Juanita Euka

Saturday The Yard

With Congolese and Argentinian roots and as the niece of rumba giant Franco, Juanita Euka boasts a unique music palette, fusing her African and Latin heritage to become one of the mainstays in London’s vibrant live music scene. Over the last eight years, she has worked with London Afrobeat Collective, the Cuban fusion band Wara and Latin / Afro big band Animanz and is now starting out on a new, exciting solo career.

Born in RD Congo, Juanita moved to Argentina at the age of 3 and first became involved in the arts whilst growing up in Buenos Aires, infusing the heady mix of sounds from the city and studying dance, drama and performance. “I attended my first school, Lycée Francais Jean Mermoz  then an Armenian primary school, Armenio Argentino,” Juanita reflects, “and after I joined Santa Ana Secondary School, I started to become more focused on music. At my primary school, we used to sing Armenian songs and the national anthem ‘Mer Hayrenik’. I would act a lot there too in school plays; I enjoyed being on stage from an early age.”

Juanita’s upbringing also involved many different sounds in her household with two musically-minded parents: her father, who worked as a Diplomat in Buenos Aires for RD Congo (then Zaire) and a legendary uncle, the Congolese rumba legend Franco Luambo Makiadi. “My Congolese roots have been a constant in my life despite having never lived there properly,” she explains. “I left way too young to remember and only went back properly in 2010 but we always had the culture present in my life like the food at home and the cultural connection through my parents and family. Growing up, my uncle, Franco, was always part of my environment at parties and on VHS videos of TV channels from Zaire and we would often play his classic ‘Mario’ at home. We are all proud of that connection and my Dad was very close to him. His music speaks for itself – his legacy is huge and being part of that is incredible. Franco also had a brother called Bavon Marie Marie; I also liked his music and the way played. He was an amazing artist on his own right. 

“Living from an early age in Argentina, I was exposed to a lot of different sounds,’ Juanita continues. “From African American artists to a vast variety of music from across the world, Dominican stars like Juan Luis Guerra, Congolese stars like my uncle and Papa Wemba and various music from Argentina such as Mercedes Sosa. Some of my main inspirations were (and still are) international Afro-Cuban artists like Celia Cruz and La Lupe and a wide variety of African and Afro-Latin music.” Juanita’s musical education widened even further with a trip to stay with family in Belgium, aged 9. “I remember watching MTV a lot there,” she continues. “Suddenly, I was exposed to a lot more music that we didn’t have so much in Argentina: En Vogue, TLC, those ‘female singers with attitude’, Prince and so much more. I loved the R’n’B and hip hop of the ‘90s. Then, when I came to the UK, I started enjoying musical theatre and explored new genres of music; garage and grime was the sound you could hear in the street but I also loved listening to older styles, especially blues and jazz.” 

Leaving Argentina after a year in secondary school, Juanita came to the UK and attended Havering College in Essex, continuing her interest in dance. “When I was young, dance was liberating for me and it gave me a great base around performing and how to conduct myself on stage and really explore art through movement of expression.” After enrolling at the renowned WAC Arts College in Hampstead, she began to focus more heavily on music, driven by a series of inspiring teachers including singer Kevin Mark Trail (The Streets, Nitin Sawnhey). “Before WAC, I was just thinking about auditioning for girl bands or dance schools. Kevin showed me that I could do whatever I want to do in music and really taught me a lot in terms of songwriting and becoming an independent musician.” Other tutors included some of the UK’s best vocal coaches including Jo Thompson and Rachel Bennett. “Jo was a demanding teacher and taught me classical styles of singing and those exercises were really valuable in shaping my voice. Rachel was an amazing jazz singer and taught me many more techniques and music theory and basically how to also use the voice in more versatile ways.”

