The Mancumbians: a transnational Latin band building community and sharing culture in Manchester
Mixed (Latin American (Mexican, Ecuadorian, Chilean, Peruvian) and Italian)
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Introducing The Mancumbians
‘Mancunian’: adj. a person originating from or residing in Manchester. ‘Cumbia’: noun. a Latin dance music of Afro-Colombian origin. ‘Mancumbians’: noun. a concept band revolutionising the meaning of Latin music in Manchester. The Mancumbians are a Latin band based in Manchester, with a diverse membership from places including Mexico, Ecuador, Chile, Peru and Italy united by share a love for Latin music and culture. They play a variety of musical styles, from cumbia, salsa and bachata to rock and pop. They have played regularly at salsa nights and cultural events, as well as house parties and weddings. They are particularly known for their appearances at independence day celebrations and at events supporting causes in the Latin American community in Manchester.
Meet the Mancumbians
The Mancumbians is rooted in the student life of Manchester. The majority of its members met as undergraduate or postgraduate students at one of the universities and several are still studying or working in the city in an academic context. Some of its members performed together previously in a more Mexican-oriented band called Origami Cactus, but the Mancumbians expanded this concept to make the group more inclusive and to perform a wider range of Latin music. In fact, the Mancumbians is a fluid collective, whose membership has changed and continues to change over time as its musicians move in and out of the city to follow their own academic and professional journeys. Nevertheless, its ‘essence’, in mixing musical influences, in celebrating Latin culture and in building a community of musicians and followers, remains constant. Today, the group is: Alice Spadea (voice), Daniel López (guitar), Javier Pinto Aguirre (guitar), Felipe Rojas Parra (guitar), Rodrigo Contreras Vásquez (accordion), Iñaki Erazo Damian (violin/trombone), Brian Moreta Chicaiza (trombone/percussion), Rubén Ahumada Lazo (bass), Claudia Compeán González (percussion/voice), and Roger Flores (percussion). This profile is based on an interview with Claudia, Daniel, Iñaki and Rubén, as well as electronic communications with some other members of the band. The Mancumbians is a diverse collective not only in geographical background but also in musical background. Brian and Roger had both previously performed in Latin music groups and Roger works as a professional salsa and bachata dance teacher; Daniel and Rubén have primarily played in rock and metal bands; Rodrigo was studying music at the university and also plays traditional Hungarian music and contemporary classical music on the cymbalom alongside Chilean music on the accordion; and Claudia was more used to engaging with Latin music as a dancer. Most of the members have had lifelong exposure to the music they play by growing up in their respective places across Latin America, but some have specifically learnt to perform in these styles through being part of the band itself. In particular, Alice, who comes from an Italian background, moved from singing songs in Italian to singing mainly in Spanish and has taken the opportunity to immerse herself in Latin song and culture through participating in the band, while Claudia has picked up percussion in the group, learning how to play the rhythms to which she had always danced. Daniel, Rubén and Claudia introduce their musical stories:
“We all have different backgrounds and different tastes in music…I’m from Guadalajara and I started to learn to play the guitar [at] 13 years old…I got together with a few friends and we started a rock group…We used to play covers of English stuff in the beginning…but, later, we started to play music in Spanish too…It was quite a mixture actually…I moved to Manchester because of work and I met the guys and we decided to make a Latin music group. Basically all my life, I’ve played more rock stuff. But, because we missed the culture, we decided to focus more on the Latin music” (Daniel López).
“I’m from a place called Chihuahua. As a child, I started singing in a choir…I started learning a little bit of piano as well, then I learned violin and started playing with a youth orchestra until I was like 14-15. Then, with my mates from the orchestra, we decided to start a rock band and that’s where I started playing the bass…We carried on playing until we were at university…I didn’t stay playing that much when I was studying…I moved to Manchester for my PhD and, just towards the end of [it], some of the colleagues in the lab wanted to start a rock band and they needed a bass player, so I started playing with them. Shortly after, I met these guys of the Mancumbians and we joined together and started playing. [Latin music] was always in my culture, being Mexican, but I never really played [it] until now” (Rubén Ahumada Lazo).
