With Que Bajo?!, DJs and producers Geko Jones and Uproot Andy have been holding it down for the Latin side of the global bass movement in New York since 2010. At the monthly tropical dance party, clubgoers break into couples (or not) to dance to electronic permutations of cumbia and other rhythms native to Latin America and the Caribbean. The next Que Bajo?! will take place at the Wick in Bushwick on July 11, but it’s more than just another installment of their body-shaking dance party: The dance night will be a part of the upcoming Afro-Latino Festival, a celebration Jones has played a part in organizing.
In addition to contributing his skills as a DJ, Jones helped curate the live acts at the festival for the first time since its inception. A self-described Puerto-‘lombian, he says the festival’s mission to celebrate and honor Afro-Latino culture is close to his heart. The links between Africa’s many cultures and those of Latin America is an obsession for him.
“There is a lot of Afrocentricity in my mixtapes,” he says. “When I DJ, it’s very heavy in what I do. I see the connection musically between Angola and Colombia and I try very hard to bridge that gap between Africa and Latin America. I can often hear it in the drums, like, ‘Oh, this is connected to that region in Africa.’ How people play percussively, that’s where you hear those roots.”
At this installment of Que Bajo?! the DJ duo are presenting world-famous ambassadors of Colombian cumbia Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto, who, with their strictly folkloric repertoire, are as close to the roots as you can get. Geko calls bringing Los Gaiteros to Bushwick “a very particular honor”: “They were the first band to leave Colombia and tour internationally…and take [cumbia] to the rest of the world.” Geko and Andy often play remixes of their songs. On the Uproot Andy remix of “El Manolo,” for example, their gaita flutes are chopped and looped into an infectious production.
Mai-Elka Prado Gil, one of the Afro-Latino Festival’s founders, is also a musician. She fronts Delsonido, a NYC-based band that plays progressive Afro-Caribbean music. She describes their live show as one that “starts very calmly and then it becomes a carnival,” a description Afro-Latino shares. Three years ago, the festival began modestly as a day-long outdoor street fair with musical performances at Parkside Avenue in Brooklyn; this year, it spans a weekend with concerts at locations all over the city, many of them free. As is the destiny of any successful music festival, music is really only one aspect of the Afro-Latino Fest’s scope. The festivities kick off with a gala and awards ceremony at Madiba in Harlem to recognize community leaders, such as poet Willie Perdomo and State Assemblyman Robert J. Rodriguez. In addition to the main concerts at Restoration Plaza in Bed-Stuy, there are talks at Cubana Social in Williamsburg and a screening of the documentary Celia: The Queen, about Celia Cruz, in St. Mary’s Park in the Bronx. Restoration Plaza will also host dance workshops, art shows, a street fair, and a dominoes tournament.
Afro-Latinos are Latinos of African descent. They come from all over the Spanish-speaking world. The types of music that meet the criteria for being Afro-Latin would take a very long time to catalog. Prado says she and the other organizers made a conscious effort build a lineup that reflects that tremendous cultural diversity: “We are trying to show the versatility of Afro-Latino music today.” The festival bill includes artists from the U.S., Panama, Cuba, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti, among others. The styles of music presented range from salsa and Latin jazz to reggae and dancehall. Bands like Bodoma Garifuna, who perform the traditional music of the Afro-Caribbean Garifuna people, are well represented, but there are also plenty of performers who define the modern sounds of Afro-Latino music. Headliners and Puerto Rican roots reggae band Cultura Profetica, for one, are massive international stars, and singer Kafu Banton is one of the early heavyweights of the Panamanian dancehall, the soil from which reggaeton grew.
Starting this year, the United Nations has declared this the International Decade for People of African Descent. Prado says this adds extra motivation to the work of the festival, which celebrates and organizes around African roots. “We are trying to incorporate the music of diaspora,” Prado explains. In that spirit, the festival is showcasing a couple of not-technically-Latin acts: Afrobeat band Chop, Quench from the Broadway show Fela!, and Les Nubians.
Prado believes there is a need to celebrate Latin culture’s African roots, as well as the distinct culture and identity of Afro-Latinos within the larger Latin community, because, even when the Latin community is recognized, black Latinos are often still excluded. “The Afro-Latino community in Latin America and here has been made invisible for a long, long time,” she asserts. “We definitely are not represented in the media, and that’s something that we need to change.”
Geko shares that sense of urgency about the festival’s mission of representation. He points to the struggle that Afro-Latinos face both in Latin America and as part of immigrant communities elsewhere. “You look at what’s going on in the Dominican Republic right now, that kind of stuff happens all over Latin America,” he says. “It’s very under-reported. Those kind of things are what we’re trying to bring awareness to.”
Prado stresses that this is, first, a festival for and by Afro-Latinos like herself, with an emphasis on networking and community building — but all are welcome. “This is for the Afro-Latino artists,” she says. “This is for the Afro-Latino audience, and it’s for everyone that shares that passion. This third year we are sending a louder message to the community: The community is growing. We are trying to show New York that the Afro-Latino community is present, that we are working all the time. We need to be recognized. We need to fortify ourselves as a community and to embrace our Afro-Latinidad.”
Geko has attended the festival in the past, and loves how its diversity brings people together across countries and boroughs. “The Afro-Latin community, there’s these pockets all around Latin America, so [at the Afro-Latino Festival] you get representation from a lot of different countries, and there’s not a lot of spaces that that happens at. You go to the Heights, you’re partying with Dominicans mostly, a few Puerto Ricans, for the reggaeton-type shows. If you go to Queens, to the cumbia shows, it’s mostly Mexicans that attend those events,” he observes.
New York itself is arguably among those pockets of Afro-Latinidad he is referring to, and has been for a long time, making the time and place of this Afro-Latino Festival especially fitting. New York City is, after all, the birthplace of salsa, a union of Afro-Cuban rhythms and jazz. The growth of the Afro-Latino Festival is both evidence of and a tribute to the way those immigrant communities and their descendants, who created salsa and so many more of New York’s unique sounds, continue to persist, thrive, and create.
Afro-Latino Festival will take place July 10–12 at various venues in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and beyond. For a full schedule, ticket information, and more, click here.