"A different style of dancing": Papaoul's offbeat sets blend Latin, UK and leftfield sounds - Music - Mixmag

"A different style of dancing": Papaoul's offbeat sets blend Latin, UK and leftfield sounds

Fraser Dahdouh speaks to London-based DJ and broadcaster Papaoul about the Epoka club night he helms with Bushbby, educating UK dancefloors, and flipping the dembow riddim

  • Words: Fraser Dahdouh | Photos: Matlida Hill-Jenkins
  • 8 September 2023

Radio broadcaster and DJ Papaoul, real name Gabriel Francis, first earned acclaim soundtracking breakfasts as a selector on Worldwide FM, a slot won on the back of a successful weekend show joining the dots between the UK and Latin American undergrounds. The broader selections of the Worldwide FM Morning Show allowed him to programme an evolving selection of contemporary Latin music alongside UK jazz and other genres on a station that had established itself as the UK jazz scene’s broadcasting home during heady heights reached onwards of 2019, demonstrating that two-way travel between the worlds of jazz and dance music is not a process confined to the European and North American metropoles.

Papaoul has since turned a spotlight on Latinx creatives in the UK through The Fifth Sun, his new slot on Reprezent Radio, and the Latin music-focused club night Epoka, recently launched with his friend and collaborator Bushbby. Under his own name, Gabriel Francis has worked as the Music Editor at Sounds and Colours, an online publication dedicated to arts and culture from Latin America. If there is one, this is the golden thread tying together his output – a commitment to the cosmopolitan and innovative trajectories in Latin American music-making.

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The long project of platforming music from the region and transforming our understanding of contemporary music-making from the Latin community and the diaspora has taken him around the festival circuit and to many of London’s most revered dancefloors, where his leftfield selections can cut unfamiliar shapes from reggaeton, breaks and UKG. His Impact mix is a reflection of this, stretching and flipping the dembow riddim beyond the garden-varieties that are typical among the listening habits of European and particularly UK-based audiences.

The obscure and contemporary tracklist reveals the sociality that underpins his musical journey; he grew up outside of diasporic communities in London with a dad who is half-Honduran and half-English and a Lebanese mum, with his main connection to Honduras being his father and grandmother who lived locally. When he started broadcasting Papaoul met a vibrant Latinx community which has directed the evolution of his taste and collaborations, including the defence of the community by helping to coordinate fundraising events with the Save Latin Village Campaign – a successful community-led project to safeguard a hub of Latin American culture in Seven Sisters, London.

Nestled in a drinking hole between his old broadcasting studio of the now barebones station, Worldwide FM and Night Tales Hackney where he would hold things down for Rinse FM later that evening, Papaoul is leafing through a large photo book. “It’s by Deben Bhattacharya, a Bengali radio producer, record producer and ethnomusicologist,” explains Papaoul. He’s researching for a forthcoming BBC Radio 3 documentary he's making with production company Reduced Listening, but it’s clear that Deben’s life and methodology resonate with him on a personal level. “This book follows him on the road between Western Europe and India, drawing heavily from his time in the Middle East. He did this trip in the ‘50s in this milk van and you’ll probably have heard a bunch of his field recordings – they pop up everywhere,” he rounds off with more than a slightly inspired look in his eye.

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.

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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 4x4 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.

There can be a pedagogical process with crowds, do you think the recognition of the dembow riddim as an off-kilter dance beat in the way that 2-step garage is allows crowds to get into more?

Totally! I find it interesting because my whole manifesto is that the music is not different: firstly, it’s really close to dancehall, a similar speed and close rhythms. Then you have UK funky which I see as a sped-up reggaeton. It never really made sense to me why reggaeton never hit in the same way as these other genres.

In Buenos Aires, I wound up listening to quite a lot of cumbia music, which I think is still a very unfamiliar musical language in the UK, whenever I go to drop a track, I still feel a lot of anticipation about how the crowd is gonna take it – generally pretty well. In Rio, when we found the good parties, it was interesting to see how they can just play baile funk for hours and they just keep going – in the UK, still, I think people would get a little detached from it.

You mentioned the other faces of reggaeton and the darker, heavier sides of the genre earlier, can you talk us through how that shaped your mix?

I wanted this mix to do what I’m always saying I wanted to do, which is to build the bridges between the other kind of Latin music that’s not frequently heard in the UK. There are bits more on the dancehall side and some of the reggaeton tracks are selections that I thought could bridge that gap and serve as an introduction. Some of them are a bit more out there, some cumbiaton tracks – a mix between reggaeton and cumbia – that always seems to go down a treat and seating that alongside some of the dancehall is nice.

