Steam Down’s founder Ahnansé and Mambo Negro Records founder Daniel Michel lead a groundbreaking British-Colombian ensemble on their captivating debut album release, Mestizo.
Across languages and disparate cultures, music is the connecting bridge. Through interweaving melodic traditions, rhythms and distinct instruments, a new dialogue can be created – an open improvisation between kindred spirits. For the past four years, British-Caribbean bandleader and saxophonist Ahnansé and Colombian label head and multi-instrumentalist Daniel Michel have been building that musical bridge between their two worlds, creating a beguiling new interpretation of Colombian folk traditions, London jazz and hip-hop. The culmination of their efforts now comes in their uniquely energetic self-titled debut album, Mestizo, released on Mais Um on 5 May 2023.
“It’s in the name itself, since Mestizo means ‘mixed’ and is a term for people of mixed heritage in Colombia,” Ahnansé says. “The purpose of the project is to see what you can build from a cultural mix, to create a musical family between countries that means even though we don’t share the same language, when we play music together, we are speaking to each other.”
Ahnansé and Daniel first met in 2019, as part of a British Council-supported project to bring British jazz musicians to Colombia for an improvised performance with local players at Bogotá’s Jazz al Parque Festival. Over five days of collaboration, Daniel and Ahnansé drew on their roles as incubators for independent talent in their respective cities of London and Bogotá. Both artists have created their own hubs of collaboration, with Ahnansé founding the award-winning Southeast London collective Steam Down and bringing with him proponents of the UK jazz revival including tuba player Theon Cross and saxophonist Nubya Garcia. Daniel, meanwhile, has spent the past decade revitalising Colombian musical traditions with his label Mambo Negro, masterminding his group La BOA’s afrobeat and cumbia fusion, as well as releasing female trio La Perla’s distinctly percussive versions of kuduro and samba.
With plans to reconnect after the initial collaboration being delayed by the pandemic, the pair delved into the common ground of their diaspora roots instead – Afro-Caribbean, Latin and improvised musical traditions – and began sending each other playlists of formative music from their respective countries. Inspired by these reference points, original writing soon began on music for Mestizo, producing a new sound born not just from improvisation. An online performance followed at 2020’s La Linea Festival and finally, in May 2022, Ahnansé brought four musicians from the Steam Down and wider London jazz community to Bogotá for a week-long writing and recording session with Daniel’s selection of Colombian artists.
The result is Mestizo – eight tracks that artfully mix Colombian traditions of currulao and cumbia with hip-swaying salsa, head-nodding rap verses, shards of electronica and jazz improvisation. Bringing the London scene’s knack for genre-hopping to bear on a new realm of kinetic sounds, Indigenous traditions are blended with British diaspora music, producing a fusion of Afro-Caribbean rhythms, UK rap flair and percussive intensity. “We bounced off each other seamlessly, drawing on connections from the Afro-Latin culture that we have in London, as well as exploring new avenues of UK hip-hop and Colombian folk instruments,” says Ahnansé. “It is in the blood of Colombian music to improvise with tradition and so we connected instantly with our different styles,” agrees Daniel, “by the end we all spoke through the music.”
Lead single “Arroyo” is a perfect example of this communicative fusion. Opening on a hard-edged hip-hop rhythm, bolstered by horn fanfares and tenacious verses from Colombian rapper N.Hardem, British trumpeter Grifton Forbes-Amos intertwines with his Colombian counterpart Salomé Gomez Burbano to produce a lyrical solo that traverses afrobeat and salsa melody, before leaning into a grime-referencing refrain from UK vocalist Shantéh. Other cross-cultural highlights include the piano-led jazz bossa nova of “Giver Of Light” and the melodic warmth of León Pardo’s Colombian indigenous gaitaflute on “Puente Cósmico”, which meanders over a clave rhythm before speeding into a chromatic clarinet solo from Marco Fajardo and a double-time, ska-inflected beat from Steam Down drummer Benjamin Appiah.
The density of the musical arrangements and the effortless jumping between traditions comes courtesy of the expert players Ahnansé and Daniel both picked for the project.
For Ahnansé, some of his chosen artists came from the Steam Down stable – drummer Appiah and vocalist Shantéh – while newcomer Grifton Forbes-Amos brings youthful energy to the trumpet and keyboardist Doom Cannon rounds out the collective with his deft compositional ear. “It was a special experience for me. We recorded up in the clouds, which was magical, and each song stands out with its own sense of beauty,” Ahnansé says. “The whole process was very organic – one musician would start an idea and then direct the rest of the band with everyone influencing the final track. Working with such a wide range of artists left a real mark on me.”
On the Colombian side, Daniel features eight artists from across the country, from producer Chambimbe’s experience recording the folk music of the Pacific coast, to Pardo’s gaita flute, which is also present on his project with British producer Quantic, Ondatropica. La Perla’s Diana Sanmiguel also contributes traditional percussion from the Caribbean coast, while MC N.Hardem represents the cutting edge of Bogotá rap and Fajardo brings his modernist take on cumbia from his group Frente Cumbiero.
“The sound is epic,” Daniel says. “It’s a big group with the vitality of a brass section and the power of layered percussion. It’s got tribal energy and a sense of triumph too. When I play with everyone, I get a very powerful feeling and I am sure that energy transmits to the listener also.”
Such energy partly comes from the Colombian players’ sense of tradition, effortlessly tapping into centuries-old rhythms and modes while collaborating. “There’s an ancient wisdom that is so beautifully natural in Colombian folk music,” Ahnansé says. “I would like to share some of that energy with people in the UK and everywhere else that we can tour.”