An Interview With Riobamba and Uproot Andy — the DJs and Cultural Activists Behind ‘Bien Buena’

Federico Bongiorno

Although often unnoticeable to major mainstream media, behind the beat of every great song there is a great music producer dedicated to making the best track they can. Riobamba and Uproot Andy are two people that perfectly represent this statement: their mixes can be heard as catchy, rhythmic mixes of mostly Latinx music to vibe to; but after paying more attention, the bond of cultures and sounds is visible and really interesting to analyze.

To dive deeper into these concepts, Riobamba and Andy have teamed up with Red Bull Radio to host ‘Bien Buena,’ which objective is clear in its website: “In addition to the biggest tunes and the newest underground movements, Bien Buena traces the roots music that forms the foundation of these sounds, following the culture with a critical perspective toward history and context.” This makes the show a musical, cultural, and educational experience all at once.

Credit: Instagram @riobamba_dj/@newyorkcityvibe

I had the honor of asking these talented musicians a few questions about themselves and their work, and this is what they had to say:

First of all, how did the project of Bien Buena in Red Bull Radio come together? Do you think working together is helping each of you grow in any way?UPROOT ANDY: Riobamba and I were doing a small night under the name Bien Buena in Bedstuy, Brooklyn, the neighborhood we both live in. The party took as its starting point the connection between reggae and reggaetón as a way of entering into a bilingual dialogue between the different cultures that exist in our neighborhood. Now, it’s a low-stress situation where she and I can switch back and forth and feel at home playing to our own community, it’s a very good vibe! So when Red Bull approached us about doing a radio show we decided to keep the same name. It’s been really great to work more closely with Riobamba this year, she’s a creative and daring DJ and digger and always has thoughtful analysis to go along with her music knowledge.

RIOBAMBA: Andy and I have worked together on various projects over the past ten years; most recently before ‘Bien Buena,’ we were residents at the NYC-based party/label Que Bajo?!. We’re good friends first and foremost, and I’ve also really enjoyed the experience of getting into the studio together or preparing for each show with new tracks that we’re digging up.

Do you have any goals you wish to achieve while making Bien Buena? Both personal and professional.UPROOT ANDY: For me, doing a show like this is a great opportunity to dig deeper into these overlapping music cultures and give some shine to artists that are doing really creative work and are influencing the direction of the culture even if they don’t fit into the mainstream. While in theory, we have access to a lot of music, we end up listening to what is already in our faces because we don’t have to work to find it. So a few hit songs are more universally liked by everyone and every club and radio station is playing those same songs. A show like this gives us the opportunity to take a deeper look into these music scenes and give some real context to what’s happening, where it comes from and how it connects to the music that is popular now. And on a personal note, it’s a chance for my music nerd side to really come out.

RIOBAMBA: As a first-generation Ecuadorian-Lithuanian, a common thread that runs through all of my projects is an intention of reclaiming what’s been lost in the erasure of the intricacies of the full, amazingly rich and diverse spectrum of Latinxs’ experiences. It’s an opportunity to celebrate these histories and grey areas. I think a lot about cultural production is a means for a proactive approach to reclaiming what was lost in previous’ generations assimilation — which was necessary for survival then, at least in the case of my family’s experience. Now it’s time to change that and to reclaim these spaces unapologetically.

After last year’s international boom of tracks like “Despacito” and “Mi Gente”, do you feel like markets outside Latin America are getting more into Latinx sounds? Or was it just luck?UPROOT ANDY: Yes, I think reggaeton, in particular, has become a global phenomenon; but it’s part of a larger context of cultural interchange that has actually always been happening but that has just accelerated in the internet age. Now, I would love to think that people are generally becoming more open to music in languages they don’t speak but I think we have a long way to go in breaking down those language barriers beyond a few hit songs.

RIOBAMBA: I’m glad to see more folks appreciating Latinx sounds. I don’t think it was luck as much as the millions of Latinx people setting the direction of pop culture for themselves; the marketing budgets set aside for these more recent tracks like “Despacito” and “Mi Gente” would’ve never happened without the record-breaking streaming numbers happening organically for reggaetón and Latin Trap on platforms like YouTube and Spotify. There was no other choice but for labels to pay attention, and rightfully so.

It’s important to take this dialogue a step further and to recognize that with few exceptions, the majority of the Latinx artists getting this spotlight are white Latinxs producing/performing music rooted in Black and indigenous cultures, so it’s essential that this movement not only is inclusive of and recognizes those roots, but also that artists of color are paid what they’re due.

