Name: Robin Perkins aka El Búho
Occupation: Producer, composer
Current release: El Búho's Cumbias Imaquinarias EP is out now on Earthly Measures.
If these thoughts by El Buho piqued your interest, visit his personal website for more information, updates, music and links.
Can you please tell us a bit about your own sense of identity – and how it motivated you to take an artistic path? In which way do you feel your identity concretely influences your creativity?
My sense of identity is pretty fluid these days. Having spent the last 10 years living outside of the country I was born in (the UK) I have to say while I am British my identity has become something hard to pin down. It’s funny how today we are still identified by the place we are born instead of the experiences that made us.
I think though this is really shifting as there are so many children of mixed couples, living in a third country and their identity is not something fixed. Artistically, this motivated me to explore beyond the boundaries of the country and culture I was born in, mixing it with other influences, notably from South America. In this sense my ‘artistic’ identity is something very different.
Your biography starts with the following sentence: "Robin Perkins aka El Búho was born in the rolling hills of northern England but found his musical home in the forests, rivers & mountains of Latin America." Why do the forests, rivers & mountains of Latin America feel more like home to you than the place you were born in?
Hard to say, perhaps there is something in the idea of being attracted to the opposite of what you know. Ever since I was a kid I have been fascinated by the Amazon rainforest, this beautiful, mysterious place that seemed so far away from my own context. It allowed me to dream, to imagine and travel.
I think the more I read, the more I listened and especially when I travelled there was just something so captivating about the history, landscape, culture and people of Latin America that drew me in. The other answer is that there is some connection from another life (laughs).
You lived in Mexico for two years. What was your time there like and how did it change your perspective on music – and possibly even life?
It was unforgettable. It is really a country of contradictions – so beautiful, so culturally rich and the people so welcoming and friendly. But equally a county plagued by violence, inequality and corruption and no doubt the history of colonialism has a big role to play in the shaping of modern Mexican society.
When we lived there you live in a kind of bubble, between the ‘underground’ music scene, the cool bars, parties, the incredible food and experiences of CDMX or travelling to Oaxaca or Yucatan. But then just a few hours away there are mass graves, executions, cartels and unbelievable levels of violence. Equally, you can get in a taxi one night in CDMX and be held up at gun point. Sometimes it I really hard to compute. It is really tragic to see such a beautiful country with so much to offer go through so much suffering.
Mexico really marked me as a person and I will always have a special connection to the country but it also marked me musically. It is where I made and released Cenotes, the EP that really catapulted me and remains one of my most listened to releases, especially in Mexico. I think it is the place I found my voice and equally a connection with my listeners.
Some see music as a universal language, others feel like artists from different parts of the world approach music in sometimes fundamentally differently ways. How do you see that yourself and what are some of your conclusions/observations in this regard?
I think as a musician you are an individual with your own identity.
For example, I can have a lot more in common with a producer from Tokyo or Buenos Aires than one from London. Music is a reflection of your identity and your experiences not where you are born. Of course, your surroundings influence the music you make but there are so many ways this is manifested, like making very dark, industrial techno in somewhere like Berlin but then there is also a big movement of slow, nature inspired music in the same city, a form of escapism from urbanism instead of a reflection of it.
In this sense I feel there is something ‘universal’ about music which allows people to connect and interpret in their own context be in California, Colombia, London, Tokyo or Berlin!
When and how did you start fusing Western electronics with elements of traditional South American pieces? What was the path like from your first pieces to the more refined style of your later works?
The evolution of music has always been about these meetings of different worlds, like jazz, blues, rock, moombahton etc. It is about a scene meeting another, about experimentation and pushing boundaries. If done in the right way, when you bring different elements and cultures together you get something new, something exciting.
For me I studied in Glasgow and worked as the music editor of the student newspaper which basically meant I was exposed to A LOT of amazing, underground music and went to a lot of parties and concerts. Here I truly discovered clubbing and electronic music in places like the Sub Club or early dubstep at the Art School basement. Then I was immersed in Latin America and the whole ZZK crew from Buenos Aires. From there it was a starting point and an evolution.
As time went on, I started to integrate more and more the environment and nature, something that has always been present in my life since I was a kid. Like any art, music reflects who you are and what you have lived and the hardest part sometimes is letting go and just producing based on this and not on some imagined idea of what people want to hear, of trends or styles.