“I am from a place called Morelia…It was because of the band I decided to play percussion…In Mexico, in all the parties, you hear this music and dance to it…[so] it was a case of moving those dancing rhythms onto the percussion…I began with the shakers and, after that, I started playing the güiro [scraper]…I always liked dancing so it was a bit easier for me to keep the beat…but we have all different rhythms in Latin music so I [still] have to learn them! I learn in the band, because some [members] have been in bands of Latin rhythms. Now, I have also started to sing with Alice…so I need to do three things at the same time – percussion, dancing and singing!” (Claudia Compeán González). “I am from Quito, Ecuador…I was studying reptiles as part of my dissertation during my undergraduate biology studies so I had to travel all over Ecuador…The most satisfactory way for the people in the towns to finish a long day of hard work was to share a glass of beer and listen to music. Sometimes the music was cheerful, like salsa or merengue, and we danced. Other times it was slow and sad but beautiful music, like pasillos. There, I saw the positive impact of music in society…After I came to Manchester [for my PhD], my friends Rubén and Claudia asked me to join their band…and we started playing just for fun in their flat…Now, after two years, we are bringing joy and fun to other people in Manchester…and we are even travelling to different cities…For me, the Mancumbians means transmitting good energy!” (Javier Pinto Aguirre).
“I am from Tuscany, Italy…I have always loved singing. In fact, I began studying and performing musical theatre when I was 23 and, in Italy, I was the singer in a few bands, mainly playing blues, soul, jazz and folk music. I moved to Manchester in 2014 and later I joined the Mancumbians. Since then, we shared not only an amazing time playing great music at rehearsals and gigs, but they also became my best friends and my family here in Manchester…I really hope this pandemic will end soon so we can meet, hug and play our beloved music again!” (Alice Spadea).
Until the COVID-19 pandemic effectively froze the UK’s live music scene, the Mancumbians were building a rising profile in Manchester, meeting at least once per week to rehearse and performing gigs at venues, events and salsa nights multiple times every month. Its members hope that, once the pandemic has subsided, they can pick up this momentum. They have exciting plans to write their own songs and, following a successful performance in Germany organised by a former band member based in Berlin, they hope to tour abroad by tapping into their international Mancumbians network, reuniting with former members in the process.
“[Before] the pandemic, I think things were going in a really nice direction. We already have a big group of followers…but, because of the pandemic, we haven’t been able to look for more gigs or events. [In the future], I hope we can make more connections and reach more people…We did a [gig] in Berlin because of a connection with Cristian [who used to be in the band]…We were planning to go to Italy this year and to Portugal…and our friend from Chile is now in Denmark, so we were thinking of doing something there…I think, if we could do this, it would expand our horizons…but there is a lot of uncertainty because of the pandemic, so let’s see what happens!” (Claudia Compeán González).
“I hope we can reach more people – not for the sake of becoming more famous, but for sharing our music…Until now, we have been a very organic band, with members coming and going because of their lives…I hope we can keep it going and, even if we ourselves move from here, I hope some other people can come and keep the band and its essence going” (Rubén Ahumada Lazo).
The Meanings of the Mancumbians’ Music
The Mancumbians is more than simply a band; it is a feat of community in music. The main outcomes of its musical activities include mixing musics, celebrating Latin culture, and supporting causes in the Latin American community in Manchester. However, in its beginnings, the band started as a group of friends meeting up and jamming together and this remains a central part of its value for members to date.
“We all met with the band…Even though we were doing different things, having different jobs and different social circles, at some point we all converged. We have made very good friends through that. Some of them have had to leave the band and have moved already but we are still friends” (Rubén Ahumada Lazo).
The musical style of the Mancumbians is hard to define or pin down, precisely because it involves a mix of musical influences from different styles and cultures. A device which typifies this is the ‘medley’; the group combine songs in innovative ways to create something new and distinct. This often involves mixing together songs in Spanish and English, adding Latin rhythms to Anglo-American songs, or feeding rock influences into Latin music.
“The medleys are an important part of our creative process…We mix different songs that match and that we can change as well – we can begin with something and end up with something else entirely! This also means we can combine different languages…The medley kind of reflects what we are, because it’s this mix of cultures. We all like to show something from all of these places we are from” (Claudia Compeán González).
“We tend to mix music. We’ve done the Beatles, we’ve mixed Avicii, we’ve mixed a lot of songs and made them Latin…It’s not something that’s pure Spanish [music], it’s a mixture…I think it’s about sharing a little bit of us, of where we are from” (Daniel López).
Members of the group emphasise that this musical mix is not only inspired by crossing cultures in Manchester, but also by the diversity of each of their own originary places.
