Juan Carlos Arenas is a Colombian guitarist and composer now resident in the UK. He plays in various bands and is also a writer of film music. He has been visiting artist at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and the Royal Northern College of Music. He brings his band Los Musicos – with Guillermo Monroy on guitar and Nickolai Rodriguez Cavanzo on percussion – to the ORT Cafe on Saturday, courtesy of Celebrating Sanctuary Birmingham, the charity which promotes music from around the world in order to highlight the cultural contribution that refugees bring to this country.
Q Where did you grow up? Was music an important part of your family and community life? What was the first music that inspired you?
A I grew up in Bogotá, Colombia. My family (siblings and parents) are not particularly musical, but I had an uncle (he died when I was very young) who was a professional piano player and conservatoire teacher. As a child I do not remember music as a very important part of the community life. Later on in my final years in school, I joined the school choir (as a novice guitarist). It was in 1980 whe John Lennon was killed and there was a lot of his music and The Beatles music in the press and radio that I started being really interested in music. I would have to say that as strange as it sounds, my first musical inspiration back in Colombia was The Beatles.
Q What were the crucial steps to making a career for yourself from music?
A I went to university to study to become a music teacher. Towards the end of my career and by chance I got involved in arranging music for a TV and Movie composer. I worked in that media for a couple of years. That experience convinced me that I wanted to perform, compose and arrange music as a way of life.
Q You play music from many different Latin countries. How would you describe the different styles, and how are they distinct from one another?
A The music from Latinamerica is very varied. With the band we play Cuban son, which is the music that later originated the salsa style. We play the cumbia from Colombia. The legendary origin of the cumbia says that it is the only music that reflects the pace and sadness of the slaves walking and singing with shackled ankles. We also play some currulao tunes from the Colombian Pacific coast. This is also music of black origin and with a rich mixture of 6/8 and 3/4 rhythms.
We approach all these styles with respect for tradition but also with our own interpretation of the songs and how to present them to ‘foreign’ ears in the 21st century.
Q You also write for film and TV. Is this very different from the music you play with Los Musicos? Or are the various aspects of your career all strongly interlinked?
A I have written music for moving images based on Latinamerican or Colombian rhythms. Film music by its nature is something that is there helping the image but that ‘should not be noticed’. When composing for film your music serves a purpose and compliments the images, but it is background music. With Los Musicos on the other hand, we play to get people moving or to create an ‘exotic’ Tropical atmosphere but always in the foreground. The music of Los Musicos is there, bold and to be noticed.
Q Do you find the UK a good place to be based as a Latin musician? Do you get many Central and South American expatriates coming to your gigs? What do you think is the major appeal of Latin music for a general audience?
A We do have a small following between Latinamericans, but our main audiences is a mixture of Latinamericans, Latinamerican culture lovers and plain British people. As I mention before, I think that the main appeal of live Latin music is the capacity to bring a ‘taste’ of foreign sunny lands to the cold British Isles. The UK is a very good place to be based as a Latin musician. There are lots of cultural and musical encounter opportunities and influences.
Q Do you think it is possible to develop and extend traditional music while also being true to the tradition?
A Yes, I think we enjoy bands and movements that are doing just that. They respect the tradition but are not afraid to include contemporary elements that make their music ‘closer’ and accessible to contemporary audiences. In Colombia for example, the current explosion of bands is amazing, including some very relevant examples with British expats at their heart! (Sidesteppers, Quantic’s Ondatrópica).
- Juan Carlos Arenas and Los Musicos are appearing at the ORT Cafe in Balsall Heath on Saturday (March 26) at 7.30pm. Future Celebrating Sanctuary events include Didier Kisala, from the Birmingham-based Congolese band The Redeemed, on Saturday, April 16, also at the ORT Cafe, and Maya Youssef, a Syrian player of the kanun (a type of zither) on Saturday, May 14, at the Ikon Gallery.
- For more about all these events and about Celebrating Sanctuary Birmingham’s other activities, go here.