Although he’s from England, tropical vibes and rhythms have been running through his veins for a long time now. His passion for the richness and variety of music, cultures and languages in Latin America made him study Hispanic Studies at university. Robin Perkins, better known for his artistic name El Búho (‘owl’ in English), has just published his first LP, titled Balance (a word that can be used in Spanish and in English indistinctively), after five years of the release of his first EP and is already part of Lollapalooza Chile’s line up. We talk to the DJ and producer about his very mixed influences, his love for folk music, and how bright do the present and the future currently look like.
How does a guy from North England end up being one of the main referents in the new movement of Latin American folkloric music and cumbia mixed with electronic beats?
Very good question, and there is no easy answer. Well, aside from thinking that perhaps in a previous life I was Latin American, the continent has always just fascinated me. I love languages – always have – and at university I decided to study Hispanic Studies, specialising in Latin America. I was just captivated by this collision of cultures, environments, languages, histories and, of course, music! I read so much into the history, wrote a thesis on cowboy music from the Brazilian sertão and then went to Buenos Aires for a year to live it first hand. That really changed everything and exposed me to the music, the landscapes, the cities, the people and the history. It blew me away and there (after some early forays into dubstep and bad minimal techno) I found my musical direction – the roots and rhythms of the vastly diverse Latin American music, the sound of nature and modern electronic music.
What does El Búho stand for? How did you get to your artistic name?
When I was first deciding my stage name I knew it had to be a bird. Birds have always been a part of my life and represent something truly special for me (even my name is a bird). El Búho seemed to just make sense as owls are incredibly powerful, spiritual birds in a lot of cultures – representing knowledge, mystery and a certain darkness and they are, of course, nocturnal. It just stuck and I still feel it embodies what I am trying to do.
What kind of music did you listen to during your childhood and teenage years? What singers/bands or songs from that time are still stuck in your head?
Wow, hard question to answer. During my childhood, REM, Crowded House, Buena Vista Social Club, Radiohead, Queen, Enya, and The Stranglers. My sister and I used to listen to about five or six albums on repeat from my mum’s collection or we would record hits off the radio onto our own tapes. As a teenager I was big into indie music – Oasis, Flaming Lips, Radiohead, Arcade Fire.
Later on, a few moments and albums really shifted what I knew or thought about music: John Peel's BBC radio show was my entrance into a whole other world. So for songs, I would highlight Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s #f #a; Flaming Lips’ Clouds Taste Metallic; Pixies’ Surfer Rosa; World´s End Girlfriend’s Hurtbreak Wonderland; Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, Vol. 2; and John Coltrane’s Giant Steps (I used to play the saxophone). It is incredible how music can transport you to a memory or a place.
When did you first learn about Latin American folkloric music? Did anyone introduce you to it, or was it through the magic of the Internet? Any special songs that you recall?
I think I had been introduced to the world of ‘world music’ through the classics like Buena Vista Social Club, but it wasn't until I went travelling around Central America when I left school for six months. From that trip, I remember Cuba more than anything: reggaeton booming from cars, music everywhere, and these rhythms, life and percussion that grabbed you. I also remember Manu Chao coming out of every hostel. But it wasn´t until I went to university in Glasgow to study Latin American studies that I really started digging into it and stumbled into this whole other world of Latin American folk or popular music and it never ended.
Cumbia was actually my entrance to this whole other world. I wasn’t much of a fan of salsa but cumbia… wow, there is just something else to it, it’s hard to explain. I also ended up doing my thesis on Mulher Rendeira – now a classic, but a song that was associated with Lampião, this legendary cowboy from Brazil's sertão region. I guess though my time spent living and studying in Buenos Aires for a year and travelling around Latin America really immersed me in the music of the present – with parties like ZZK – and the past – with piles of pirate CDs from Huayno to Roots of Chicha, to cumbias villeras to Venezuelan folk.
