There’s an air of both mystery and peace throughout IRE, the latest album from Combo Chimbita. Its songs balance between two extremes: the needs of the body and mind, and the pull of nature. It’s a tension that permeates Carolina Oliveros’s soulful wail in “Oya,” the album’s opening track and a harbinger of the journey that is to come. Oya is a powerful feminine deity—the first feminine Orisha in the Yoruba religion—the goddess of storms and winds, protector of the dead, container for the duality between calm and despair. Over soft guitar arpeggios and atmospheric synths, Combo Chimbita capture a kind of ritualistic calmness—a suspended state that is soothing, but also carries with it the danger of a storm.
The group conjures a whirlwind of genres: hip-hop breaks, cumbia, psychedelia, rock, and nueva trova serve as a backdrop to stories of racial and societal struggle, anger, love, transcendence, and healing—all of them with a spiritual twist. That songs like “Babalawo” and “La Perla” transform midway into drum sessions or experimental jams speaks to both the group’s frenetic energy and their willingness to break free of constraints and escape into safe, healing spaces. The music doesn’t dictate where you go, your body does, and these detours are a way to ignore the norm and dance with abandon.
Nothing better encapsulates that ethos than “Memoria,” a song that can best be described as wonder and chaos in crescendo—a despojo, an exorcism of sorts. The track begins with a lo-fi, old-school sample of a noir soundtrack then morphs into a slow, trip-hop beat, which clears a path for Olivero’s powerful voice. She sings cautiously about the memories of the body—“la impaciencia de la vida, tremenda agonía que el aliento se llevó”—until the song climaxes into a cumbia sung by an ominous, distorted, mocking voice from an afterlife: “You don’t escape; you transform,” it sings in Spanish with a hearty laugh. Not even in death can you escape from the sins of the body, it seems to say; but death, while unforgiving, brings a transformation that absolves.
The tension that manifests throughout the record—happiness and despair, life and death, spirit and body—reflects the period in which it was written and composed: In 2020, amidst a global pandemic, an exploding Black Lives Matter movement, and during recording sessions in Puerto Rico. The last part made the group aware of the suffocating realities of living in a U.S. colony, and gave them a palette to create an entrancing visual narrative that interpolates ritual and art. It’s also an inherently queer album; its lyrics explore sexuality, and an accompanying visual component provides a stage for trans and queer performance artists and artists of color to interpret Combo Chimbita’s songs. Harvesting the power of communal creation in times of chaos, IRE offers us a cleansing balance between peace and turmoil, and a spiritual template to deal with the impending storms coming our way.