It’s when a dreadlocked Ecuadorian accidentally stumbles into me that I mentally review the exact terms of my travel insurance. Does being smacked in the face by an over-enthusiastic head-banger come under the “extreme activities” classification? When I’d plumped for this optional extra I’d been thinking about rafting trips and rock climbing, not injuries sustained while trying to clamber my way out of a mosh pit in Quito.
Ecuador's capital is full of surprises – especially of the musical variety. I stumbled on to the Verano de las Artes Quito music festival on my final day in the city. Bizarrely, although I've been here for a week I had no prior knowledge of this under-publicised event, despite it being the city’s biggest music festival. Nobody seems to be promoting it - at least, not to tourists.
Most of the acts are from Ecuador, and the line-up includes EVHA, an electronic dance band from Quito, local thrash metal band Los TXK and Juan Fernando Velasco, a ballad-crooning singer who is the country's bestselling musician.
El Verano de las Artes Quito is a great example of the diversity of the city’s music scene. A few miles from the hilltop Parque Itchimbía, the site of the festival, is La Ronda, in the heart of Quito's old town. This winding street is known for its live music. Bars are small and cosy, tucked into colourful buildings hiding behind fragrant, overflowing hanging baskets. Traditionalists flock here to listen to Ecuadorean folk music while warding off the Andean chill with steaming cups of canelazo, a cider-like drink. La Ronda is also where you'll find the city's best salsa clubs. Dancers often spill out into the narrow, busker-filled streets, creating a magical musical mash up.
Even here, in one of Quito's oldest neighbourhoods, reminders of the city's musical diversity are everywhere – in the vinyl-packed window displays of an independent record store, and on the walls, where a poster promotes an art gallery's upcoming exhibition entitled Chicas Metalicas (Metal Girls). It's a photographic tribute to Latin America's punk princesses.
On the other side of town is La Mariscal. It's Quito's liveliest district and where you’ll find Quito's version of Camden. The best bars are the ones which fan out from the crossroads where Calle Reina Victoria meets Calle Lizardo Garcia. Inside Ambrosia bar, long haired, leathered-up locals swig beer underneath an enormous mural of Kiss and a giant pair of Rolling Stones lips. In the nearby Hangar bar, rockers recline on zebra-print couches, occasionally rising from their seats for an impromptu head-banging session.
There are nightclubs, too: at the sprawling Bungalow 6, there's a resident DJ and regular themed nights dedicated to everything from Latin beats to reggae. Salsoteca Lavoe is a club known for its Latin American beats, while both locals and ex-pats flock to La Mariscal's No Bar to watch some of Quito's top DJs spin their stuff.
Nicola Cruz is the DJ many of No Bar's musicians seek to emulate. Cruz, who's signed to Buenos Aires-based ZZK Records (zzkrecords.com), has played in clubs all over the world.
"Right now Quito's music scene is at a crossroads – it can go in so many different directions," he muses. "I wouldn't say it's unique, because for that, a proper scene needs to be established, and we're not quite at that point. But there's something special about these early stages, where anything is possible. There's a real thirst for music in Quito right now. I feel like all this time we've been nurturing something which is finally ready to explode."
Like many Ecuadorean musicians, Cruz is inspired by his homeland, by its mountains and volcanoes. Ecuador is also the inspiration for EVHA's music; the band's name is an acronym for El Viejo Hombre de los Andes, the name of a cactus which grows in the Andes, blooming only once in its lifetime. I first come across the band at El Verano de las Artes Quito, where they're headlining the main stage. Frontman Mateo Kingman sports an Adam Ant-style streak of black face paint across his eyes, and singer Renata Nieto reminds me of Héloïse Letissier, the lead singer of Christine and The Queens.
Their music is both electronic and acoustic (they cite Hot Chip and Depeche Mode as inspirations), but, like Nicola Cruz, their main influences are much closer to home. The majority of their songs are about Ecuador, specifically its landscape. Kingman grew up in Macas, a remote town in the Ecuadorian Amazon. As a child, he was surrounded by traditional Andean music. "You don't even realise you're hearing this kind of music all the time," he says. "It's part of the environment – you're not even aware of it."
Kingman adds that many of his lyrics have links with ayahuasca. This potent drink, made from the vine of the same name, is known for its ability to induce mind-altering states of consciousness. In Ecuador (and many other Latin American countries) it's used during Shamanic ceremonies, and seen as a way of communicating with the spirit world. "But it's the whole culture of ayahuasca which influences me the most," says Kingman, "The melodies of the Shamen, and the lyrics in their music."
All of which makes for a pretty unique sound. But although Ecuador's artists are slowly but surely making themselves heard in other countries (EVHA's next performance will be at one of Colombia's biggest music festivals, and Nicola Cruz has nurtured a huge fan base in Europe), Kingman admits that it hasn't been easy. "It's tough for musicians in Ecuador, and the situation isn't really improving," he says. "The government spends millions of dollars on a tourism campaign, but there's nothing for musicians like us." Earlier this year, Juan Fernando Velasco complained publicly that he was forced to abandon plans to use Ecuador as a backdrop for a photoshoot after the Ministry of Tourism insisted on charging a hefty fee. But, he said, the authorities then went out of their way to help Puerto Rican rapper Nicky Jam shoot a music video in the country.
That evening, the busker outside my hotel room window plays “Circle of Life” on his panpipes for the tenth time in a row. But, thank goodness, it's the music of EVHA, Nicola Cruz and Los TXK which will stick in my mind.
There are no direct flights from the UK to Quito. KLM (klm.com) flies there from London Heathrow with a stopover in Amsterdam from £534 return.
La Coupole (00593 2515 4970) is a stylish boutique hotel set in Quito’s lively La Mariscal district, 400m from El Ejido Park. Doubles from £45, B&B.
Find out more about some of Ecuador’s top musicians at zzkrecords.com.
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