Originally hailing from the north of Mexico, DJ Coco Maria found new opportunities in Europe to present Caribbean and South American music to an audience that was hungry for something new. Wax Poetics was happy to sit down with her to discuss her journey from child musician in Mexico to being a host of a successful Worldwide FM program and compilation producer.
Let’s talk about your background a little bit. In what part of Mexico did you grow up? I understand that your father had you interested in music at an early age.
I was born in the ’80s in Mexico, near the border with Texas, in a city called Saltillo. It’s quite industrial. A lot of people go there for work. There wasn’t a lot of investment in culture, so when I grew up, it was not so easy to find things to do. My dad is a musician, although he never pursued it as a career. He’s an engineer, but I really think his passion is music. He plays guitar, and when he was young, he was in a band called Takinkai. His friends kept [the band] going, and they became quite popular in our region.
Did you play music while you were younger?
When I was five, my dad bought me a little guitar. So I was playing with him and had lessons until I was nine. I started playing in little concerts and presentations. Every time we had festivals, like Mother’s Day, I was performing. I had a band on the side with my cousins.
Where were you getting material for this group?
We made our own songs. Very basic guitar arrangements. We took hits and changed the lyrics. It was a whole show with costumes, theater, sketches, and games. Every Sunday, we did something.
Then when I was a teenager, I was like, “Oh, that’s so stupid. All these little shows...” I regret it. I was a little too teenager. I was in a school that I didn’t like. It was a hard time. It was a strict, Catholic school. I had friends—but not friends I could really share interests and passions with. It was a very confusing time, and I used music just to have my own little world.
That Catholic school, I really hated it. So, I went to a different one, which I loved. In this new high school, it was a completely different environment. More free, inspiring, and wholesome. I met a lot of nice people there, and this school had a few foreign students. Through these friends, I started to dream of going to Europe, and finally got a chance to go there.
How did that affect you?
It was like going to another world. Other shops, other things, other foods. Everything was new, except McDonald’s. I learned French very fast, because everybody was speaking to me in French. It really changed the way I saw the world, myself, and all these areas of my life. The son of the family, Michael (I call him my French brother), was really into music. He was a big fan of this nu jazz thing.
Every afternoon, I went to his room and checked his CDs. Checking, listening, reading the notes. He noticed that I liked the music, so he made mix tapes for me. That’s how I learned about a whole new music genre that I really liked.
My friends in high school were into new French music. It was Mano Negra, Manu Chao, and [then] this band from Cuba, Buena Vista Social Club. In high school, there was a common area where we could go on our breaks and everybody could bring CDs. I was the only foreigner in the whole school, and I was curious how they knew this music from Latin America. I didn’t expect that. They loved it. They made me see that it was not a matter of language or being from another country—you could still appreciate that music. Manu Chao was so big in France at the time. He had these influences from Africa and Latin America.
After France, I went back to Mexico. I finished college in Mexico in my town. It was strange, because I came back from France and it was a big shock. I went back to Europe every summer, making my plans to move. But this time it would be harder. I was already over eighteen, so I had to find a visa to come back, and I wanted to come back to Berlin.
Near my hometown and the U.S. border, there’s this place called Casa del Migrante, which means “the immigrant house.” It is a refuge for people who are crossing illegally through Mexico to the U.S. I worked there, completing social service for university. There were lots of German volunteers there.
I met this guy, and he became my boyfriend. He was about to start university and talked a lot about Berlin. He brought me stuff from Berlin. Chocolates, books, postcards, music, and films. I thought, “I need to go to Berlin. It seems like it’s for me.” Then I went to Berlin and I loved it from the first day. I liked how I felt there and how it was so different. It was a lot of freedom for me in that moment.
Were you involved in anything musical in Berlin?
I was working in this popular artist’s squat called Tacheles. In the ’20s, it used to be a very extravagant department store. Then the Nazis took over the building. During the Cold War, the military just used it as storage. It was not restored.
In the ’90s, when the Wall fell, a group of artists took it over. It became this amazing place with lots of ateliers and concert halls inside. It was massive. There was a little cinema, like two or three bars. There was this hip-hop bar and there was a Latin bar that was very interesting for me. It was called Café Zapata. On my first encounter with this place, it blew my mind how so many people were dancing to Latin music.
It was crazy. I could never have imagined it. There were a few Latin people, but lots of Germans and tourists. Everybody got up and was dancing, until 8:00 in the morning. I was there every weekend. It was a reconnection to Latin America and rediscovering all this music that I had forgotten about. It felt great to see all these people from everywhere dancing to Latin music!
