Camilo Menjura was named ‘Musician of the Year’ and ‘Community Worker of the Year’ in the 2013 Latin-UK Awards, or LUKAS, which celebrates the contribution of Britain’s Latin American, Spanish and Portuguese residents.
“Mmmmm! Wow, what is this?” Colombian Musician Camilo Menjura recalled his thoughts about the first time he tried curry in the UK. He felt the same mixture of exhilaration and bemusement when he heard the uniquely diverse sounds of London.
“Currently I am playing with a singer-songwriter from Sudan. We play traditional Sudanese Music.” He also played with a singer-songwriter with Irish influences and in a jazz quartet with a Danish double-bass player. “The fusion of these different types of Music makes something new and special. London is a city where people go and share, experiment,” he said.
Menjura is from Bogota, where he worked as a math teacher before moving to Britain. His favourite group, The King’s Singers, are British singers who perform a capella, without instruments. In Colombia, he dreamed of seeing them live. In 2006 he arrived in the UK, knowing no-one, speaking virtually no English and with little idea of what to expect. Seven years later he won two Latin-UK Awards. The shiny trophies sit on his bedside table and tell a story of how far he has come.
“It’s been a long journey,” he explained, “If you don’t have enough passion and you are not relentless, then you can easily just give up.” Working as a cleaner and a café barista for over two years, Music wasn't always his bread and butter. Yet, “from the second day I moved here I met Musicians. I met a Colombian guy, a harp player. Someone saw me playing. It’s about making contacts, and networks.”
For several years, Menjura led Music workshops in festivals and schools with different bands, teaching Colombian songs to large groups. Eventually his dream of having his own choir came true. He was approached by the Colombian Embassy to establish a project reaching out to young Colombians in the UK, so he created the London-Colombian Choir. Menjura persuaded the embassy that the choir should be open to all: “This is London, the city where people from everywhere come together: all this blending of cultural background creates the magic of the city. What is the problem with people joining our choir and singing our Music?”
But his Colombian identity remains an important part of his Music. “It’s a big question, ‘What does it mean to be Colombian?’” he says. Colombia’s public image has suffered from its history of drug cartels and kidnappings and Menjura finds it frustrating when people make assumptions about Colombians based on these stereotypes. “It’s hard for me to accept,” he confides. “Sometimes I don’t know if I want to slap the person or feel sorry for them for being so ignorant.” Instead, by showing another side of Colombia through his Music, he challenges stereotypes: “Through Music I share my culture, my passion, I make people happy.”
The future carries uncertainty, for there’s no guarantee his visa will be renewed next time. But “sometimes I dream of having a big London community concert with people from everywhere playing the same thing. Having a project like that in England would be amazing.” What of his original dream? Well, he has seen the King’s Singers live many times, he got to know the group and has even run workshops with them.