Music

How Songwriting Helped Algodón Egipcio Embrace the Term “Afro-Latino”

Lead Photo: Algodón Egipcio. Photo by Alexander Hung
Algodón Egipcio. Photo by Alexander Hung

Editor’s note: Cheky Bertho, a regular Remezcla contributor, also performs as Algodón Egipcio, an electro pop act from Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela.

I come from a southern region of Venezuela called Guayana, where there’s strong Afro-Caribbean roots. At the turn of the 20th century, British companies began bringing West Indians to cities like El Callao to work in the flourishing gold mines.

I’m biracial, and I’ve honestly never felt or treated people differently because of race, not even when my mother warned me on my first day of school that other kids might point out my dark skin. I grew up listening to calypso and soca, as well as Wilfrido Vargas and the Fania classics, watching the yearly Carnival on VHS tapes relatives used to record and send from the island, and eating roti on special family reunions.

My uncle Ezequiel, whom I was named after, had never seen me perform live or listened to any of my music when he told me years ago, “Remember what we are, and use that in your music.” I knew exactly what he meant, although I didn’t know how to properly verbalize it.

When I was writing La Estrella Irregular,” the first single off my second album La Confianza Ciega, my uncle’s words came back to me. I’ve always been keen to rhythm, and have embraced it in my music almost unwittingly, but here, I wanted to go all the way. If the music I grew up with had roots in Africa, why not connect directly with the continent through its sounds? As I continued to experiment with my Caribbean and African influences, it became pretty clear that these styles could be threaded seamlessly, thanks to all the elements they share. But it hit me beyond production, songwriting, and all of that – researching these genres made me feel like I was all of them, and it didn’t matter if they were from the Dominican Republic, Angola, or Colombia.

In the process, I stumbled upon the term “Afro-Latino,” and it clicked. I paired this little compound word I wasn’t familiar with with a feeling and worldview that had been simmering all my life. In a world where labels are everything – and where I’ve been told “but you’re not black” in a patronizing voice countless times – my Afro-Latinidad represents me and empowers me, and bleeds into who I am as an artist.

These are some examples of the music that inspired me while making “La Estrella Irregular.”

Calypso and Soca

Many people don’t know, but in Venezuela we have our very own brand of calypso. It comes from Guayana and it’s a huge deal there, going beyond the traditional Carnaval. “What will the bride and groom dance to at their wedding?” Calypso, of course. “Hey, kid, what band did you book for your quinceañera?” Simple: a calypso band. “Let’s see, what’s on the radio right now?” You guessed it. Not too long ago, my family grabbed their drums, cuatro, and charrasca and paraded around the block on New Year’s Eve. It was amazing.

Be it traditional tunes, like “Isidora” or “All Day Today or more contemporary ones from bands like The Same People, this is the music that defined the first 16 years of my life. It’s coded in my DNA. And thanks to my family connections to the Antilles, there was also a ton of OG Caribbean calypso and soca, including artists like Sugar Aloes, Mighty Sparrow, Shadow, Baron, and Byron Lee & The Dragonaires, whose songs I get nostalgic and teary-eyed over when I listen to them today. Beyond being a musical influence, these laidback, carefree, and highly rhythmic sounds shaped my personality.

Juan Luis Guerra y 4.40’s “A Pedir Su Mano”

This was my quintessential connection to African music when I was growing up and I didn’t even know it by then. As a longtime Juan Luis Guerra fan, I always gravitated towards the ridiculously flavorful “A pedir su mano” and its tribal chants. Later, I found out the song grabs elements from “Dede Priscilla,” by Central African artist Lea Lignanzi, and it opened the world to a whole new genre called soukus.

Juan Luis Guerra has always been one to honor and adopt African influences in his music, which already comprises genres that are derived from African musical traditions, like merengue, bachata, and salsa.

Afrobeats

The thing is, if you are an active listener, you’ll always want to go back in time more and more, trace the origins, relate them to yours, and find a common ground. That’s my case. My relationship with afrobeats has always been visceral; it activates the same nerves and muscles as the Afro-Latino music in my life, making me feel at home. When I throw in some azonto and kuduro dance moves at the end of “La Estrella Irregular” every time I perform it live, it’s because I feel those rhythms like they’re mine.

Champeta

Champeta hasn’t been in my life for that long, but it’s a genre I enjoy a lot and wanted to deliberately include on “La Estrella Irregular.” It was presented to me by my best friend Roy Valentín, when he started to send me these hilarious videos of songs like “El Ñato” and “Champeta El Chavo,” and we’d just laugh for hours. Sense of humor is something music lacks of these days. I find Afro-Colombian music from the Atlantic coast immensely familiar and easy to relate to, but also intriguing because of its origins and local influences, which I later learned about when I visited Bogotá (see: terapia, vitamina, bullerengue, zambapalo).

Years ago, my dear friend who records under the name Domingo en Llamas showed me a video of Colombian legend Noel Petro performing “El Ñato” with a live band. It blew my mind, mainly because of his insane guitar playing (which I more or less tried to replicate on “La Estrella Irregular”) and the energy coursing through the live instrumentation. Champeta is unfairly marginalized music, as is changa tuki in Venezuela or funk carioca in Brazil, when it should be appreciated for what it is: party music to let loose to.

 

Konono N°1

The first time I toured Europe as Algodón Egipcio back in 2011, I was lucky enough to attend a show called Congotronics vs. Rockers, which was a collaboration between the Congolese crew and some of my favorite indie artists, like Deerhoof and Juana Molina. I was already a big fan of Konono N°1’s music ever since I heard their 2006 album, but this time I was finally able to witness an all-original African ensemble perform live, and experience its punching drums and hypnotic qualities in the flesh. Needless to say, I was excited and deeply moved, and the presence of the indie musicians made me believe I too could embrace those sounds in my own compositions. It really left a mark on me. And you bet those kalimbas found their way to the song.