An interview with Lino Rocha

Lino Rocha nominated for the LUKAS Awards

Lino Rocha is a nominee for Vocalist of the Year on the 2012 LUKAS Awards, the Oscars for Latin music and Culture in the UK.

As great fans of Lino’s work, we feel honored for the chance we had to speak with him and get to know him a little better.

Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, let us introduce you to… Lino Rocha!

Where were you born and where do you live?

I was born in La Guaira, Venezuela. Scotland has now been my home for the past 12 years but before that I lived in London, England for over 25 years.

Before moving to London I lived in Madeira for almost 5 years when my parents migrated back from Venezuela. I studied at Escola Industrial do Funchal where I believe there is still a big tile mural on a wall inside the school made by me and my classmates.

When did you start singing?

I started my singing career in the early 80’s and was one of a group of artists who initiated the Latin scene in London and the rest of UK. We used to gather every weekend at a bar called ‘Bar Sol’ to have jam sessions. It was from that small bar that many of us started forming Salsa bands and eventually it spread throughout the UK and even some parts of Europe.

What made you musician?

I believe music has always been in my soul but I never knew the real importance of it in my life until my mid 30’s. I remember singing and whistling to myself whenever I had the space, be it at work or even studying but never took it seriously until a very good friend and musician gave me the courage to start in the music business.

Which artists influenced you the most as a musician and a singer?

There are quite a few artists that I looked up to and in some ways influenced me. Believe it or not before I even thought of becoming a Latin/Salsa musician I loved listening to Soul and funk and the first record I bought in the UK was called ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ by Karl Douglas… The artists I loved and admired included Earth Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder, James Brown and of course Michael Jackson, among others. Rock was also in my ‘bible’ and artists like Santana (the early records), the Black Crows and Credence Clearwater Revival (from USA) were some of my favorites of that era.

As far as Latin artists/singers my favorites were, and still are, Ruben Blades, Hector Lavoe, Cheo Feliciano, Ray Barreto, Charlie Palmieri, Juan Luis Guerra and all the Fania All Stars Latin super group of the 70’s. I am more of a Nuyorican salsa fan as it was the music I grew up with from my early years in Venezuela.

And which contemporary musicians attract you the most?

To be honest I have a soft spot for down-tempo type music and I admire artists like Francisco Cespedes, Sting, Eva Cassidy and artists of similar styles.

From the many styles and fusions in Latin Music, which one’s your favourite?

I have two favourites. The first is a latin-urban band called ‘Tumbaito’ whom I was the lead singer of back in the 90’s in London. They only made one album but it was to become a cult album as they were the first band in the UK (at least) to mix uptempo Salsa with afro-cuban beats, Jazz, Funk, rock-Afro guitar licks and traditional Afro-Venezuelan grooves. My second favourite is the band called Guaco from Zulia, Venezuela, who’s unique music style seemed to have influenced (as I have read) various Cuban-salsa (or Timba as some of us call it) bands, but don’t take my word for it. What I do know is Guaco started in 1960 and they created a precedent for mixing different styles which was unheard of in those days.

From your vast repertoire, it’s clear that you can sing in different languages. In which do you feel more comfortable?

I have to say that for singing, Spanish is my most comfortable language and English a close second but I am getting more and more into Portuguese as I am getting closer to my real roots.

Tell us a bit about your latest project, Voices of Nature.

Voices of Nature was born in 2005 and it was a partnership between me and the band leader Andre Kljacovic from Croatia. Our aim was to break down barriers of musicality and create something unique and very Eclectic from our most inner feelings. The latest finished project/album is called Abazar which has more Balkan influences mixed with electronic and Jazz styles. Abazar is very different to our first album called Exotika which used more straight ahead but still interesting Funk, Arabic, Latin and rock grooves with emphasis on full-on vocals.

Do you prefer the recording studio or being on stage performing live in concert?

