Russ Slater talks to the band that unites traditions, stories and rhythms across the Atlantic in a wave of Afro-Latin grooves. Photograph by Alex Harvey-Brown
“Music unites people, it builds a bridge between individuals across the Atlantic.” In one fell swoop Jack Yglesias sums up the reason Family Atlantica exist. Their debut album, four years in the making, ties together rhythms, traditions and stories from Africa, Europe and the Americas. It’s an epic journey in search of roots and connections that veers between the personal and the global. It’s also an astoundingly varied and intimate document of musicians who found themselves living together in London and created an extended family, their various nationalities and cultures inextricably linked via music.
So much of the story of Family Atlantica is tied to London – East London specifically. It was here that Jack Yglesias – a London-born arranger and percussionist known for mixing jazz and world rhythms via projects such as The Heliocentrics, Saravah Soul and Quantic’s many bands – met his musical partner and soon-to-be-wife Luzmira Zerpa. Project 142, an arts organisation that had taken residence in a Victorian factory complex in Hackney, had become a meeting place for what Yglesias calls a “thriving scene of international arts and music… an oasis in a bleak part of East London.” It was here that he met Zerpa. “There were about 30 or 40 people playing drums and I was in the middle playing a cowbell and directing,” remembers Yglesias. “Suddenly this incredible-looking woman strode into the middle of the circle with her hands raised up high, singing ‘kimbera kimbera kim-ber-ba, kimbera kimbera kim-ber-ba.’ Her voice just completely hypnotised me.”
For Zerpa, a Venezuelan singer and musician, the meeting was just as momentous. “When I met Jack I thought ‘This is the guy I’m going to make a band with.’ Because there was this amazing chemistry, even before we spoke.” This meeting would not only lead to the two making music together, but the start of a relationship. “Obviously something inside me was triggered, and the rest, as they say, is history,” tells Yglesias of that first encounter. For Family Atlantica to really come to life though, it took another serendipitous meeting and a third core member.
“Luzmira and I were wandering around a festival in East London and suddenly we heard this sound of drumming in the distance,” Yglesias explains. “We looked at each other and, without saying anything, we both began to sprint towards the source of the noise.” Zerpa continues: “We looked at Kwame [the origin of the drumming] and asked permission to get our instruments. He said yes and we started playing.” The Nigerian/Ghanaian percussionist Kwame Crentsil had only been in London for a day before being asked to play drums at the festival. “When I was playing and you guys came and started playing I thought it was going to be something different,” he tells them, “so I was a bit scared. But when they started playing I felt, no, we’re family. I’ve met my family.”
The three of them quickly began making music together. “It started to have a life of its own. It instantly became family,” explains Yglesias. They then began to record an album while living together in an abandoned vicarage in East London. “This process hasn’t been contrived,” says Yglesias. “It’s been a process of living our lives together and that’s been a process of sharing and exploring ourselves; our roots, our influences. Quite quickly after that the name came,” and never has a name seemed as apt as Family Atlantica.
The group are continually finishing each other’s stories, growing excited when each one speaks about how the band came together and their own personal histories. In every sense the group is a family that crosses the Atlantic, but also one that is greater than just the three of them. Yglesias calls this “a wider family that we’ve drawn in around ourselves – that is Family Atlantica,” alluding to the various collaborators on their record. It has a global cast, including Ethio-jazz legend Mulatu Astatke, Venezuelan folkloric group Danzas Mandela, Senegal’s Nuru Kane, Afro-Cuban group Yoruba Andabo and even their newborn son Jaia, who makes a brief vocal appearance.
In addition to Yglesias’ role in some of London’s foremost jazz and Latin groups, both Zerpa’s and Crentsil’s histories meant the group also possessed a deep knowledge of African and South American music. Crentsil first came to the UK as a member of Dzembii, a group formed by his father Daniel Crentsil, a name familiar to devotees of Fela Kuti. He was pivotal in Kuti’s move from highlife to Afro-beat, adding the extra percussion that led to the genre’s harder sound. He was also the first Ghanaian to play with Kuti, causing the group’s name-change from Nigeria 70 to Africa 70. Crenstil has kept the Afro-beat influence strong by not only playing in his father’s group, but as part of the London cast for FELA! the musical.
Zerpa’s story is harder to unravel, but no less extraordinary. One of 19 siblings, she grew up in a small village in Lara, known as being Venezuela’s ‘music state.’ Her dad was a singer and poet, leading the family in Afro-Venezuelan traditions such as the tamunangue. At nine years old she began to learn the cuatro, bashfully practising under the lemon tree. “It was the last tree in a really big garden,” laughs Zerpa. As well as soaking up llanero harp music on the radio she would play in a variety of Afro-Venezuelan groups, as well as alongside Alirio Díaz, best known as John Williams’ classical guitar teacher.
This in-depth knowledge of Venezuelan music is one area that Family Atlantica hope to bring greater awareness to: “It’s a treasure trove of stuff that needs to be opened and shown to the world and that’s what we’re doing.” Yet at the same time they are trying to do this in an honest way, as a multi-cultural London-based group. “We are finding a balance between tradition and innovation,” says Yglesias. “We want to create something that represents ourselves today. We live in London, in a very diverse situation, so we’re finding ways to express that in our music, while at the same time paying respect to the musical forms that we’re using.”
At times this need to innovate has carried risks, as Zerpa explains. “I tried to be more contemporary, like in ‘Tamunangue Blues’. The tamunangue is something almost sacred – no-one ever changed the lyrics of tamunangue. But I did. I talk about things that are more relevant, singing ‘I don’t need a gun, I have my heart.’” The stories of the slave ships are told in ‘El Negrero’, those of racism in Venezuela on ‘El Apamate’ – these are stories that are relevant but also continue a tradition of song. “I want to speak in the present time as a folklorist,” she says. “It’s interesting that people think the folklorists are dying. No man, we’re here, we’re doing it.” This updating of tradition continues in the music, with the addition of incendiary electric slide-guitar to ‘Tamunangue Blues’, the reconfiguring of calypso with home-made instruments on ‘Fly Through the Lightning to Speak with the Sun’, and in the dark brass-filled Latin jazz of ‘Cumbacutiri’, built around Zerpa’s singing of a Venezuelan tongue-twister.
This approach to making music, involving a huge amount of research and familiarisation, is one of the reasons it took four years for the group to make the album. “It’s not cut-and-paste music,” says Zerpa. “It’s music that has been lived. To get that rhythm we lived with the guy, we drank with the guy, we played with the guy.”
“It’s our lives” says Crentsil, “our emotions” adds Zerpa, before Yglesias hammers home the point: “It really was what we were living: we had our son in the studio most of the time, in a cot, while we were recording. We ended up with this really diverse sound because there were so many different things we wanted to explore, so many different rhythms.”
Later, as I walk around Brixton hearing Spanish tumbling out of the Colombian butchers, the deep English accents at the Ghanaian fruit and veg stall and the always unfamiliar sounds that greet me when I enter the Ethiopian café, it reminds me that Family Atlantica is not fusion for fusion’s sake. They’re not trying to formulate a new genre in a bid for success. They’re simply documenting what London sounds like: its dark past, its uncertain present and its hopeful future, shot through with a musical acumen that makes it one of the albums of the year, a world of music at our doorstep.