“I think [our mix] has to do a lot with the context of the different countries [we come from] too. We have different topics or the themes in the songs and this has a lot to do with the cultural context of the region. The instruments also tend to be different, so we have different variations of how we play them on the guitars and other instruments” (Rubén Ahumada Lazo).
“Mexico, for example, is a meeting of cultures too, because we have all the cumbia, salsa and other rhythms from Latin America, but we are also close to the United States, so we get a lot of metal, rock and other styles. This is kind of the mix that we grow up with” (Claudia Compeán González).
Beyond making music itself, a key purpose of the Mancumbians has been to celebrate Latin culture, particularly in terms of maintaining a connection with ‘home’ while living ‘away’.
“Wherever you go, there is always something that you miss from home…I think you want to feel this [music] when you miss home…It’s actually quite complex, but I’ll say that the main purpose of the band is for us to make music for us. Whatever comes after that is a bonus!” (Iñaki Erazo Damian).
“I think the band is about being away from home, it’s trying to bring that piece of your land back to you. It’s trying to pull a little bit of home here…It makes you feel closer to home” (Daniel López).
The Mancumbians has also been involved in several events in Manchester organised around particular social causes, mainly relating to political events in Latin America. The group has appeared at independence day celebrations for various countries in Latin America and it performed at events supporting mass protests against social injustice and police violence in Ecuador (‘Together for Ecuador’) and Chile (‘Mancunian peña’) in 2019. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they also performed at a food bank in Manchester, using their music to lift the spirits of volunteers and recipients on the frontline of the UK’s food poverty crisis.
“We were playing independence days and, at those events, we made connections with a lot of Latino groups. So, when they [organised] other events, they invited us to play…It’s something good to do and, at the same time, we are sharing our music…so it’s like a ‘win-win’ situation!” (Claudia Compeán González).
“I think strong rhythms and powerful lyrics are a good channel to express ourselves and criticise the problems of society…I have always had a strong connection with protest music…During October 2019, Ecuador found itself in a socially and politically sensitive situation. Indigenous communities gathered in Quito to express their dislike of economic measures imposed by the government. The demonstrations lasted days in which there was a lot of violence and indigenous families were badly affected…Here in Manchester, the University of Manchester Ecuadorian Student Union decided to organise ‘Together for Ecuador’ to support indigenous families affected. We prepared typical Ecuadorian food, including ceviche and bolones, and the Mancumbians played for an audience concerned about the situation. Even if we are geographically far from home, we still feel our roots strongly” (Javier Pinto Aguirre).
“We like to give support for people who are having these struggles or are doing these movements or trying to get a change. We like to help their cause. We help them to connect, to feel more united, to feel heard…This year, we played at a food bank, socially distanced, while they were delivering food for people who need it…It felt really good to see people working there and helping others and we saw how they got a little bit happier because we were there” (Rubén Ahumada Lazo).
“One of my housemates, she used to do some voluntary work for Emmeline’s Pantry in Manchester and they got hold of the food bank charity. They normally do gigs with people in there, playing while the people are waiting for their food. We were really surprised by the reception, they really liked it. It was true community. Basically, without knowing, it’s what the Mancumbians are doing too – we’re creating a community” (Iñaki Erazo Damian).
Latin Music in Manchester
In a sense, the Mancumbians symbolise the creative vibrancy that springs forth from the musical, geographical and cultural diversity of Manchester. The prevailing view amongst the band is that Manchester is the perfect city for the Mancumbians, as they suggest it has one of the most vibrant music scenes in the UK, driven by its diversity, its abundance of live music, and its legacy of producing legendary bands.
“Manchester is one of the most diverse cities here in the UK…You can find people from other places all over the city…I think the most exciting thing is that live music is everywhere. I think this is not so common in most of the cities in the UK…We’ve had the chance to listen to new bands and brand new styles” (Claudia Compeán González).
“Manchester has always been known for great bands. You have the Smiths, Joy Division, Elbow, stuff like that. But I didn’t know how big the gig life would be here now, and how easily you can go to a bar and there’s always somebody playing and they can be really, really good. In many places, you wouldn’t expect to see that quality of music in a pub…I think music is something that really joins the city” (Daniel López).
In its early days, the Mancumbians’ primary audience in the city was Latin American students, but they have been gaining a wider following beyond the student populace. Band members stress that a key ingredient in the vibrancy of Manchester and in their own journey within the city is the openness of local audiences.
