“I got my Petri dish of Latin cultural influences”: Capitol K discusses love, travelling and cumbia

By 14 August, 2012

Kristian Craig Robinson had been itching for a good, long trip out of London. Well read on South American history, and inspired by the political movements in the region, Robinson embarked on a seven thousand kilometre journey through the interior of the continent. It began in Lima, Peru, went off the beaten path through the Bolivian highlands, and ended in cosmopolitan Buenos Aires. Along the way, he learned how to play the charango, picked up lots of huayno, fell in love with cumbia and started to make music less like a musician and more like an adventurer.

There was no indication on previous records that Robinson, under the name Capitol K, would turn to cumbia. There was even less of a hint that he would add some huayno to the mix. The change, while having a direct connection to his travels, also came out of the sentiment he heard in the music, specifically cumbia. “It was love that turned me onto it and then it felt very natural; the space, the tempo,” he explained. “I can perhaps get too intense when I make music, and I was in the past driving some more difficult emotions into the music I was making. I wanted to make something with more joy.”

Andean Dub is the product of that soul searching enterprise. This record, unlike any other Capitol K production, became a chance for Robinson to escape, physically and musically, from London life. “I wanted to make music that transported me out of that. I did not want to reflect my reality at all.” The album perfectly manages this feat, taking the listener along the same journey as Robinson, across the Bolivian highlands and into Buenos Aires. For him, it became a journey filled with music, but also a chance to experience the social realities of the region.

“The Argentines I knew in London found it amusing that I was digging for cumbia villera on the internet. They were all like ‘we danced to this when we were fifteen and the lyrics are total trash’, which I can understand. My Spanish is not so good,” he said. Nonetheless, after attending conferences about Peruvian bands collaborating with huayno stars, and finding out about the cultural mixing digital cumbia entailed, he decided to explore both genres on his own. “I picked up lots of huayno in Peru and Bolivia. When I got to Buenos Aires, I was playing it in the house I was staying. The maid was from Bolivia and she got really excited and I had to copy lots of CDR’s for her. The class division in what you listen to was suddenly very transparent.”

Inspired by his interpretation of new world thinking, Robinson explained he took this journey as an opportunity to see the less Europeanised version of South America. He had been reading about the southern cone’s history, but travelling through the region and becoming aware of the different political and cultural movements inspired him to create his own narrative. “You only have to scratch the surface to find some very complex issues, and it seems now that this stuff is somehow being worked through. In the west, people are still trying to defend current systems and attitudes,” he commented.

This is part of the reason why he found digital cumbia as such a great vehicle to express these new ideas; an infectious middle ground between European and South American heritage. He contended that he was also inspired by the artistry involved in using simple equipment to create music. “What I love about [cumbia] villera and Mexican sonideras are the real preset sounds; these only just affordable bits of technology and their preset sounds pushed to maximum effect. It’s the opposite of European producers who are always working to program their own sound. I like these democratic mediums: the Roland drum pads, the basic Japanese home keyboards.”

While he admits there is not much collaboration on the album, Robinson uses both the charango he learned and panpipes on the record. He plays what he calls “very loose versions” of huayno and cumbia. This is not the first time the British/Maltese musician has sampled foreign sounds, having used Chinese opera and Arabic chants in other records. “There is still a line of thought that Westerners should not be interfering with native musics […] Coming from a city like London where things always get mixed up, it seems remarkable,” Robinson said. “From all this soul searching, I think very genuine, fresh ideas are coming through that people from outside South America can do well to pay attention to.”

Perhaps that is one of the reasons Andean Dub comes off as a part of a whole and less as a collection of sampled sounds. The musician explained that he was not necessarily following the current trend amongst dance music producers and their tightly produced records. “I prefer my music more loose and organic. I work with a lot of old synths and reverbs, so my productions are warmer and less focused on this clean, thumping digital sound. And I was deliberately trying to avoid all this over compression and harsh methods that have been introduced with modern technology.”

Now that he has played with the cumbia and huayno sounds, Robinson hopes to explore other genres in another collection he is developing. While he’s unsure of the record’s direction, the artist is interested in the brass sound. Growing up in Asia, the artist explained he was exposed to a rich tradition of Maltese brass bands, which he wants to incorporate in future records. He’s also exploring the Mexican brass tradition. “I think taking a lesson from Mexican brass and seeing similarities in Maltese marching brass band music […] there is something there that I can have fun with.”

While Andean Dub was well received by audiences in the UK and abroad, he claims it is the Colombian listeners in London who are harder on him about the cumbia sound. “They always want to corner me and tell me they invented it. And as far as they’re concerned, their version is the best. They just love the roots,” he commented. Nevertheless, Robinson insists that, when dancing and making music, he just finds his own way. “I got my Petri dish of Latin cultural influence now, and it’s growing its own form here with me.”

But if there is something the musician learned along his journey is that he still has a lot to learn about South America. “I’m still reading Latin American history to this day, so culturally I’m still learning about it; as part of a whole world view, I guess.” He explained that he wants his foray into cumbia to contribute to what other artists have been doing with the genre, or introduce it to new audiences.

As a final question, I asked Robinson what he learned along his trip. While he said that he didn’t feel qualified to comment on the politics and culture of the places he visited, he did say that he found an “inner peace.” “I take from it that you can invent, in your own way, a narrative for yourself. I mean, a lot of this exists in my head only, but I imagined myself free of my own confines and made music like an adventurer in a fresh new land.”

You can read our review of Andean Dub here. See capitolk.com for the latest Capitol K news.

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