“A different style of dancing”: Papaoul’s offbeat sets blend Latin, UK and leftfield sounds

today08/09/2023 5

share close

If Worldwide FM is where you took your start as a DJ, a radio DJ with a focus on contemporary Latin jazz music, you’ve since taken this turn towards promoting with Epoka which touches similar areas of music but with a marked focus on dance music. Can you take us through that journey in your own words and let us know how that journey going for you?

It’s going well, things started with Worldwide FM, that was my way into the music industry. Before that I did a couple of internships at record labels and then I went to Worldwide – interning there – and then I got a show. I was brought in to bring a bit more Latin music, especially contemporary Latin music, so we had dance music and electronic stuff as well.

Then I got the call to do the Worldwide Daily Show, their daily morning show, and I was going to do two days a week. That was a much more expansive brief; before I was on the alternative, contemporary Latin music, I felt that this was especially underrepresented on the airwaves and I felt that people would enjoy and that it should be there which is a project that is very important to me.

The daily show had a lot of jazz, older records, hip hop, older Latin stuff and other electronic stuff – non-Latin stuff. Then I did two years of a Sunday radio show, so that was the slot where I started. Then, Worldwide closed, and that was of course a major shift in how I saw myself as DJ and as a broadcaster. You know, if you haven’t had any gigs in a couple of months, you can still call yourself a DJ. But, being a broadcaster without a radio show left me at a bit of a loss. It was quite a hit to my confidence and how I felt about where I was at in my career and what I was able to portray.

I’ve been pursuing a couple of different angles; I’ve got a monthly show on Reprezent which I’ve been doing for about six months now which I enjoy, as it has quite an open brief. The opportunity came up to run a night with my friend Bushbby in spring last year. It’s called Epoka and we kicked off at Dalston Den before we moved over to The Yard in Hackney Wick.

Then we ran a party on the roof of The Standard in King’s Cross where we brought through some amazing local DJs, so we had AUKA – she’s Chilean/South African. She plays an amazing mix of old school records and a cutting-edge electronic stuff. We also brought DJ Raff, who is also Chilean and now living in London; he was a big part of the hip hop scene in Chile before moving here, now he makes downtempo electronic music. Our set was maybe one of the best sets we’ve done together; we always play back-to-back me and Bushbby. It was great, the clock of St. Pancras was right behind us, the sun was shining and the people were dancing, you know, it’s not the sort of space we usually occupy and we had a couple of discomforts but things came together really nicely.

I had a perception that you had moved from Latin jazz selections toward dance music in your work, but it seems like both have been there all along. Is that right?

I think both things have always been [there], look, I’m not a club kid at heart. I like quite a lot of chill music to be honest when I’m at home, which winds up being quite a lot of downtempo electronic music. At the time I’d been doing an internship with ZZK Records in Argentina, their focus was around a lot of downtempo, electro-cumbia, early Nicola Cruz that sort of thing.

I actually got the internship there completely by chance, I’d worked with Island Records in London and they had put me in touch with Universal in Argentina. A week before I got there, they let me know that they couldn’t sort my work visa, and they wouldn’t be able to employ me without paying me. They didn’t want to pay me so it couldn’t work out and I needed some sort of internship to complete my degree – landing in Buenos Aires with nothing sorted and only a loose grip on the Spanish language left me reaching out to all of the record labels that I could find to see who would take me.

Before ZZK took me on, I remember going through their catalogue and sharing it with my friendship groups – it was the coolest thing I’d seen in a while. It was electronic music but incorporating aspects of traditional Latin American music: Andrean folk music and cumbia rhythms. I was like “Wow, I’ve never heard anything like this before you guys need to hear this!”.

When I came back to the UK, I couldn’t get over how I didn’t know that this existed before, which is what would lead to me seeking to bring it to the radio. Back then, the music that I was listening to in my spare time was everything that Worldwide FM was playing, which is why I wanted to work there. Working there definitely shaped my music taste, I don’t think I had a particularly exciting or adventurous music taste as a teen. Things slowly changed over time, when I left school, I felt a lot more comfortable listening to what I enjoyed rather than what people around me were playing, but there wasn’t really a way for me to discover a lot of the music that I listen to now.

Read this next: How sounds from the Global South stopped club culture stagnating

Since that time, has your knowledge of Spanish improved and has that shaped your engagement with the music?

