The Latin Momentum: the Story of The LUKAS

Last year, Latin music topped the charts in almost every country on the planet. But in the UK, where all six Latin tracks released made the Top 10, the passion for all things Latin was preceded by something else. The Latin UK Awards, known affectionately as the LUKAS, was launched six years ago to recognize the impact of Latin culture in the UK. Today it is Europe’s only Latin Awards ceremony and its widest-reaching Latin event, the viral nature and global media coverage of which engages 20 million people every year. Corina Poore explores how the LUKAS became an expression of the UK’s Latin take over, and a reflection of the impact of Latin culture globally.
by: 
Corina J Poore

When I attended the LUKAS for the first time in 2016 – invited by an old friend of mine Jorge Spiteri who was receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award for pioneering the UK Latin Funk scene back in the 1970s - it was an immensely moving experience. I could not believe the variety of attendees; people from all over Central and South America, Spain and Portugal. It was thrilling to see the expressions of enthusiasm and joy, from Colombian dancers, Argentine singers, Brazilian musicians, to the welcoming words from the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and Bianca Jagger. There was an amazing array of celebrities, sport and TV personalities, and performances by international artists. For me, even as an Argentine, it was a window into the vast richness of our common Latin culture.

I know that, in the 1930s, there was a phase of popularity in the UK for Mambo with Edmundo Ros and Tango with Carlos Gardel, but it fizzled out and only reached a few countries. Now, with the internet, Latin music and dance is truly conquering the world in an unstoppable way. The LUKAS seems to be very much part of this momentum and I wanted to know more about it and how it was conceived.

On meeting the founders, Amaranta Wright and José Luis Seijas, in a Central London Burrito bar, it quickly became clear to me what a sacrifice it has been and their passion for its success. Argentine-born Amaranta, a bubbly blond, and José Luis, a dark and serious Venezuelan, themselves seemed to epitomise the diversity of the LUKAS, which is in now in its sixth year - a stunning achievement.

“It’s been a labour of love…” admits Amaranta, whose obvious single-minded determination has been the motor behind it. “…and a roller-coaster with many ups and downs, but it’s also addictive. The year we started, in 2012, it was simply an impulse we had. We just knew we had to do it. And then, as soon as we did the first, it took on a life of its own. The first ceremony was small but the atmosphere was amazing, and it was clear to us that this was something special. The need for it was obvious and it just hurtled forward…like being on a high-speed train; terrifying and exhilarating, and impossible to stop!”

Collage_Fotor.jpgTop Left to right:F ernando Montaño, LUKAS hostesses, Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo, Gente de zona perform at 2017 ceremony, audience, Omar Puente, founder Amaranta Wright and LUKAS winner Tropicalia

It was the Colombian percussionist Roberto Plá who inspired José Luis, a DJ and music promoter, to come up with the original idea to create the Awards. He felt that the contributions of so many Latinos were not being properly recognized, as he explains:  

“I knew how hard it is for Latin artists to get recognition and make a living here… and some of them, like Roberto Plá, have had a huge influence on both British and Latin musicians…[yet] people didn’t really know about him… and he wasn’t getting the recognition he deserved in my opinion. Roberto Plá helped so many English musicians, who went on to become commercially successful, for example ‘Snowboy’ used to be Roberto Pla’s student. The same in the dance world; for example, ‘Strictly’, the most popular show on British TV, has amazing Latin dancers, like Yanet Fuentes, working behind the scenes. Jorge Spiteri was another; he influenced many UK musicians such as the young Guy Barker, Pete Thoms, and Dave Defries in the 70s and 80s. And Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa, the first Latinos to play in the Premier League, paved the way for many other Latin American stars. This was the original intention of the LUKAS, to recognise talent that nobody else was recognising… although of course it has morphed into something else.”

Amaranta and José Luis decided it was time to recognise the impact of Latin culture, which has been growing steadily over the last 30 or 40 years. In this way, the LUKAS have been a precursor. It is to date Europe’s only awards ceremony to celebrate Latino culture in all its diversity and manifestations: music, dance, theatre, film, arts, and sport. Awards include Alternative Act, Brazilian Act, Classical, Jazz or Folk Act, Vocalist, Urban Act, Tropical and Brazilian Dance Performers, Visual Artist, Film, Footballer, and many more, not forgetting the Lifetime Achievement Awards, won by stars like Colombian guitarist Phil Manzanera, (Roxy Music), Royal Ballet dancer Carlos Acosta, and Bianca Jagger for her contribution to Human Rights.

In the second year, Amaranta and José Luis had one of those lightbulb moments.

“We suddenly noticed that we were getting a huge amount of votes from Ecuador and Mexico, which was really strange. We started to explore online and found that ESPN had picked up the fact that Antonio Valencia and Chicharito Hernández were nominated for our Footballer of the Year, and this set off a lot of media coverage in those countries. Then other countries started giving media coverage to their winners and we realised there was a huge international potential. Latin Americans are very proud when their countrymen and women do well abroad, and were voting for them, so this was really becoming an international event. No other UK awards, not the MOBOs or even the BRITs, has the potential of such an international audience. And I can’t think of any other awards where you’d have British icons like David Gilmore and Vivienne Westwood celebrating Latin culture. I mean, that’s not going to happen in Miami is it? So, yeah, we realised how exciting this was and the potential it had.”