I saw the potential of Latin music there. While I was working there, I became close with some of the DJs. It was my first introduction to this world of DJs, parties, how to organize an event, and that Latin music can be played in Europe.
Then you go to London. How does that professional music interest blossom in London?
It was random, because I just went there for visa reasons. I became a babysitter. I was lucky because the one person I knew in England was my friend’s brother Salvador from Mexico, a local legend in my city. Salvador had a band in London that was going well, so he invited me to a concert. That evening, I got introduced to amazing people who are still my friends. I went with them to concerts, shopping in Brick Lane, house parties in Shoreditch, and exhibitions. If I had been alone in London, I would have ended up in tourist traps or going to places that I didn’t like. But these people took me straight to see bands that were really good and interesting. It was all about music. They were all DJs, musicians, radio people, or really just music lovers. I was just in this nice, exciting bubble.
When did the record collecting thing really start happening for you?
It happened there, checking friends’ collections and then starting my own. I thought more seriously about starting to play at parties, and my band friends invited me to open their concerts. This was ten years ago.
What made you leave?
The whole time I was in London, although I was enjoying it, I was just fixated on Berlin. I had to go back. The funny thing is, I persuaded my ex and a couple of friends that we should all go there. You know: “London is over… Let’s move to Berlin.”
A lot of us went. This big bunch of friends from London moved to Berlin, so from the beginning, we already had a crew. They were all artists. I was the only one who was not. Each of us had their own interests, and we introduced each other to different cool stuff that was going on in the city. We had saved money to go to Berlin and not worry about finding a job, so we were just hanging out. We went to all these parties, clubs, venues, weird exhibitions, and met these eccentric people. That was really an amazing time for me.
Cumbia is a genre that comes up when you mention your musical interests. You were introduced to that when you were younger. How did you continue your research of it?
Cumbia has a very special place in Mexico, especially near where I’m from. Not everywhere in the North, but in this part... I thought cumbia was from there! As a child, I have a lot of memories of going to the center, where my grandmother lived, and there were musicians playing cumbia on the streets. You heard it everywhere: on the radio, the street, at parties. But there was a part of me that was denying it. In Mexico, cumbia is seen as popular music but not very sophisticated.
A few years ago, in fact, I played an event at the Mexican Embassy in Berlin. I was playing all kinds of music. At some point, I played cumbia. Then this elegant lady came and said to me, “Why do you play this low-class music? You’re ruining the event.”
I just thought, “Wow. We’re still thinking the same way.”
Many people do still see cumbia as low-class music. But in my parents’ house, my parents and their friends were dancing to it. I didn’t grow up thinking it was low-class music, but sometimes you want something new. Cumbia was something I grew up with, and back then I just wanted music from the United States, music from somewhere else. It was in London when I really rediscovered it and thought, “Hey, that’s really cool and I like it.”
Was it easy to find music like that in London? How did your interests widen?
When I went to find music, I was looking for what was new, as I was still quite young. I was really into finding new bands. One of the first records I got was Toro y Moi. I was about these new bands. But one day an Italian friend brought this album. He said, “I cannot get enough of this!” and he played it. It was Roots of Chicha (Barbès, 2007), the Peruvian cumbia compilation. That compilation was incredible, and I think after that compilation, a lot of things clicked in my head. This Italian friend, who was more into Moondog and Sun Ra…he comes with this. It was really a contrast. I could not process it.
Then, I saw my DJ friends in action playing records somewhere in Dalston and people going crazy. You could hear this Roots of Chicha thing, then this guy playing Turkish songs! This showed me that there’s no limits. Experiencing this gave me a lot of confidence. There’s no wrong record. It depends where you play or when or what time, and I said, “Okay, there’s more potential in my collection than I thought.”
When did your Worldwide FM show begin and how did that start?
I was invited to play at a charity event in London. There was no money, so they offered: “To make up, maybe we can help find you other gigs?” One of those things was a guest show on Worldwide FM. Palo Santo Discos did an hour of Brazilian music, and I just did my thing. We had a lot of fun. It went naturally, and the people at Worldwide seemed happy with the show. A week later, they asked me if I wanted a regular show. I’ve had this regular show, Club Coco, for a year and a half. Every month. Since lockdown, I’ve had the morning show, and that changed everything for me.
In what ways?