I grew up in London with a dad who is half-Honduran and half-English and my mum is Lebanese, despite speaking like seven languages between them I just grew up speaking English. I went on to study Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Edinburgh, my year abroad was split between Buenos Aires, as I mentioned, and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

My grandma, who lived up the road from me, was always my main link to Honduras and to the region, growing up in a multi-lingual household and only speaking English was tricky: my grandma and dad spoke in Spanish, when I saw my Lebanese family, they’d be speaking English, French and Arabic at the same time, there was desire to learn other languages and connect with other people – family, as well as the rest of the world. Whilst I have more Lebanese blood than Honduran blood, with her living just up the road that was my connection to family beyond the UK.

When I talk about the prevailing perceptions of music from the region, growing up, that was me as well. I wanted to investigate that and my perceptions completely changed. I’m not sure if this is an appropriate comparison, but this really shaped my understanding of the issue. A friend of mine was talking about her queerness, and explained how there was this specific point on a dancefloor that she found the music that she associates with her identity, a place where she could feel comfortable, surrounded by people who also associate this music with their identity – she turned the question to me and asked where did I first make that association with Latin music. To be honest, I never did. It wasn’t part of my musical upbringing or education because I wasn’t exposed to it. This is why I wanted to start the radio show and the club night, I hoped that Epoka could be that experience for someone like me, as I never had a strong sense of a Honduran or Latin American community as I grew up.

In Rio I could choose an assignment for myself, so I did an assignment on the origins of baile funk music in Rio which was interesting at the time, it wasn’t on people in the UK’s radar in the same way as a genre back in 2018. There were of course people in Europe looking at baile funk and working with it, Daniel Haaksman is a DJ and producer in Germany. He’d been over to Rio a bunch and was now pressing baile funk records in Europe, but at the time, you wouldn’t flick over to NTS and hear it. Now you hear it in mainstream label production, which is great in some ways.

You have to remember baile funk came from the favelas and kind of has its origins in Miami bass music. Whilst it’s not musically similar to hip hop, the structure [is] with an MC from an historically marginalised community representing their life experience, in this case in the favelas of Brazil. There was a lot of gang violence, state oppression, and policing spoken about in baile funk but then a lot of it was fun, with some particularly ridiculous sampling in there as well. These days in electronic music the rhythm crops up a lot and you see baile funk in pop music as well. However, there is limited representation of actual Brazilians in the music. Of course, it’s hard to bring people over and I get that for smaller artists and promoters, but recently Baile LDN were on the bill with VHOOR for a gig at the Jazz Café recently, so it does happen.

This reminds me of a conversation that I had with one of the members of Colectiva about Latin music, she expressed a concern not just around the underrepresentation of Latin music among Western audiences but also a perception that Latin music as fun or tropical sound is not canonical and is in some way lesser than European or North American jazz practices. I wonder if the same perception applies to dance music and the ways that audiences and critics can respond to Latin instrumentations, rhythms and notations – are they considered less serious than a 4×4 beat?

In the UK, Latin music has historically been swept under this banner of tropical music, which can feel unserious and playful. With the UK is going through such a jazz resurgence over the past few years with so many young people listening to jazz, I guess it’s a wonder where the Latin jazz artists sit among that. You have your salsa, cumbia – these genres that people don’t take so seriously.

I think that they’re starting to take them seriously – I find it quite hard to say – it’s one of the things we’re trying to do with our night, Epoka. If you come along, you’re going to hear some reggaeton, but you’ll hear cumbia, maybe some salsa or bachata and that’s cool. The people that come to those events generally do enjoy it, and take it as a serious form of artistic expression in the way that it’s intended.

There are occasions when I’m playing in spaces which are less curated or are open to people that aren’t specifically seeking out this kind of music, I think then the reception is less serious. People start trying to spin their partners around for a couple of seconds, then they bail. Maybe we’ll get there one day? At the same time, they might not be so interested if you were playing Pharoah Sanders, maybe they’re not the people you’re aiming at.

On club music, with reggaeton there’s been a change 100%. Reggaeton and dembow music in general has gone through an interesting trajectory, again I would compare its origins to the origins of hip hop but within Black communities in Puerto Rico and Panama, over time that music became very commercialised and by the time it reached the UK, I think our general perception of it was ‘here is a form of commercial and very cheesy music’. I think that is changing now and there are producers really pushing the envelope on reggaeton and what it can be in terms of its sonic palette: is it bright and poppy and mainstream, or is it dark, heavy and underground? I guess it can be both. At its heart is the dembow riddim, which has worked its way into club sounds in a way that only five years ago seemed inconceivable.

Written by: Tim Hopkins

Rate it