Ariwo on the magic of making noisy Afro/Cuban music

Words by Olivia Atkins

“Ariwo is very much the sound of London… more than anywhere else”, says its composer Pouya Ehsaei, who I meet in a sun-soaked café in Dalston one afternoon. “The fact that we’re happening in London is very important”. The Afro/Cuban electro collective is made up of international musicians: Pouya hails from Iran while its other three members – Oreste Noda, percussionist Hammadi Valdes and trumpeter Yelfris Valdes – are all from Cuba. The quartet met there in 2015 ahead of the local electronic dance festival, Manana. Pouya was working as the event’s creative director when the festival’s founder suggested he created a band “as a statement for the festival”, and as a bit of a creative experiment. And so, Ariwo was born (surprisingly inorganically, considering their flowing and improvised sound). Despite the initial set-up, the collective have proved suitably compatible and have found a way to bring Cuba’s music and its musical freedom to London.

I’m yet to watch a live Ariwo gig (hello Brainchild!) but reading online reviews and speaking to friends who have seen the guys in action, it’s apparently a full-on immersive experience. They prefer to improvise sets live on stage, bouncing with energy, fuelled by the audience and the event space. Their first ever gig took place in Wapping, at Boiler Room’s headquarters – a small but intimate Kickstarter gig to promote the Manana festival. It was packed and Pouya admits their connectivity and success was surprising, even for them, considering they’d only rehearsed together three times before. “From the response we got, it was inevitable that we would continue working together,” he says. “Whenever we play, the response we get from the audience is very overwhelming. Boiler Room was a very intimate gig; that energy was something else”. Pouya cites it as one of his favourites, although Ariwo already have a few spectacular shows under their belt.

Ariwo’s Boiler Room session for Manana Festival.

From touring around Mexico, Gothenburg and Croatia later this summer to playing various venues around London (including the Pickle Factory nightclub, the legendary Total Refreshment Centre and iconic arts centre the Barbican), Ariwo have proved that they’re adept at adapting their sets according to their audience. “Every gig is a challenge”, says Pouya. “Every one is so different. When we played at the Barbican, we had to think about how we could transform the venue. Most of the time, we’re playing to the space and for the audience, so we’re constantly thinking about how they will react and questioning how we will react to that”. For Ariwo newbies, if you see Pouya aggressively shaking his head and shouting on-stage, that’s generally a positive sign; in fact, it’s code for the other band members to continue what they’re doing as it sounds bloody good.

Since the inception of Ariwo, “everyone put their heart into it”, says Pouya. “And our connection was made because of that. No one thought it was their band exclusively; it’s always been a very organic process”. Which explains why as four established musicians in their own right, the magic has been there since day one and they’ve been able to feed off each other’s energy and cultural influences to evolve as a collective. There is some structure to their music; sometimes Pouya may bring something he’s been working on into one of their jams and get the others to react to it. “We mainly improv,” he says. “I think if we had to follow the same structure every time, it might feel repetitive. For gigs, we have some structure and some themes for songs, but most of it is played on the spot for all of us. I’m not DJ-ing; I have the drum machine and synthesizers which are fixed on stage. That gives us the ability to improvise more. Even the electronics are not fixed; they can react with the musicians and vice versa.”

Generally, Ariwo are playing about on stage, reading the crowd and going with what feels good. They’ve managed to squeeze their style into hard electronic festivals (Gottwood), world music festivals (Womad) and now jazz with their debut at Brainchild, which they’re excited to perform at, to see how that environment will impact their set. “One of my close friends thinks that we’re constantly playing new songs”, says Pouya. “But it’s just the same one, chopped up and reinvented”.

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Ariwo’s Pyramid track off the upcoming album under the same name.

Pouya has noticed that some fans are beginning to follow the collective from gig to gig. Some have travelled to different places to catch their ever-changing sets, captured by the contagious energy they bring to their bespoke performances. And for those desperate to see them in the flesh – me included – know that their name might give you some indication of what to expect. Ariwo hails from the Yoruba religion that originated in South West Nigeria and is also practiced in Cuba. The quartet were fortunate to experience a Yoruba ceremony, which was fittingly raucous, considering Ariwo means ‘noise’ in their language. So, anticipate a storm of a show, basically.

Roll on Brainchild – I can’t wait to catch Ariwo enjoying their set, seeing where the music takes them and making a hell of a lot of noise.


Ariwo play the Brainstage on Friday night at the festival.