First: It saved me from lockdown depression. I had a goal each week. Also, it’s the first time since I had this show that I was really interacting live with the listeners. That just made me feel so much more connected and appreciated. I think that was reflected on the show. It was at the right moment when they asked me. It’s an honor to be one of the people who have a morning show there. It has allowed me to not just play Latin music. I finally found an outlet to play other things, because I have a lot of other interests and it allowed me to show that.
How did the lockdown change your own musical discovery process? How were you discovering things?
First of all, I had less money. The shops were closed. I [went less] to record stores. Before, I went every week. I’m starting to do it again, but I am more careful with spending. I also have to be careful on Bandcamp. I started to not get stuck with the idea that I only had to play vinyl. I don’t have much money, so I’m going to get it digitally. There were these days during the lockdown when we pulled all our records out. I don’t like to keep records I don’t listen to, and I got rid of a lot of records, but I also fell in love again with records I hadn’t heard in a long time. I heard the same songs in a different way.
My ear is getting more tuned for radio. Before, I only bought records for a party or specific events. I think that having this radio show made me start to collect music that is not just party music. Sounds from everywhere. All kinds of moods. More diverse.
What does it mean to you to be able to go out and play for a live audience again?
At the beginning, it was very stressful. I thought that I could not do it anymore. I had a few weird events that put my confidence a bit low. It was like, “Uh… What am I doing? What’s the point?” After this year of adding new records into my collection and maturing my ears, I was not sure how to integrate this new music into my set. I was struggling a little bit to get out of my comfort zone. I was playing the same tunes that I had played for a long time, and it was boring. That was just the first two or three gigs. Then in London, I experienced a party with a real audience. Proper, proper dance floor. It felt really good to be back. I felt, “Yeah! I still have it.”
It can very easily become a loop of just playing the same things. Playing these tunes that always work. I want to be a little bit more daring and play music that may be risky, but they could also be wonderful. Make the most of my record collection.
Is there anything new or interesting that you are discovering here in Amsterdam? Or are there things that you are finding in local shops and from people here who are educating you?
Definitely. There are a lot of people educating. One of them is Edo Bouman from Vintage Voudou. He knows a lot about music. Though I was already coming very often, I was very surprised about these Surinamese and Hindustani records. “What is it doing in Amsterdam?” After talking to people and reading some history, I found out that it is part of the history of Holland. How amazing is it that Amsterdam is such a melting pot of cultures?
There are a lot of people who have been making music for many years who are still active. I found out not long ago about Ronald Snijders. Wow! People like him or Ronald Langestraat. There are chances to see them live. To find out more about them. They have a lot of knowledge and they are still active. They are the two people I would like to know more about.
You have the new compilation, Club Coco, on the Les Disques Bongo Joe based out of Genève. How did that come about?
This label is relatively new, but I liked the way they did things. Very warm, very hands-on, loving label. For a few months, I was thinking about putting together a compilation. The first track was by my friend Nico Mauskovic. He had a song that was not out. It was only on a cassette, and I thought, “Oh, wow. I would like to have this somewhere on vinyl.” I first thought of a 7-inch. Then I wondered what I would put on the other side. I had a few options and the conclusion was: “What if I put together a compilation?”
I asked Bongo Joe first and they said yes the same day. They liked the idea from the beginning. That was in January 2020. But then two months later… The conversation completely stopped. But for those two months, I was really working on which tracks, contacting bands... Everybody accepted, so I thought, “Okay. This is a good sign. This is something that should be out there.”
But for those few months, nothing happened. I wasn’t even in the mood to restart the conversation. Then, around May 2020, we took up the subject. It rolled quite smoothly. I have a feeling that when the compilation came out, it was very well received, as if it was something that was needed at the time.
There’s a lot of compilations with old music, which are great because they help us rediscover. I thought there is enough for now and enough people working on future compilations of old music. What is happening now? Who are the bands inspired by those reissues? How are they recreating this heritage music? That’s what I wanted to reflect on the compilation.
What is coming up for you?
We are talking about a second compilation. The first one just came out. Many people are asking for a repress, as there are no more copies. So the label contacted me and they asked, “Should we make a repress or should we have Volume Two?” I thought, “I would like Volume Two.” It is a new challenge. What I found out through the compilation is that more people are sending me their music. That opens the door for people to send me their music. I can also connect it to my show.
Even before dreaming of playing a party, an event, or at a festival, I saw myself as a radio DJ. I think this dream is coming true. Through the compilation and through my show, I can be a person who can open doors for other people. My question to myself is: How not to get stuck? How to keep evolving and refreshing?
That just means you are going to have a record label soon.
And then my own festival… And then my own radio station. [laughs]