candelita event london
[Photo by Karla Hunter]

The Candelita Collective is lighting the way for London's Latin diaspora

“I was born just around the corner,” yells singer Desta French to the crowd at her sold-out gig at London’s eminent Jazz Cafe. The audience erupted, with people of all ages lending their voices in celebration of London’s Latin community. For three people, including French herself, it was a transformative moment. 

“That night was special,” multi-instrumentalist Santiago Morales says, “we realized the potential value of communities like this, and knew what we needed to do.” 

The result? Desta French, Santiago Morales, and Janin Pineda (who DJs as Bushbby) created the collective and event Candelita, or little light. Born out of a frustration with the lack of Latin representation at an organizational level, the three artists had already experimented with creating their own events — but something really special happened when they came together. 

Read more: 10 Alt-Latin artists you need to hear

Candelita’s first night was held at Post Bar in Seven Sisters, North London. Desta fronted the evening with the house band, and several other Latin artists played, including Pineda herself, alongside rapper Nielaa420 and Henry Bravo, a vinyl DJ who also works with live percussion. “We were already showcasing a live fusion of Latin Jazz, Salsa and Cumbia, and I was DJing new-age electronic Latin,” says Pineda. “There’s no doubt about it: I”d never experienced anything like it.”

candelita live event

[Photo by Karla Hunter]

Another important characteristic of Candelita parties is the intergenerational nature of them — the band members’ families and “whole mum crews” come through. Although that’s somewhat of a rarity in the UK, it’s simply what was always ingrained in their community growing up. 

French explains, “My mum used to take me clubbing when I was 14, so it was not legal in any way … It would always be in a dingy club, but it was so wholesome — young couples and their aunties all getting pissed in the same room. This feels like an updated 2022 version in some ways. Back then, it was two-dimensional, it was wicked, but if I had a night like Candelita, it would have just been inspiration from all angles. Who knows what my music could have sounded like by now?”

For Morales, these parties are an essential way to teach Londoners about Latin culture. “Being born in Colombia, and then moving here quite young, it’s really made me realize how generic and simplistic the view of Colombia and its culture is in this country,” he says. “It’s the exoticism that gets people excited. They see it as a bit of a [gimmick].”

French says, “One of the most annoying things that people say to me is, ‘Ah Desta, when I go to Nandos the music reminds me of you.’ That infuriates me! Music like salsa is such a complex thing — it’s political and documents our history. It’s been appropriated to such an extent that it’s been trivialized.” 

“Most of our cultural assets never get seen, and [what we’re doing with Candelita], this is what really tells the story of our people,” Morales explains.

candelita party

[Photo by Karla Hunter]

However, Candelita isn’t just about educating Londoners. It’s also teaching the Latin diaspora more about their own culture. Morales says, “When I met Desta, I realized that there was a massive part of being Latinx that she’d missed. While you can connect to your roots via your household, there’s nowhere to go find books, movies, or music. This is what we want to provide.”

As Latin music continues to explode across the globe, it’s irrefutable that Latin music is having a moment in London. Collectives like Candelita are at the fore of that newfound popularity. Desta says, “It used to be J.Lo and the US that would provide us with that small snippet of culture we’d see in the mainstream media. Now, the UK’s Latin population is catching up, and so is the appetite for more niche pockets of music.”

Even with the sound’s growing popularity, it’s important to the creatives behind Candelita that the music and community’s innate political and cultural nature doesn’t go unnoticed. Pineda says, “All the activism that’s been going on concerning the gentrification of our community hubs, like in Elephant and Castle. While people have been protesting and articles about this have even been in Vogue, it still needs more attention.”

“Visibility in general is an issue,” adds Santi. “We’re not even included as an option in the census — there’s no Latin tick box. We’re a massive community, and this just shows that really people aren’t paying attention to our needs.”

candelita live event

[Photo by Karla Hunter]

“We want to boss it,” says French. “When our parents came to the UK, they felt the need to assimilate and to assimilate us. So, we made ourselves smaller, we were conscious of our telephone voices, and worried about not knowing too much about British culture. I don’t want that for the next generation. We want to inspire people to go and do their own thing — whatever that is — because they’ve seen people who look like them go do it.” 

The minds behind Candelita have truly managed to curate a club experience that simultaneously is an invaluable opportunity to absorb Latin knowledge and culture. While the creators emphasize that this is only just the beginning, if you’re lucky enough to be in London, there’s never been a better time to join their movement by dancing and moving along with them.