What does attract you the most from folkloric Latin American music? What made you decide that this was the kind of music you wanted to create and mix?
It is hard to pinpoint. I think half of it is because of the complexity, the richness and this meeting of worlds and sounds. The huge varieties of cumbia are the perfect example: born out of a mix of African, European and indigenous rhythms and instruments to create something new. Then there is music from the Andes, which varies hugely from one valley to the next, the folklore of Argentina, the Son Jarocho of Mexico, the plains music from Venezuela, and the Latin scene in Miami or New York. It is just incredible and has had such an influence on modern music. I was really captivated by the different strands of music from the Andes for their sound – something completely different –, but also for the often-close relationship to the earth, to nature, which is something very important to me.
It just happened naturally. I started playing around with these rhythms and mixing them with electronic and organic sounds and from there I began to evolve and find my own sound, following in the footsteps of the likes of King Coya, Chancha, El Remolón, Frikstailers or Dick El Demasiado – the ones who were pioneering this new Latin-American sound back over the past ten years from Argentina. It just seemed to make sense to me.
As a curiosity, do you speak and/or understand Spanish? Do you know the meanings of the songs you mix?
I studied Spanish and Portuguese for five years and lived for about three years altogether in the continent, so yeah, I speak Spanish – kind of Mexican-Argentinian Spanish, though.
After living in the continent, are you still currently living in any Latin-American country?
Actually, I just moved back after living for two years in Mexico City, a true metropolis. I moved there for work and to be back in Latin America for a few years. It is an incredibly vibrant, rich, and crazy, crazy city. The best thing? The people. The worst thing? The traffic and the madness. Not planning to move back in the near future, but you never know. I am planning to travel to Latin America soon though, to play at Lollapolooza Chile and to spend some time visiting Colombia, one of the few countries I have never been too and a huge inspiration musically speaking.
From birds to water and wind, your tracks are full of natural sounds. What role does Mother Nature – or as people in Latin America call it, the Pacha Mama – play in your music and in your life?
It plays a big role for me, and it always has. I was brought up surrounded by nature and in a very ‘green’ family – going on trips to watch birds, spot animals or hiking in the hills. I now work for Greenpeace and it is something that is part of me. It just seemed a natural fit to add this element in my music, as it is part of my identity and my way of seeing the world. What’s more, I love the sound it creates, the depth, the difference. It is like this huge drum machine or a unique synth: bird songs, leaves, waterfalls, raindrops, footsteps that can be twisted, modulated, reverbed or just left as they are to sculpt something electronic-organic.
After your first EP five years ago, you’ve just now released your first LP, titled Balance. Has it been in the making all this time? How’s been the process from the first idea to the final result? And what does the title stand for?
I found really challenging to make an album: choosing the tracks, telling a coherent message, the order, etc., but I have wanted to do it for a while and this felt like the right moment. I had some tracks that I really wanted to find a home for, like Tlacotlan, as well as others that were inspired by my time in Mexico, like Papán. The title stands for finding a balance between musical directions but also between us as humans and with our surroundings in nature, something we need more than ever if we want to survive the next hundred years as a species!
In it, we can listen to some songs of yours that we already heard, for example, at your performance in Boiler Room Tulum last year, like Tlecotlan. Does this mean that you already have some new tracks ready for a second LP?
Ha, indeed. To me they now sound kind of old as the whole process for making album can take a long time. I am already making lots and lots of new music. My problem is that I am a bit of a butterfly, flitting always to new music and new tunes, which means I am sitting on about two hundred ideas that need cleaning up, finishing, releasing or deleting. I am kind of tempted to release a beats compilation and put all this music out into the world. But then today, we are a bit overwhelmed by music, so who knows.
You’ve collaborated with another DJ who also played at Boiler Room Tulum (and Sónar Barcelona, for example), Nicola Cruz. He’s also a big referent in this musical movement that’s been gaining popularity during the last three or four years. How and when did you two meet? Did the idea of collaborating or remixing each other’s works come up instantly, or has it been more of a process?