I wanted it to feel like I was linking these things together in a mix somewhere between a radio and a club mix. It did wind up being pretty full-on all the way through in the end but that came from experimenting with tempo changes, sometimes people shy away from mixing in the low BPMs as they’re perceived as less energetic, or not danceable. People have been dancing to those rhythms for decades, why should that not translate to some of the darker electronic tracks?

'Dale Friki Friki Tona' by Jorge DJ Productor is one of the heavier tracks on there and it's slow, it comes from an NTS compilation put together by DJ Rosa Pistola, who ran a documentary looking at the cumbiaton scene in Mexico. These producers fusing the sounds of cumbia and reggaeton really defy the perceptions of listening habits in the region, reggaeton has taken over. Rosa Pistola as a curator and as a DJ, she’s amazing.

I wanted the mix to touch on a lot of the things that I do. I wanted it to represent what I’m doing with the radio and the club nights simultaneously, I feel like I did that.

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The mix careens into UK dance music such as breaks and UKG at points, is that where you think the link is more interesting?

Yeah, that’s the link that’s interesting to me: Latin stuff and UK bass. I’ll throw it out to amapiano sometimes, percussive club music basically. When I first heard it amapiano didn’t really make sense to me as I heard it through some tinny speakers – then I heard it through a proper system and I was like “I’m with you 100%, let’s slow things down and make it heavy. I’m in!”.

When you turn towards studio practice and dance music production generally in Latin America – what is it that lends itself to the syncopated or swing-laden rhythms that dominate the sound and your selections?

Straight up, I think more syncopated rhythms have always appealed to me more. I’m not so into four-to-the-floor, I struggle with house and techno to be honest, I find the offbeat stuff invites a different style of dancing. It’s a bit more personal, like where you choose to find rhythm in some ways.

In terms of how that factor into production techniques, well let me use the example of this recent self-titled album by Afrorack, where he made an analogue synthesiser that was not programmed towards these Western electronic music traditions and musical scales. Traditionally they’re not built for the African rhythms and notations that he was interested in working with.

In terms of our electronic production techniques, from my understanding, a lot of it is not catered to these different rhythms.

Moving back to how this might relate to your life in London, you mentioned that you never felt part of a Latin American community growing up. How did your involvement with the campaign to Save Latin Village in South Tottenham come about and was that a gratifying moment for you?

The link was that Threads Radio in Tottenham were doing a show about the Save Latin Village campaign, I think they were looking for someone to DJ the breaks and underneath the interview content. So, I met Javie Huxley and Stefania Alvarez there, it was great to meet them and engage with the community in London directly. As you say, it wasn’t something I had growing up and they really welcomed me into the campaign and the events, and we shared experiences of growing up in London – I played events with them for fundraising. They had quite a mixed audience, there was definitely a Latin audience, and then a broader audience of people interested in grassroots activism. On the dancefloor people were well up for it, they wanted to hear ‘90s reggaeton and Fania salsa records. It was great!

A standout tune would be 'Rebelión' by Joe Arroyo, that track in particular has a story of anti-authoritarianism and it’s rooted in the experiences of marginalised communities. It’s also instrumentally and rhythmically a banging track, when you think about it against the perceptions of ‘tropical music’ the track actually has very different roots to that coming from the late ‘80s in Colombia.

In terms of the engagement with diaspora communities, when you grow up outside of that it can be a choice, I grew up being asked “Where are you from?” and at times I had a choice of whether to engage in that or not, as I also look and sound like I’m from London, but at other times it forced upon me in different ways, you know on the playground as a kid. But that was always on the Arab side, no one ever picked up on my Latin side – that was the 2000s, I guess.

One thing I was keen on when I started DJing was that I didn’t want to be branded as a Latin DJ, I never wanted to put myself forward as being a spokesperson from the scene. My experience is often different to other peoples’ experiences. I wouldn’t want anyone to think they could see the whole Latin experience through me, but the Latin side is the way my selections and work have perhaps segmented me. That may well have come from distancing myself from being Middle Eastern at times in my life, I want to explore it more. I had Grace, a Lebanese DJ on my last show and that was nice to explore that connection.

That’s all I’m seeking to do, present something that feels honest that might be heard that I feel should be heard.

Fraser Dahdouh is a freelance writer, follow him on Instagram

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