“The scene in Manchester is great because you can always find people listening to music from different places and cultures who like it and enjoy it…I have friends also from Mexico who are studying or working around the UK and they found it more difficult to integrate with the people from here, they found it a bit more segregated…I participated in the Bluedot Festival [at Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre] and there was one tent with bands from different places with different rhythms performing, many from Africa and South America, and it was one of the places with the most people in the audience…So [the Mancumbians] also reflects this freedom to share this music…People in Manchester like to try other things” (Claudia Compeán González).
“The very interesting thing about Manchester [is that] it’s very diverse but there is room for everybody, because the people are always keen to listen to new things…There’s a lot of very talented people doing their own thing and, even if they are not so well known, they have their followers” (Rubén Ahumada Lazo).
While performing for a wider audience demographic inevitably brings linguistic and cultural challenges, the Mancumbians are confident that audiences will feel the joy and emotions expressed in their music and will be motivated to sing and dance at their performances regardless of background.
“I think music has this amazing power that it can transmit feelings or emotion, even when you don’t speak the language. [In the Mancumbians], we all grew up listening to English songs, even when we didn’t speak any English! [At] our gigs, people will get our energy…When we start playing the beat, the rhythms get into them and they start following us and then they are just dancing and moving. So, even if they don’t understand the lyrics, they can still get the vibe and have fun” (Rubén Ahumada Lazo).
“We always [try] to offer something for everyone, because, even though we know that most of the people in the audience for our gigs are Latinos…we do also have a lot of English people. Even when they don’t understand what we’re singing, they are into it and they are usually dancing, because they can feel the music, the rhythms…Some of them also know these songs from festivals or clubs or parties…But also we are trying to like grow a community by sharing with more people. We show them the instruments, we explain different aspects of the music, we show them the dances….so in a way the audience can learn and get education from it too” (Claudia Compeán González).
The Mancumbians’ collective outlook as a band is notably inclusive and this is illustrated by their own vocalist Alice, who is Italian by background but who, Iñaki affirms, is now considered ‘part of the Latin community’ based on her love for the music, language and culture.
“I had seen the band playing before and I was so fascinated by Latin music and culture…but, when I joined, I was a bit worried, as I had only sung in English and Italian, never in Spanish and never these genres. But the group welcomed me and they say I can have the citizenship now, so I guess it went well! Funnily enough I managed to introduced them to Italian music and now we have two or three Italian songs in our repertoire too!” (Alice Spadea).
Ultimately, the Mancumbians’ are helping to expand the community of Latin culture enthusiasts in Manchester. In doing so, they are finding their own voice and, with ambitions to write their own songs that express their experiences as Latinos en Mánchester, there is no doubt that the Mancumbians and their unique voice will grow from strength to strength in the city.
“We are thinking about writing our own songs now…something about our context of living here in Manchester, including lyrics about experiences of our lives here and making references to the city, so people can identify themselves with the music. We want to create a feeling that it’s music made in Manchester, for Manchester” (Rubén Ahumada Lazo).
La Bamba/Twist and Shout (see video)
This video shows the Mancumbians performing at a student Mexican independence day celebration event, which they organised at Portland Bar in the city centre. The song is one of their signature ‘medleys’, a combination of ‘La Bamba’ and ‘Twist and Shout’, the former a well-known folk song from Veracruz, Mexico, made famous worldwide by Chicano stars in the USA, with versions by Ritchie Valens in 1958 and Los Lobos in 1987, and the latter a song originally written for the American R&B group the Top Notes in 1961 but made famous by covers by the Isley Brothers in 1962 and by the Beatles in 1963.
“We originally made that medley for a wedding of one of our friends. She’s a girl from Colombia that was getting married to a guy from England. So our repertoire was mostly Latin and we were like ‘Well, probably the English part of the family won’t be so familiar with the cumbia’, so we were trying to make songs with some English bits in there too!” (Claudia Compeán González).
The video demonstrates the electric atmosphere created by the Mancumbians in performance, it displays the strong communication the group has between musicians and with their audience, and it exemplifies the band’s mixing of music, celebration of cultures, and sense of community. Keep your ears open as this transnational Latin band continue to transform the meaning of Latin music in Manchester!
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The Mancumbians: a transnational Latin band building community and sharing culture in Manchester
Mixed (Latin American (Mexican, Ecuadorian, Chilean, Peruvian) and Italian)
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