 

It’s also clear that international acts, such as Juan Luis Guerra or last year’s Gente de Zona, love the idea of receiving an award in London. But there have also been challenges, points out José Luis, and building the trust of the community at the heart of the Awards was also key to the LUKAS’ future:

“Initially, there was resistance from some sectors; the Latin community has many layers, and also comes with its own history and baggage. Some had a general mistrust, because they had been burned before, so we had to work hard to earn their trust. They feared twe might be hand-picking the winners and doubted it would be democratic. It kind of surprised us…I mean, what would be the fun of picking the winners? We didn’t even know most of the nominees. But I guess it’s understandable for people to have thought…well, who are these guys, what’s their motive? So, I would say that gradually people have come to trust us. You are never going to keep everyone happy, especially since there is only one winner and many ‘losers’, although I think people can see how much exposure winning or being a runner up, or even participating, can help their careers, and they can also try again the following year.”

This career impact can be clearly seen in the boost experienced by the Royal Ballet soloist, Colombian Fernando Montaño, who was featured on the news and covers of magazines both in the UK and back in Colombia, where he was chosen to perform in front of Prince Charles and then became a judge on Colombia’s version of ‘Strictly’: ‘Dancing with the Stars’’.

“Being a black ballet dancer from Colombia has not always been easy, and winning the LUKAS put the spotlight on me. I’d never got that kind of publicity in the UK before. And suddenly back in Colombia I was in almost every national newspaper, magazine and TV news. Then the news reached the US and they made a documentary about me for Univision,” says Montaño. It probably helped that Vivienne Westwood presented him with his award. “I can’t say all this is 100% because of the LUKAS, but these Awards were the first to recognize me and it certainly helped my career, since the directors of the Royal Ballet were conscious of the publicity surrounding them.”

Collage_lukas_0.jpgDespite its successes, Amaranta is very aware that establishing Awards like the LUKAS is no quick fix.

“It’s still a baby. I mean, the big awards… how long have they been running? For 60 or 70 years. I was watching ‘BBC Sports Personality of the Year’ the other day and they mentioned that the first one was 64 years ago! I remember when it was just in a little studio, and now it’s in an arena. But I’m beginning to feel that we are established, the media know about us and refer to us. It’s been a real struggle because we’ve never had any backing or investment, but I think in some ways it’s made us stronger; the slower you grow, the stronger you build. The money is more useful when you’re ready for it, and now I feel we’re ready”

José also talks of the phenomenal strain and effort involved:  

“After every year we’re, like … ‘why are we doing this? It’s so crazy! We can’t do it again…’ and then the next day you find yourself already planning for the next year, what you’ll do differently, how to improve. Maybe it’s totally masochistic, but at the same time, there are so many things that bring so much joy. When you see how enthusiastic people are, when they get up on stage and they dress up and they are so happy, how the audience responds, it kind of makes it all worthwhile. The biggest challenge has been not having enough money. It’s a high-risk business and it takes someone with vision and a leap of faith to get involved. But I know that person will come.”

”Besides,” adds José Luis “It would be very hard to stop Amaranta from doing the LUKAS.”

Amaranta laughs:

“I’m probably about the most determined person I know, I mean, you have got to be…. completely single-minded. We wouldn’t have come this far otherwise.”

Let s Sing Play and Bailemos tw 3.jpgThe LUKAS 2018 campaign devised by Amen

Both Amaranta and José Luis are very clear that the main purpose of the Awards is to promote and celebrate Latin culture. They believe it will eventually be Europe’s answer to the Latin Grammys, but their real reward is to hear how it has helped so many people in their careers, and the praise from those who have attended, including celebrities like Bianca Jagger, who said, “I had a wonderful time at the LUKAS evening. Thank you for all your efforts. It meant a lot to me to receive the LUKAS Lifetime Achievement Award. Or from Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmore: “Thank you for looking after us so well and for a great evening. We had a fantastic time and many congratulations on all your hard work.”

The list of accolades is endless and the LUKAS has also been picked up by mainstream UK media: the Independent, the Guardian, the Daily Mail, the BBC, Time Out, Metro,  among others. The core team of the Awards is small but compact. Amaranta Wright and José Luis Seijas are supported by Music Director Steve Lewinson (Simply Red), Production Manager Kenny Underwood, and TV Director Mathew Amos. And now, one of Latin America’s most prestigious branding agencies, Amen, has jumped on board to promote the LUKAS in Latin America.

And so, the LUKAS has evolved a great deal since the first modest celebration at Floridita in Soho in 2012. It expanded the following year to the Café de Paris in Regent Street, then on to KOKO, Camden Town’s iconic venue. This year, the LUKAS Gala Ceremony will take place on August 9, at The Troxy, with a confirmed full concert performance by Grupo Niche, who will also receive the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award. For the other 20 award winners, voting starts on May 1. Nominations are being invited now on the website: www.thelukas.co.uk