A Retro Futuristic Afro-Caribbean Psychedelic Rhythm Machine. A joyous-sounding assault that takes you on a psychedelic journey with a possessed voodoo priest piloting a half-broken 1970’s Caribbean space ship, departing from the hot Venezuelan beach of Camuri Chico in order to land somewhere on the African continent along the borders between Angola and the Congo.
Conjunto Papa Upa is, first and foremost, the name of a grinding, pulsating, Amsterdam-based psychedelic dance band, which soars through the traditions of Latin music culture, incorporating Salsa, Afro-Latin and Caribbean rhythms. “Papa Upa” is also both a tune by the Cuban music legend and mambo innovator Arsenio Rodríguez and the name of a Venezuelan chewing gum that rotted kid’s teeth in previous decades. It’s a recycled joke band name that band leader Alex Figueira thought would never stick.
This new band sees Alex pursuing his musical heritage, the sounds of his Caracas youth, blaring from car radios, street parties, supermarkets, buses, his neighbour’s yard; the omnipresence of music in a big Latin city that powers the people of poorer neighbourhoods, who don’t have the luxury of aural privacy…
Conjunto Papa Upa does have some of the signature colourful campiness that other legendary bands coming out of the “Amsterdam Scene” (bands like the Mauskovic Dance Band and Altin Gün). However, as Alex says, “groove is on top of the hierarchy”. There are no overblown psychedelic breakdowns, extended guitar solos or emotional sonatas; the band is all about rhythm, finding new ways to make legs, asses and arms move, and keeping the tension high: “One thing I impose meticulously on my musicians, is how important it is to remain out of the comfort zone…there’s so much great music…you can spend whole life exploring”. It is for this reason Papa Upa has touches of Brazilian and Angolan sounds too.
The astonishing thing is the band’s gritty sound (frenetic percussion, guitar, organ and bass) combines familiar elements people know and like in a way they have never heard (but will instantly freak out to): African and Caribbean rhythms, psychedelia, surf, samba, old school salsa, funk and sarcastic lyrics that cleverly portrait the complexity of the current socio-political situation in Venezuela.
The end result is an irresistibly danceable meld that manages to be vintage and futuristic, both scary and fun at the same time.
A constant theme of Alex’s own bands and releases on his ‘Music With Soul’ label, is that they sound exactly like the record you were always digging for. Helping Conjunto Papa Upa reach this authenticity is Alex’s fellow Venezuelan native and one time percussion teacher, Gerardo Rosales. Gerardo, who was actively recording on many hit records in Venezuela in the 70s and 80s, is a perfect accompaniment within the band, a hot player who looks like they are barely raising a sweat onstage, while providing all the infectious rhythms to carry the band into the stratosphere live.
Conjunto Papa Upa is not without a manifesto. The cheap Salsa-mania that gripped Europe in the 90s that brings images of cheap synthesizers and sexy women dancing was the result of the boom riding from the favellas into the mainstream, as well as European Salsa Cults which fastidiously taught strict steps in time with the music, blocking an individual’s freedom to express themselves – have tainted the idea of Latin music in Europe. Conjunto Papa Upa is dedicated to bringing Latin rhythms back to the people, letting them enjoy the music without preconceived ideas about what “Latin” is and how they should look whilst dancing…and that is exactly what you will feel, when you hear this amazing band light up.
Their debut album Libre Para Amar has been released by the New York label Names You Can Trust in March 2020.