The two have their merits but for different reasons. The recording process is like the creation of a new born baby so a lot of hard work goes into it but at the same time it is very exciting to hear the ongoing results after many months of pre-preparation and lots of sleepless nights! Playing live is like showing the world your new creation and sharing those emotions with the public is the most exhilarating experience we can ever feel. If you were to ask me what I have more pleasure in doing then I have to say performing live.

How’s the Latin music scene in the UK?

I would say, from my point of view as an artist, that the 80’s was the most wholesome, fun and friendly but also serious time for salsa in the UK. We called it the Latin explosion era and eventually spread throughout were many bands were born and many salsa teachers started to appear and spread like wild fire. Today salsa is a well known phenomenon in the UK and there are countless bars and clubs spread all over. There has even been TV/Radio commercials with salsa background music. Unfortunately many bands suffered from the financial squeeze as time went by and club promoters saw an opportunity to pay less and have their clubs full of people by just paying a DJ so people were happy to pay just a few pounds on the door and dance the night away. As a consequence many full 8-11 piece bands split up and musicians had to use drum machines and keyboards to be able to earn a living which meant a maximum of only 3-4 musicians would play in many occasions. The live scene today is not as healthy as in the early days but some of us kept strong and continued the tradition because in the end what people love the most is listening and feeling a real band play live.

I have been lucky in a way because I am more of a world fusion musician so I don’t just perform with salsa bands and have had the opportunity to collaborate with a diversity of artists from many different genres. Apart from the more down-beat styles which is my soft spot I also love eclectic world fusion music.

And in Scotland, is it the same?

In Scotland the Latin/Salsa scene started in the late 90’s on a much smaller scale since there were not many Latinos living there but it grew steadily, though what I can say is that the Scottish as well as the Irish are more fun-loving and culturally rich in their music roots therefore they make much better audiences and they wholeheartedly welcomed the Latin culture. I was the lead singer in a band that was unique in Scotland and the world for that matter. They are called Salsa Celtica which mixes traditional Celtic and Latin rhythms and they went on to become one of the most well renown Latin style bands world wide.

In Portugal, many musicians complain that Latin music is undermined and that most of the time they end up playing not for audience who actually wants to listen, but for people who just look for something to dance to.
Do you see a genuine interest for Latin music in the UK, or are musicians just a premium alternative to the DJ, for those who like to dance.

In many countries outside Latin America many people have created this idea that Salsa music is just warm, fun and happy music because they do not truly understand the concept. Salsa was actually born out of the ghettos, poverty and desperation and its lyric content was hard hitting telling everyday stories about life in the streets etc. Basically a lot of people who don’t understand its significance find it fun but not serious music. Of course Salsa, for instance, gives a strong sense of happiness because of its melodic and percussive content but that is because those artists wanted to tell a serious story in a fun kind of way. Poor people in Latin America smile more often that very rich people…lol
What is happening now is salsa has become more simplistic in its melodic content and there are too many ballad songs about superficial love and it has become too watered down.

Ok so to answer your question more directly, people in Scotland (at least) are becoming more conscious and more learned about the Latin culture and they are appreciating it much more. Recently there have been more serious cultural exchanges between Scotland and Venezuela in the music roots. Like I said Scotland/Ireland are more richly aware in culture. As for Madeira I am only guessing there is not enough cultural understanding of Latin music (if you don’t include Brazil) and/or perhaps there is not the full support and awareness that people need?. But you know it’s funny in a way because Madeira was one of the main and most influential migrating forces in Venezuela so it’s curious there is so little appreciation for Latin music, or at least the Salsa music style. I understand there are more Venezuelan born Portuguese people in Madeira so maybe a question of time?

Have you ever played in Portugal?

My only appearance in Madeira was in the Atlântida TV show, some 3-4 years ago and I had sung two piano-vocal ballads. I thank my cousin Gracinda Sillva who works for RTP Madeira for having made this possible.