An interview with Quimantu

Sarah Quarmby talks Latin rhythms, left-wing politics and educational duties with Mauricio Venegas-Astorga and Rachel Pantin from Quimantu. Photo credit: Harriet Armstrong
Sarah Quarmby

“I’m sorry,” says Mauricio after a ten minute digression into Kurdish current affairs, “…everything for us is important. All things are, you know, related.” This pretty much sums up how the band feels about their music and everything really. I’m talking to Rachel and Mauricio from the London based Latin American and global band Quimantu and I’m feeling very humbled. Quimantu formed in the early 80s and have been steadily releasing albums, touring and collaborating ever since. They’re constantly juggling the band work with their educational project MusikoMusika, which facilitates music learning in schools, often with underprivileged children, something that they see as their duty as musicians. Mauricio admits that the educational and social work is taking over from the band a bit at the moment.

 “Socially, we strongly believe that it’s very important. Musicians should be doing more of that, in terms of education, in terms of community work. Not enough is done and people love talking about it, musicians, and time and time again we’ve encountered people that love talking about it but have never been to any place, any primary school that deserves and needs music.”   

 “So you feel that children can really get a lot out of learning music?” I ask.

 “Not only the music, but the social aspects of the music.”

 “In terms of what we’re trying to do musically, socially and educationally, Latin American music is a very powerful tool,” says Rachel. “All the diverse rhythm styles, if you approach them in the right way, are very accessible. It’s particularly important for young people to know and understand that culture isn’t a static thing. Latin American culture is brilliant for that because you can see really clearly how you’ve got indigenous roots and then it gets connected with Spanish culture and African culture which then makes something very specific to that country even though its origins are actually outside that culture. That’s a really good message for children in this country, especially now when we’re being challenged with things like UKIP going on.”    

 “In the past few years the real need for this kind of work has become quite apparent so that it sort of pushes out time for other things. Ideally, we would not be the exception, what we do as musicians would be normal. It’s about restoring music to people’s lives. For some reason, it’s like music has been taken away from people. We think it’s completely right and normal that if you are a child, you should be learning music. Everybody should be having music as part of their lives.”

The band’s belief that culture, politics and music are one and the same makes a lot of sense when you take into account Mauricio’s upbringing in a mining community in Chile, a country known for its people’s political involvement. Mauricio explains how the government at that time, headed by Salvador Allende, was championing cultural initiatives. He quotes one of Allende’s slogans, “There cannot be a revolution without songs. That tells you everything. Chile was erupting with culture and poetry and songs and films, so you couldn’t avoid being part of that, especially if you were at university. As a country we’ve got a tradition of politics. Everyone was political.”

 “For the cultural initiatives they had the train that took musicians and artists up and down the country.” Rachel explains, “They enlisted students to be involved in literacy campaigns teaching illiterate communities. Everyone was sort of involved in those things, so if you were involved in those things you were a target.”

“We were not involved in any dodginess, violence or anything like that.” Mauricio adds. They’re talking about the US sponsored coup d’état which overthrew Allende’s left wing government, replacing it with Augusto Pinochet’s right wing military dictatorship which was responsible for torturing and murdering thousands of its own citizens. Musicians were often targeted by Pinochet’s regime because of their known affiliations with left wing politics. Mauricio and his brother were both jailed almost immediately after the coup. They later fled the country to Argentina before moving to London in 1977. Carrying on life as normal in Chile after the coup d’état just wasn’t an option.

“We’d have been dead,” says Mauricio bluntly. “All those things were going on there; torture and killing. Because of the way me and my brother were, we wouldn’t accept something like that.” He stayed active in the country’s politics from exile in England, however, as a member of the Chilean communist youth. “There was a duty to support what was going on in Chile, in terms of the resistance. We did hundreds of concerts with hundreds of people. The Chilean communist party has always been a party to look after the cultural side of things.” 

It was around this time, in 1981, that Quimantu was formed. The band shares its name with the Chilean publishing house Editora Nacional Quimantú, founded by Allende’s government with the aim to make culture affordable for the working classes and to cover areas left out by the official cultural tradition. I first heard them as part of their Peña Chilena (Chilean folk club) that they hold every few weeks in Stoke Newington. The talented and polished musicianship of the band is just as impressive as their down to earth performance. An eclectic array of Latin American stringed instruments populate the stage. Yuri from the band explains their names to me; a cuatro from Venezuela, ronroco from Bolivia, moxeño from Chile to name a few. Most of them are played unplugged and the band sing without microphones, because they don’t need them. There’s something unusually personal and engaging about having a band sing straight to you without being converted into digital sound first. That week there were very few people in the audience, which was a shame given the quality of the evening.

“We’re not very good at publicising what we do,” says Mauricio, “because we don’t have the time.”

“Also, self publicity’s not our priority,” adds Rachel, “it’s doing the stuff.”

At the latest Peña, however, it was encouraging to see the room packed, with groups milling at the back, chatting and clutching glasses of Chilean wine.  

The band thrives on drawing upon an array of influences and styles from all around the world, be it Celtic, Indian, Thai or Western Classical music. It is my question as to if there is a style that they would like to collaborate with next that spurs the discussion of Kurdish politics. The band recently played a charity concert to raise money for a Kurdish community who are fighting IS and both were impressed by the traditional Kurdish music they heard there.

“It’s tragedy from hundreds of years ago, a bit like the Blues in that respect,” says Rachel.  

 “The singing for me sounded very close to flamenco,” says Mauricio, “I felt, you know, I know this. I don’t understand the lyrics but I know this. This singer is telling me something.”

The next Peña Chilena will take place Saturday 14 February at Mostart centre in Stoke Newington.