Tell me how you experienced the explosion of digital cumbia in 2008, please.
Cumbia has something really magical about it, something enchanting that I find hard to pinpoint. I have tried time and time again to get into salsa music for example, but I just don’t have the same connection. It also has a fascinating story, from its beginnings in Colombia to its evolution and different branches across Latin America and the world. It is also a rhythm made for dancing and so for the club it just works.
I guess between 2008 and 2011 there was a real explosion of digital cumbia and global bass, cumbia remixes or edits of everything under the sun. As always, it got totally saturated and kind of died but there was something there for me that was a crucial part of my own story as a producer.
For my current EP Cumbias Imaquinarias I have wanted for a couple of years to return to cumbia digital but do a more refined, soft, electronic version of it. Hence these 4 tracks.
What was the recording process for the four pieces which make up Cumbias Imaquinarias like?
So, in reality these are 4 tracks that were all drafts and ideas that I had been playing with for year but as I put them together, they just made sense. "Cumbia de Cafe Martinez" was a track written for my wife, "Anglo-Colombian expedition" was inspired by a story from the British Library Sound Archive about a trip two British sound recordists made to Colombia in 1960, "Cumbias de la Ansiedad" is for me the track that epitomises what I described above, a digital cumbia experiment I made in the midst of the pandemic and "Poro del Tucán" is a very old track of mine I had been trying to find a home for years and the perfect way to close the EP.
Many would consider the blend of influences running through your albums impossible to reconsile on paper. In practise, it feels completely organic and natural. What are the universals of this music, whose roots lie in very specific environments and groups?
I think that is it. My music is like a patchwork, I draw from so many different sources for inspiration, for sounds, for ideas and maybe for that reason it is hard to pin down.
Of course, there are some repetitive elements which you just can’t avoid as you are naturally drawn to certain sounds or styles (in my case Latin American percussion, sub bass, arpeggions and natural sound) but I love also producing with totally random samples, recording something in the kitchen using the mic on my laptop or cutting and repatching a snippet from another track.
Some tracks happen in 2 hours, others go through 6 or 7 iterations before I find the idea or sound I love.
The Cumbia, of course, isn't the only style from South America that is morphing all the time. What's your perspective on the continent's music culture today and its almost endless ability to change and reinvent itself?
I think it is a testament to the rich history of the continent. It is not one place with a fixed set of identities and music. It is fluid and things keep moving, being discovered, rediscovered and created.
In this sense, Latin America isn’t at all unique but perhaps it has had more of a spotlight shone on it and there is definitely something about the access to technology, to laptops, to studios etc. which facilitates scenes and young producers to make music, experiment and believe they could try and live from this one day.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
Indeed, it is a fine line and I think context is key. I hear a lot of tracks where it is just ‘global, ethnic’ vocal sample meets uninteresting electronica and for me that crosses that line.
I think when there is an authentic search to understand the context, to value it and transform it or be inspire by it you can hear it in the music. We are all guilty of making mistake and lazily taking a sample and just sticking it on a beat so you also need to be aware, and careful. However, as I said above, we should be careful not to go the other way towards this idea of protecting ‘authentic’ folk culture like it were some museum piece when it is itself a manifestation and an evolution of something that came before.
Music moves, it evolves, it is transformed and that is what makes it so rich and exciting.
Are there sonic combinations that would personally feel wrong to you to use?
I heard a lot of shamanic chants used in tracks which, personally, feel like they cross that line.
Your also engaged in ecologic activism. Do you feel that more contacts with different parts of the world and their people leads to a great need to protect the planet we all share?
Yes, absolutely, I think it allows us to see the connections between these issues, to be inspired by each other and build movements. I think, in this sense, there is an obvious connect between music and ecological activism. Music as a vehicle, a means to bring people together, to express a message and this idea of a global community.
How, do you feel, can music contribute to a society capable of dealing with different cultures and identities in a more positive way?
Music knows no borders and no boundaries, it brings people together, when done right it can create open, diverse and free spaces for expression, for exchange and for community. It isn’t a silver bullet for the world’s woes but it has always had a role to play in mixing cultures and identities in truly positive ways.