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‘We love dancers!’ announces Graham Gynn, Quijada’s singer-songwriter, as the tiny dance floor of the Godolphin in Marazion looks like it couldn’t possibly get any more crowded. It’s a hot Friday night in the far tip of West Cornwall and the infectious salsa beats of Cornwall’s newest Latino band have drawn in the punters. A cursory knowledge of the correct salsa dance-steps is enough to bring some into the feet-shifting, hip-swinging melée, while for others, the dance rules were made to be broken and in a lot cases…just plain ignored.

Quijada (meaning donkey jawbone – a percussion instrument) is a five piece ensemble and Cornwall’s answer to Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club. The band play a blend of afro-cuban rhythms that is heavily influenced by both the indigenous ‘son’ music of Cuba and salsa, son’s younger, jazzier brother, which has its origins in New York. With songs sung in both Spanish and English, the band consists of a guitarist, a bassist, a cuatro player (the Puerto-rican cuatro is a small high-pitched guitar) and two percussionists. Quijada’s main aim is to get people dancing, an aim they seem to have no problems achieving.

Tonight the set includes a mix of the band’s own songs and covers of traditional Cuban songs. The biggest cheers of the night are reserved for Buena Vista Social Club hit; ‘Carretero’, Brazilian instrumental ‘Sertan Eja’ and ‘Qué Loco’, the band’s forthcoming single; a beautifully soporific and hypnotic number, which has an end-of-a-long-night feel to it and the power to transport the recipient to an imagined and idealised Cuba. I am told it was inspired by two beautiful woman who danced for the band one strange night in Falmouth. All the songs, penned by Graham or otherwise, owe their distinctive sound partly to the choice of instruments used. Matt’s guiro is particularly prevalent throughout the evening. ‘The thing about salsa bands is that all the percussion is at the front. It’s what the sound is grounded on,’ explains Peter Fox, one of the band’s percussionists and founder Quijada member. ‘I only wish we could get more men dancing. Lots of women come to our gigs looking for men to dance with.’

Peter is, I am informed, a cool customer and a rather mysterious figure in the band. An artist specialising in contemporary, primitive art and trained salsa teacher by trade, it is through him that Matt, Simon and Adam found themselves in Quijada, playing their guiro, bass and guitar respectively alongside Peter’s cajon, (box-drum) bongo and wooden blocks. Since he and fellow salsa dance teacher Graham Gynn, formed the band just six months ago they have played over twenty gigs, earning themselves a residency at the Mango Tango in Falmouth and a headline slot at Penzance’s Acorn theatre on Mazey Day Eve.

Graham is another interesting character. Known as ‘his lordship’ due to his desire to do everything his own way is variously described by his bandmates as witty, wacky, enthusiastic and excitable. An old hand at the music business (he used to be a world music columnist for ‘Peninsula Voice’ (a publication that grew out of the Womad festival) he has written books (on consciousness and where science meets religion) and been a guest at the Cuban Embassy for an historic record launch which defied the American blockade of Cuban imports (naturally an honour, although he reports the sandwiches were very poor!)

I asked the band how they all came to be playing Latin music with such passion. Graham and Peter are the most salsa-seasoned members. Together they have played in similar bands ‘El Zumo’ and ‘Rumba Diablo’ before embarking on Quijada. Matt, the softy-spoken percussionist, came to the band via Penzance-based samba band, ‘Pensamba’, and an inspirational crush on Nelly Furtado. Simon, the salt-of-the-earth bassist (‘Don’t ask me, I just play bass) hails from a blues background and has been enigmatically involved with former chart-toppers and television soundtracks whilst Adam, the delightfully affable main singer and guitarist was a regular on the Helston folk scene and through work, a regular visitor to South America. His fluent Spanish and broad cultural knowledge of all things Latin add an extra dimension to the band’s overall sound and have inspired him to start writing his own songs.

The hot and strangely metallic-smelling gig at the Godolphin gig ends with a rousing encore of La Bamba and the whole audience singing along. The next day’s gig could hardly be more different; a large stage in the main marquee at Falmouth’s Fal festival, with as many people there for the culinary displays as the music and yet…and yet in this self-consciously sober, afternoon environment, an unlikely audience is moved to dance. The chairs and tables are pushed back, the fish fillets forgotten and the opening strains of Chan Chan are familiar to almost everyone there, even if the crowd aren’t quite sure why. Other familiar crowd-pleasers are Guantamera, Moliendo Cafe (which has been covered by just about every Latin artist of note) and Si No, which I particularly liked. The band’s own song, Si No has a pleasing, catchy (dare I say Ricky Martin-esque) riff to it.

It is clear that Quijada is a group of talented musicians who radiate an enthusiasm for their music that captures the crowd’s imagination and pulls even the most unlikely characters (and I mean unlikely!) onto the dance floor. Check out the live footage of them below or catch them live in Penzance, Cornwall on Mazey Day Eve (June 25) at the Acorn Theatre or at the Quay Fair (June 27)

Words by: Sara Bodinar sbodinar@hotmail.com