During her studies, Juanita began her music career as a vocalist with Malambo, a London-based Afro-Latin band. “I put out an ad in StarNow. David Mortara from Malambo saw that I sang in Spanish and asked if I wanted to sing Afro-Peruvian music. When I heard it, it was like a calling. I thought, ‘I can do this!’ It was a style from coast of Lima and had an African sound, not like salsa or tango. It was really interesting music and a great base to start from professionally. I then contributed to ‘Tango Malambo’, which was me and world class pianist, Tim Sharp, performing classic Argentinian tango songs. It was a lot of fun and gave me more of an identity as a singer. Malambo came at an important time for me when I was  feeling a bit lost in London; I was missing my life in Buenos Aires a lot so singing with Malambo was a great beginning for me as professional singer. David and Tim were mentors to me and gave me valuable practical advice. They really moulded me into the singer I am today. Malambo only performed occasionally, at the beginning maybe twice a year, but every gig I did with them was valuable” 

Juanita then joined the London Lucumi Choir which celebrates traditional singing to the Orishas, directed by Daniela de Armas. “It was a beautiful community choir and various professional musicians were involved with them. I worked for a while with Manos Negras too, an Afro-Peruvian big band, with the great bandleader Kiefer Santander.”

Juanita was gradually discovering the community of Latin, Spanish and world music artists based in London. Jota Ramos, a rapper from Colombia, invited her to sing at one of his gigs before Eliane Correa, bandleader, pianist and arranger for the Cuban fusion band Wara, asked her to join the band. “I began touring with Wara in 2011,” remembers Juanita. “They were a new group of young mavericks from the UK’s Latin music scene. Everything started for me with them. I became fully involved in the London Latin community as an artist, I received a lot of exposure and learned a lot about the industry.” Wara’s 2013 UK dates to support their politically charged Leave To Remain album broke new ground musically and included a packed launch date at London’s Jazz Café. “It was my first time being on tour properly. It was an amazing experience, we all laughed so much and worked really hard. It was a memorable tour and one of my greatest adventures with many gifted musicians. Great times!” 

Eliane also invited Juanita to front the Eli y la Evolucion Cuban salsa band for a residency Upstairs at Ronnie Scott’s in London’s Soho. “We could play proper timba and salsa there and it ran for several years. One of the most rewarding places to play and with a line-up of incredible musicians.”

In 2016, Juanita joined London Afrobeat Collective after the band had seen her performing at The Forge in Camden at a Cuban jam organised by percussionist Oreste Noda. She has since become a mainstay with the band, touring across Europe and recording with them on their 2019 album, HUMANS. “It was a good experience for me to tap into the Afrobeat world and see what I was able to do,” Juanita continues. “I naturally got into it. Fela was so interesting –  his music, the way he expressed himself was incredible and his powerful activism for freedom was hugely inspirational. After performing Latin music, exploring and writing afrobeat and funk is exciting. It’s a big band with 9 people and it has always been about writing, jamming ideas and expressing yourself.” The step marked another shift in momentum in her career. In 2017, Juanita won the LUKAS award (Latin UK Awards) for Best Latin Vocalist Of The Year. “I had performed at a Barbican concert with Roberto Pla, father of salsa in London. Ruben Cordero (who works closely with Pla) called and asked me to sing Celia Cruz’ ‘Quimbara’ for it. Omar Puente came on playing violin. I received a standing ovation and people were stopping me after that and asking me, ‘who are you?’ It was a big moment for me.”

Juanita also began working with open-minded Latin and Afro band Animanz for live shows and their Exotic Other album, released on Tru Thoughts in 2018. “I was suddenly very busy. All of the projects were growing – I was touring with London Afrobeat Collective, Animanz and Wara at different times.” 

In 2020, Juanita recorded her first solo track ‘Alma Seca’ which quickly led to a live appearance performing the song in series 3 of blockbuster series ‘Killing Eve’. Landing a new album deal with Strut Records, Juanita brought together all of the pieces of her music outlook, drawing on elements of African and Latin styles, hip hop, soul and jazz to create her own unique musical palette on the brilliant LP Mabanzo. “I have always written songs and poems since I was young. I met multi-instrumentalist and producer Greg Sanders while I was in Wara and we started the journey towards a solo project. Greg has that knowledge and vision of different sounds and it was the perfect way way to celebrate my musical journey. I brought all of the musical heritage that I have experienced into my album; I feel like I am only just starting with the possibilities of my music.”