Riobamba at Red Bull’s Rail Up. Credit: Maria Jose Govea

TO RIOBAMBA: Being born Ecuadorian- Lithuanian and being based in Brooklyn must’ve definitely meant having a huge influx of completely different cultures in your life. Do you believe they have impacted the way you make music now?Absolutely! For me personally, being “third culture” person means that I have my foot in several cultures and realities at once. In terms of making and playing music, I like to play with non-linear associations, disruptions, theories about cultural resistance, subversion, all of these things at once because it’s true to my experience.

TO RIOBAMBA: Last year you founded your own label and creative agency APOCALIPSIS. Why did you feel like you needed to do it?APOCALIPSIS is an effort to build infrastructure for people to tell their own stories; in particular for folks that identify with being “ni de aquí, ni de allá” (neither from here/nor there). I was called to this because I feel like there’s still so far to go in terms of widening the scope of representation in music, and I hope that APOCALIPSIS record label releases, events, and multimedia projects will create a visible space for that.

Credit: Tania Apolinar/@apollenair

TO RIOBAMBA: Did you find the process of founding APOCALIPSIS difficult? Do you feel like the industry put some barriers or obstacles along the way?To be honest, I think the most challenging part of the process has been building the foundation to really trust in my own voice in the industry. I feel like it’s essential to have that belief in yourself at the core of what you do because the industry continues to be cis white male dominated. But knowing and trusting your truth, and also finding and equally giving back to a supportive community, cuts through that.

TO UPROOT ANDY: You’re well known for your interest in making Global Bass a sound that is truly heard and appreciated everywhere, and you’ve definitely had an important part in helping it succeed in the past few years. Why is this phenomenon so important to you?Growing up in Toronto and New York there is so much music around you, and I always wanted to learn it and enjoy it and dialogue with it, which is what musicians I think have always done, which is why most music genres are born as the result of different cultures mixing in some way. What is important to me is to make music that can speak to the complexity of a community people who are born in one place but live in another and their parents are from a different place and their friends are from all over the world. I want my music to communicate how much culture we share across all of our social, political and linguistic barriers.

Uproot Andy at the monthly Que Bajo?! party. Credit: Instagram @uprootandy/@carofotos9

TO UPROOT ANDY: Only a few months ago you released your “Bumper To Bumper” mix and it was very well received. How did you manage to create a project where there are so many different sounds combined and still make it sound cohesive?The reason I was able to do that is because all those different genres are based on a shared culture. There has been a constant dialogue between the music cultures of the African diaspora for generations and generations, from Afro-Cuban music going back across the Atlantic to influence Congolese Rumba, to African-American music in Brazil evolving into Baile Funk, to Jamaican Music influencing reggaetón, and it goes on and on. The music changes and takes on different characteristics, and the language changes, and the marketing sells it to certain groups and not others; but at the root, these pieces of music are all deeply interrelated. What I tried to do was remix the songs so as to highlight those similarities and present a sort of unified sound across the different languages.

TO RIOBAMBA AND UPROOT ANDY: You’re both known for being activists in music for the Latinx community in your own ways, which is one of the concepts that Bien Buena is rooted in. What advice would you give to teens who want to follow your steps in cultural activism?RIOBAMBA: I always come back to this tweet from DJ/Producer Rizzla back in 2015: “amplify voices, share power, respect boundaries, decline ownership.” It’s super important to take the time to know the histories and contexts behind the music, and also to reach out to and put on the folks that are making things happen now. Be mindful of your positionality, be ready to share power whenever there’s the opportunity, and in the case of Latinx music, enjoy the opportunities to amplify the intricacies of identities and experiences that are behind the music.

UPROOT ANDY: For me, it’s a constant learning process; so the best advice I can give is just that, to keep learning. It’s easy now to get a quick surface level knowledge of cultural movements from a Spotify playlist or a YouTube recommendation but to really understand the context of what’s behind it you have to dig deeper. Don’t just depend on the algorithms, do the extra work and what you find will be worth it. And then don’t keep it a secret, make noise, share your knowledge, support the culture and be inclusive.

TO RIOBAMBA AND UPROOT ANDY: Along with Bien Buena, are there any projects you’re working on that we can expect soon and you can tell us about?RIOBAMBA: I’m headed into the studio as much as possible these next few months.

UPROOT ANDY: I’m working on an EP with Congolese/Canadian singer Pierre Kwenders and I’ve got something in the works with Fania Records!

Credit: Instagram @uprootandy/@pissandlove

You can catch Riobamba and Uproot Andy on ‘Bien Buena’ every third Wednesday of the month at 4 PM EST, only on Red Bull Radio.

Featured image credit: Red Bull Radio/Maxwell Schiano

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