When Morrissey and Johnny Marr first agreed to start a band in 1982, they could hardly have imagined that The Smiths would go on to become one of the most successful and influential artists of all time. Particularly surprising to the young Mancunians might have been the cult following their music developed in Latin America, which recently spawned a band from the continent which pays homage to them in a unique way.
Mexrrissey, a band comprised of several leading Mexican musicians, were initially put together for the 2015 edition of La Linea, the London Latin music festival, by Andy Wood, the festival’s director. They are determined not to be labelled as a tribute band or a covers band, however. The band use Mexican and general Latin American rhythms and instrumentation to reinvent some of the Smiths and Morrissey’s best work, with Spanish lyrics. “It’s as if the songs have grown up, changed their name and moved to another country,” Wood says.
Wood, 56, has been a significant figure in London’s cultural landscape for over three decades. He founded Como No, the renowned Latin American events promoter in 1986, and has directed La Linea since it began in 2001. Despite the obvious passion that Andy exhibits when discussing projects past and present, he came to this field almost by accident.
Having grown up in rural Herefordshire, and studied Drama and American Studies at the University of Hull, Andy began volunteering with the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign in the mid-1980s. He was given the chance to set up a UK tour for a Nicaraguan theatre company, before being offered a band from Cuba. “This was at the dawn of what then became world music, and I realised at that time that although I’d trained more in theatre, I’d always been much more interested in music.”
Andy’s sudden immersion in the music of Latin America from this point onwards meant that much of British popular culture passed him by, including The Smiths. “I’d always loved music. I could do the NME crossword in five minutes. But then I kind of fell out of love with British music in the post-punk era.”
Strangely enough, Andy came to Morrissey through his conversations with Mexican musicians and managers. Morrissey once said that “nothing the world holds could match the love waiting for me in Mexico City”. He is particularly popular among Mexican Americans, and Andy cites the parallels between Morrissey as a second-generation Irish Catholic in Manchester, and second and third-generation Mexicans in the United States, as one of the keys to this. “In some ways, it’s outsider music, and that’s helped develop a real bond and affinity.”
Mexrrissey released an album, ‘No Manchester’, in March 2016, which has “done okay” according to Andy, but their main focus is on their live performances. Each show is different, with on-stage improvisation characteristic of Latin American music tradition. “They’re all such great musicians that they can just take a song in any way.”
Shows on their recent UK tour featured a version of ‘Panic (Hang the DJ)’ with Morrissey beheading Donald Trump (in animated form) on the screen behind the band. Recent political events certainly added another dimension to the shows, and Camilo Lara, the band leader’s defiant statement that “right now is a great time to be Mexican”, elicits one of the biggest cheers of the night.
Morrissey himself has been supportive of the project, Andy says. “I think he recognises that it’s not a Mexican band sending him up. The whole thing from the band’s side is done with a lot of love for the man and the music.” Andy does recognise that they set out with some goals that were unrealistic. “We were angling to support him on one of his shows in the States, but of course that’s never going to happen because you’re never going to have a support band which comes on and sings your repertoire.”
Andy describes himself as a “puppet master”, managing all the facets of event promotion, such as renting venues, hiring artists, overseeing publicity, hotels and transport, and arranging ticket agents. Sourcing artists from thousands of miles away does present additional logistical needs, such as acquiring visas and arranging long-haul flights. The desire of artists to perform in the UK often overrides any difficulties, however. “At the moment, I’m trying to get this Puerto Rican rap and reggaetón artist into Glastonbury. This is someone who plays to stadiums in Latin America, but he’s prepared to be in a small field in Somerset, probably in the middle of the night in front of not many people, just so he can say he’s been there. It’s a significant countercultural thing to do.”
The events which Andy helps to organise have the support of many politicians, who recognise the Latin American community as part of the tapestry of London. The Mayor of London, for example, provides a foreword every year to ‘Vamos’, an in print and online guide to Latin London which Como No produce each summer.
Warm words aren’t always matched by financial support, however. Arts Council subsidy amounts only to about 3% of Como No’s annual turnover, but the extent of the expat Latin American community in London, and the appetite for world music, make it financially viable. Outside the capital, things are very different. “It just doesn’t add up to go outside of London and play to a few hundred people without some form of subsidy and that subsidy is declining more and more.”
The community is widely recognised as one of the most hard-working and least dependent on social services and financial support. It isn’t always the most naturally cohesive community, though. “Brazilians don’t necessarily get along with Argentineans,” Andy says. “There’s a language divide there, and those are the two most populated countries in South America. It’s only when you’re in this country that there might be some sort of shared pan-Latin identity.”
This year’s La Linea festival will take place at venues around London throughout April. Acts on the bill range from Totó la Momposina, a traditional artist from Colombia’s Caribbean coast, to Grammy Award-winning Mexican singer/songwriter Julieta Venegas. “It’s our usual mixture of old, new, borrowed and blue. We’re trying to have something for all of the different Latin American communities, whilst showcasing other music which has this Latin tinge to it.”
Andy’s enthusiasm for his work is infectious, and his philosophy is summed up by a short motto on the Como No website: “Lo hacemos porque podemos y nadie más lo hace”. “We do it because we can and nobody else will.”
Published February 2017