Glittery threads balance on high breasts. Stiletto heels push buttocks up to pert perfection, and low-cut elastic jeans accentuate the curves. From the flirty street-party atmosphere, you could be forgiven for thinking that palm trees and turquoise sea aren't far away. We are, in fact, under the London Bridge arches. And the bulk of this crowd are first-generation British-Latinos, born to the influx of mostly Colombian immigrants over the past 30 years.
Until recently, the 700,000-strong largely London-based Latin American community was pretty much invisible. Like most immigrant communities, Latinos have been lying low and working to create a better life for their kids. In the past year, however, those kids have made their mark on London's cultural life, most notably on the club scene, through the spread of reggaeton and urban Latin parties. The biggest is La Bomba, a regular at Ministry of Sound and seOne at London Bridge.
La Bomba is the Latino-Brits' party temple, but it's also a regular destination for an increasingly broad clubbing crowd. Its 2,000 regulars, about half non-Latino, make La Bomba one of London's most successful nights. And the party has been exported to Germany, Spain and Pacha Ibiza.
Inside seOne, the decor has a warm Caribbean feel; huge ceiling drapes flutter to the salsa melody in one room, while in another palm trees shudder to the bass of reggaeton, a mix of dancehall, hip-hop and Afro-Latin riffs. Latin house and electronica pump away in the third. Male punters gawp as British Latina princesses strut their stuff. As the pump and grind, or "perreando", begins, decorum evaporates.
"It is partly because of the high female turnout that we never have trouble at our events," says the Venezuela-born DJ José Luis, the UK's top Latin urban DJ and La Bomba promoter. "Latina girls love reggaeton and the fact that so many come to our events brings down the testosterone level." He adds that Latinos are pretty chilled and tolerant, citing a time when the end of his reggaeton party overlapped with a transvestite after-party. "These little Colombian and Ecuadorian guys were getting all frisky, asking these huge divas to dance with them. It was so cute."
La Bomba's racial mix is also attractive. With its aggressive sound, reggaeton is an unlikely melting pot. Originally from Panama (more specifically, Panama's huge Jamaican community) and developed in Puerto Rico and New York, reggaeton attracts a large Caribbean-British crowd and is popular with Asians, who produced their own sub-genre – bangraton.
"I think the reggaeton scene appeals to non-Latinos in Britain because it is basically the aggressive, raw rhythm similar to bashment and hip-hop, but in a non-aggressive environment," says James Horrocks, British club and music industry veteran. "There are other popular Latin genres, but the difference is that reggaeton is so much bigger worldwide."
Reggaeton is hugely popular in the US and influences major hip-hop and pop artists; Jay Z, Lenny Kravitz and Nelly Furtado are pretty much obliged to do reggaeton tunes and remixes to maximise their appeal. So globally people have got used to its sound, even if they don't know it.
Luis stresses that reggaeton is only one of a stream of Latin-infused genres, from Latin house to Latin hip-hop, which have been part of the urban and club scene in the US for years. But his motivation has always been to create something British Latinos can feel proud of, something they feel is theirs. "I started out because there were lots of so-called Latin parties going on in London that didn't represent anything about me or the Latinos here," he says. "It was strange them doing Latin things that us Latinos couldn't identify with at all."
Clubber Carlitos, 20, from Paddington, born of Colombian parents, says: "I've been brought up two ways: Colombian, which is family orientated; and the English way, more controlled and organised. When I was a kid I felt kind of different, but now our community is a lot bigger and stronger. Parties like La Bomba are important because we feel we are showing our culture and how we party and breaking the ignorance. It's just what London needs."
Britain is now at the forefront of the urban Latin music scene in Europe, even exporting to Spain. "The reason Latin promoters in Spain have not had the same success we've had here in attracting non-Latinos is because of the racism there, especially towards Latinos. Here, you don't get beaten up for being Latino. In Spain, you do. Being Latino and going to anything Latino is certainly not seen as cool by most Spaniards."
It seems that the diversity inherent in both the British urban and Latin urban cultures makes for a good match. As Luis says: "Latin is not a race, it's a result of many influences and cultures. I think its appeal here is in this diversity." Because La Bomba is rooted in a fresh and authentic cultural movement indigenous to London, it has that buzz that hip-hop and garage clubs had in the US in the 1980s.
But, while José Luis takes this flavour upmarket with a weekly night at Chinawhite from October, he is aware that he cannot lose core followers such as Carlitos, who is wary of the movement close to his heart losing its edge to commercialism.
La Bomba is on tomorrow at seOne: www.reggaeton.co.ukReuse content