Monday, May 05, 2008
Midway through my conversation with Sara McGuinness we’re interrupted by a couple who have ventured over to express their thanks for her help in a recent project of theirs.
"It was an exercise in communication through music with a bunch of refugees from Yemen, Afghanistan, and various parts of Africa", Sara explains when the clearly very grateful couple have departed, "15- and 16-year olds who have only been in the UK about six months. We had this lad from the Ivory Coast, he hadn't said two words since he got here, but by the end we had him up singing a whole Craig David song."
When she’s not persuading hapless new arrivals to imitate doe-eyed beigebeat crooners, Sara McGuinness can be found employing her wide-ranging talents as sound engineer, producer, songwriter, keyboardist, band manager, teacher (knowledge-spreading trips to Cuba and Mali swiftly followed our interview) and all-round feisty fixture on the UK Latin and Congolese scenes, which she stumbled into nearly twenty years ago. “I did my degree in engineering, which led to a friend asking if I could have a go at doing the sound for his soul band. Somehow I ended up as their keyboard player, and started playing in various soul and reggae bands. I found that a lot of the music I listened to had Latin styles in it, so I took lessons in Cuban and Latin piano. That was about eighteen years ago, and I was really lucky to meet and work with people like the Afro-Cuban All Stars, Sierra Maestra and my mentor [the late Paris-based Cuban piano player] Alfredo Rodriguez."
Eventually McGuinness formed El Equipo with ex-pat Cuban Jimmy Martinez and ace Colombian timbalero Roberto Pla, as well as a number of British-born players. They released an album on their own Malecon label in 2001, and have since been consolidating their place on the live circuit. But it's getting progressively harder for bands to make a living this way, according to Sara: "The live scene has changed quite a lot over the years; it's tougher to get Arts Council touring grants. Salsa dance seems to have contributed to the drop in demand for live music. Only Europeans could take music and dance and separate them”, she jokes, “but many people do only want to dance to the tracks they've already learnt to dance to. So, a lot of musicians feel quite negative about it, but I can see the good side because finally people are starting ask about hearing the music played by a live band."
Sara’s latest project is Latin-Congolese band Grupo Lokito, which she formed two years ago with Kinshasa-born singer Jose Hendrix Ndelo. “I met Jose at a course at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and we started writing songs together. The Congolese scene in the UK is not entirely underground, but it is a long stronger amongst Africans than locals these days. I play sebene [the guitar-led gear change that ratchets mid-tempo Congolese rumbas up into hip-shaking dance tunes] with these guys for hours and it’s great, all cheesy chords, lovely marimba lines and stabs of horn, with guys in their designer gear and bling dancing away. It’s a scene that’s dominated by Africans of all nationalities, but everybody who is part of it welcomes me as part of the family; I’m sure they asked who that funny white woman was when I first started playing, but now when they see me on the bus or tube its ‘ah, there’s Sara keyboardy’!”
The natural link between Cuban and Congolese styles is well-documented of course, but Grupo Lokito have their own, unique Anglo-Afro-Cuban approach to the music; there’s a charming sweetness to their sound, one that's infused with El Lokito’s international take on Latin music but which will readily appeal to admirers of fans of acoustic rumba veterans Kékélé and Kanda Bongo Man alike. With a shifting line-up around core members Ndelo on vocals, McGuinness on keyboards, guitarists Burkina Faso and Limousine (“fantastic musicians, with a great groove”, enthuses McGuinness) and drummer Eugene Makuta, Grupo Lokito can be found rocking the regulars at their Sunday night (make that Monday morning: they rarely start before midnight) residency in Canning Town, East London, as well as branching out into less niche venues.
"We are working hard for more exposure, which we are getting more and more from the World Music scene, getting gigs via people like Jamie Renton and his Chilli Fried night in Clerkenwell. But some people seem to value musicians more if they come from abroad,” she claims, “there’s a bit of an authenticity problem, people booking gigs want to know if the musicians are based in Africa. I say the bands are made up of musicians who have chosen to make London their home, why not give them a chance here? And when they know that I’m a white English woman, that’s even more of a problem. Maybe I should stress my Irish-American-Lithuanian-Jewish background more!”
Myspace site for Grupo Lokito
This feature first appeared in fRoots magazine.