I think, as with a lot of us in the scene, we met through Soundcloud and then Facebook messenger (laughs). I can remember finding his tracks in one of my Soundcloud digging sessions and being like, “Wow, this guy has such a nice production aesthetic” (older tracks like Lea, which were more groovy). So we started talking and then I ended up releasing a few tracks on the QTZCTL label he ran with Gorky out of Quito, one of which was remixed by Nicola (Calchaqui) and became a bit of a hit. I still get people asking about that track. This was back in 2014, and we have kept in touch ever since and keep remixing each other (like his incredible remix of Chucum from the album) and hopefully are going to collaborate on a few ideas.
You’ve also collaborated with Luzmila Carpio, a Bolivian female singer considered one of the strongest voices standing for folkloric diversity, indigenous rights and culture. How’s your relationship with her? And in what ways does she contribute to your songs, as well as you contribute to hers?
She is one of the most incredible, kind, sweet and surprising women I have met! As fellow producer Barda said to me the other day, she is like “the Elvis Pressley of our scene”, but you meet her and she is the most down to earth, kind and inspiring person you could meet. Our worlds collided thanks to ZZK Records and their great remix initiative that a bunch of producers from the scene took part in. I remixed this truly beautiful track, called Amaotayku Avelino Sinani, and it turned out she loved the release (which is not so common in the folk world, it can be quite traditionalist and protective). When I moved to Paris, I actually stayed in Luzmila's house while she was in Bolivia, before we had even met. Then we had dinner, we chatted, and danced at a ZZK party. We ended up working together on this track for the album inspired by the same ideas of protecting the earth and it was a pleasure. I know Luzmila is fascinated by this new world of young producers taking these sounds to a new audience and even herself wants to do more. Such a refreshing approach.
There is a topic that’s been highly discussed during the past years: cultural appropriation. Festivals like Coachella banned its attendants from wearing feather headdresses. In my opinion, cultures are fluid and the best thing about them is that they influence one another and thanks to that, there have been massive improvements and shifts in all artistic expressions, from music to painting, to performing arts and cinema. What is your vision on that topic? If somebody accused you of appropriating folkloric songs from indigenous tribes, what would your answer be?
I think this is a very interesting discussion. I totally agree that culture is not fixed and I really don't like this idea of ‘preserving’ folk music as if it were something solid, stuck in time. Each music is an evolution, the meeting of worlds and changes. It makes perfect sense that different influences come together to mix electronic music with folk sounds.
How was cumbia born? Would you class a charango as a traditional instrument, or can it only be stone flutes? Music is not fixed, it is fluid. Having said that, to me, it is important to understand what you are remixing, understand where it comes from, and what it means. It does frustrate me these days to see music that is just like, search for Icaro Shaman Chant, download it from a Youtube video, put it over a 4x4 beat at 100bpm, and there you go, ‘ethnic-slow-house’. I have been guilty of this before for sure, but now I really try to dig deeper, to make connections with people and work with them – like on the album – or to edit or remix songs that tell a story to me, that inspire me or that mean something through their lyrics or melody.
You’re going to participate at Lollapalooza Chile next year, the biggest event you’ve ever attended as an artist so far, if I’m not wrong – and also, the first time you play in Latin America besides Mexico. How do you feel about performing in front of an audience who has grown up listening to the ‘original’ cumbias and folkloric songs? What can Lollapalooza’s attendants expect from your set?
This is indeed the first time I will play in South America (I played plenty in Mexico), and it is also the biggest show I have played in. It will be an honour to be able to play my music, which draws heavily from Latin American traditions, in the continent, and I also hope to do a bunch of other shows while I am there. I think people can expect a set filled with owls, birds, clicks, clacks, shakes, rhythms, deep bases, textures and some deep, 80 bpm grooving.