO and it’s of the beautiful Yo Soy Mujer Con Tantas Mujeres Dentro (I Am A Woman with So Many Women Inside) which celebrates women and also highlights their global struggles. It coincides with International Women’s Day today. It also comes out at a time when Colombia has just made abortion legal. You can watch it here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hJk3Q7G5dqU

Tell me something about the connection between this song and International Women’s Day?

I would say that because the song focuses on sorority and the idea that we are in essence a collage of the many other women in our lives, and because it both celebrates women’s achievements and highlights our universal struggles, it is directly connected to this special date.

Some would argue that Women’s Day should be every day but I believe that having a specific date to mark International Women’s  Day – is an acknowledgement of our struggle, and of the fact that we have only gotten this far because of the courage, battles, alliances, support, and sacrifices made by so many other women before us. As I say in the song: ‘…we are standing on the remains of many others sacrificed…’

And also about the making of this video? The director is a woman too?

Yes, the video director is Alejandra Jimenez a Colombian film-maker. It really was an organic process, I happened to sing the song (which I was in the process of recording), in her husband’s Zoom birthday party during the lockdown, and she really liked  it, she said ‘that is an amazing song, it really touched me, Luz Elena we have to do a video of it…’, I didn’t think she was serious, but the next time we met, she brought it up again, and I was so flattered, I said of course that I would be honoured.

She explained her vision and what she wanted to do, which was to include shots/images from the women in my family, as well as other close friends. I said I would also like to include some of the Latin American songstresses who have influenced me musically, such as La Lupe from Cuba, Toña La Negra from Mexico, and Mercedes Sosa from Argentina who all appear in the video, intertwined with images of women in marches, social leaders, indigenous women, as well as images alluding to mother earth ‘La Pachamama’ to which I dedicate a verse to in the song.

As Alejandra says, there are many layers to the video. Another important aspect of the creation of the video was the various women coming together contributing their time and expertise, namely my niece Lina Maria Caicedo also a filmmaker and archive producer, who provided all the archive footage, and supported me throughout the process, and Elena Rodriguez who assisted Alejandra with technical issues. This video truly was an example of sorority at its best!

Do you relate to particular women’s struggles in the world?

I don’t consider myself a feminist, although you could argue that I may have perhaps rewritten the narrative of what was expected of me as a Colombian woman from a conservative family, given that I chose not to have any children, and that I am a bandleader and lead singer of a band in a male-dominated genre, in that sense I would say that perhaps I’m more of a feminist by action than by personal perception.

I don’t belong to any active group combating gender inequalities, but of course, I relate to the many issues and struggles that as women we all face, for instance, less pay, less credibility as an artist, fewer opportunities in professional settings, the fight against domestic violence, the legalisation of abortion etc.

Tell me how Conjunto Sabroso started?

I never intended to be a Salsa singer, I was a Colombian and Latín folk dancer for many years, I actually saw myself as a dancer who sang a bit and played a bit of guitar. However, when I came back from my year abroad in Mexico in 1992 the Latin/Salsa scene had exploded in the UK. I was told there was a Salsa band auditioning female backing singers, and I went to audition and got the gig.

It was a 7 piece band, all men plus me. I didn’t really like their repertoire, but it was an opportunity to sing professionally which I had never done before! My harmonies were not very strong and after 8 months they told me I was going to be on a three-month trial, and that I would have to go if I didn’t improve because they were ‘…going up in the world, and I wasn’t moving with them…’ I felt very hurt naturally, but I decided to leave soon after that conversation, and form my own band, where I wouldn’t be told what to sing by a man.

I realised I was more of a lead singer, as I felt like I was in the straightjacket of singing backing vocals with a bunch of men and just looking pretty. I formed a band where I had the freedom to do what I wanted, specially choosing my own repertoire, which was very liberating. It was a great lesson, it gave me the courage to start something that has stood the test of time. Today I am proud to say, we are one of the most popular and longest-running Salsa bands in the UK, and are blessed to have some of the most outstanding, talented and experienced musicians on the Latin scene playing with us!

And your history as a singer? Did everyone in your family sing?

There are no other musicians in my family but my maternal grandmother (I am told I look very much like her) and her sisters sang in family reunions when they were young, they apparently had very beautiful voices. My grandmother lived with us, and I have beautiful memories of her singing all day, and singing to us, she would have a different song for each one of us.

How important is it for you that you are Colombian?

Being Colombian is very important to me, I love my culture and our music. Being a Colombian folk dancer as a teenager gave me a sense of belonging, and that was very important in my formative years, as I understood my place in this society. I am part of an immigrant family, and have the benefit of enjoying the best of two different cultures, as I love London and the amazing multicultural aspect of this amazing city!

How do you choose the songs that you sing which come from all over South America?

In terms of the Salsa band Conjunto Sabroso, I choose them with Wilmer Sifontes, who is co-leader of the band with me. One of us will suggest a song we like. If it makes us both want to dance, we have it written out and for sure it goes in the set. I have written a few of them, and the audience really like our original tunes, so we must be doing something right…! 😉

For Matices Latinos which is kind of a contemporary folkloric Quartet, I choose most of the songs, and it’s an opportunity to play many different genres from the Latin American songbook. We have the benefit of sharing the same language in most of the Latin American countries and therefore we listen to each other’s music, which is what makes it so interesting. I am now singing more of my own songs in this band.

And are some of them passed down through your family?

The songs are not necessarily passed down through our families, but we have been definitely influenced by the music our mothers and fathers have listened to. Dancing and festivities and celebrations are Intergenerational in our culture, so we get to share much of the same music!

How is it being Colombian in London?

It’s great, as I said before it feels fantastic living in one of the most iconic cities in the world. I feel very privileged to be here, I love London for its openness and respect for people’s individualism. I love that there is space and audiences for all types of music, including mine, and that because there is so much appreciation for the arts here, it’s an amazing place to thrive if you put your mind and effort into it.

We think of salsa when we think of Colombia but tell us something about La Cumbia?

Cumbia is an Afro Colombian rhythm from the Caribbean Coast, and it is also Colombia’s national rhythm. It is traditionally played with drums, Gaita which is an Amerindian and ancestral flute, and voice. You also have orchestrated Cumbias, and this music is danced throughout Colombia, Latin America, and has also taken Europe by storm in the last ten years.

What have been some of your favourite gigs?

Some of my favourite gigs have been playing in China in The Beijing International Festival, at The Poly Theatre in Beijing in 2001, playing in Kenya at The Kijani Festival in 2007, playing at The Jazz Café after coming out of lockdown last year was pretty special, playing two open-air gigs in Carnaby Street also last year was amazing, and two weeks ago playing at Tomek Zaleski’s life celebration event, who was a renowned Salsa DJ and collector who did so much to promote Salsa music in the UK and sadly passed away this January! He did the liner notes for our first Conjunto Sabroso album!

Look out for @conjuntosabroso on Insta.

 

 

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