The sounds and rhythms of West African drums, the sharp slaps on the djembe and the cavernous thumps on the dunun, will echo and bounce out of the recently reopened John Anson Ford Theatres and off into the hills surrounding the Cahuenga Pass on Saturday, Sept. 10. Those drums will mark the first lesson of many in a two-hour session about the long history of musical collaboration between the African and Latino diasporas that continues today in Los Angeles.
“AfroLatino — A Celebration of the African and Latino Diasporas” is a dive into understanding the Afro-Latino identity with an ethnomusicological twist. Numerous artists from L.A. and beyond will trace the history of African people in the Western hemisphere through the impact and influence of their music.
The rhythm of West African drums will eventually evolve into the sounds of cumbia, jazz, house and hip-hop as interpreted by music and dance groups QVLN (Quetzal Guerrero), Very Be Careful, OVEOUS, Tshaka Campbell, Alberto Lopez, Kahlil Cummings, Gisella Ferreira, Rachel Hernandez, Damon Turner, Josiel Perez, Esther Anaya, Seun G., Samba Soul Dance Company and La Charanga Cubana.
Oscar Merino of 52Blend, a creative agency that curates events and manages artists, came up with the idea for AfroLatino following his disappointment with the limited approach of other Afro-Latin–themed concerts he'd witnessed.
“It always ends around 1960s, 1970s, when it comes to musical influences,” he says. “Whether it's salsa, whether it's Afro-Latin jazz, cumbia, bachata, vallenato … I never hear about what happened after 1970 through musical collaborations. After the 1970s is when hip-hop came around. If that's not Latinos and, in this case in the U.S., African-Americans coming together, then I don't know what is.
“The original idea that I envisioned was almost like a live documentary [or] like a mixtape,” continues Merino, who also curated events for FIGat7th last year. “I was a DJ back in the day and that's how I approached the programming. It's a musical blend in the first half and a musical blend in the second half. The final component of that is the dance part.”
“It's a fresh concept,” says KCRW radio personality Garth Trinidad, who plays the Morgan Freeman role as the live documentary narrator. “I can't think of anything like it in recent years that talks about what we're going to talk about.”
The multiethnic DJ, emcee and radio host grew up during hip-hop's early days in L.A., back when KDAY was an AM station and b-boy crews would meet up regularly at the L.A. Convention Center to battle. It was there that he witnessed collaborations between blacks and Latinos through hip-hop music.
“I was aware of the connection, especially when I was a kid experiencing the early days of hip-hop,” he explains. “I also think that's something that Oscar wanted to talk about … bringing up the story of the roots of Afro-Latino and the cross-pollinating of those cultures, which has a lot to do with hip-hop rather than just Latin jazz and South American music.”
The first half of the story encapsulates four centuries of music, beginning in the 1500s and carrying into the 1960s and '70s, with jams from percussionist Kahlil Cummings, cumbia/vallenato outfit Very Be Careful and the Latin Grammy–nominated charanga/salsa group La Charanga Cubana among others.
The second half of the show will shift gears and focus on the growth of hip-hop in the 1970s to recent collaborations between Latinos, African-Americans and Afro-Latinos.
“Damon Turner [is] a hip-hop artist but he collaborates with a lot of Latinos,” explains Merino. “This is the collaboration that is happening in the Afro-Latino community now, so we're going to take these Afro-Latinos to the modern age of telling that story of what's been happening from 1970 to 2016.
“It's going to end with Quetzal Guerrero, who I feel is the epitome of the Afro-Latino collaboration,” he continues. “He's represented the United States at the State Department's Music Abroad program in South America. His music is a melting pot of [many] rhythms. Everything from hip-hop and Afro-drumming to South American indigenous music.”
The Afro-Latino identity has become a major topic in recent years, which isn't surprising considering that a quarter of Latinos in the United Staes identify as Afro-Latino. Last year, Walter-Thompson Hernandez launched the Instagram account Blaxicans of L.A. as a visual compendium of L.A.'s many Blaxican (black and Mexican) citizens, whom he has described as a minority within a minority. Julio Ricardo Varela of the Futuro Media Group wrote an op-ed last month for ESPN in which he pleaded with Anglo media not to erase black NBA star Carmelo Anthony's Puerto Rican heritage.
Merino hopes to add his grain in the sand of that conversation with AfroLatino. “People feel like it's time to have that conversation,” he says. “It's been that time.”
AfroLatino — A Celebration of the African and Latino Diasporas happens Saturday, Sept. 10, at the Ford Theatres.