Tag Archives: Puerto Rico

Album of the Day: Moths, “Moths”

It seems more than fitting that San Juan, Puerto Rico’s Moths would conclude their first self-titled EP with a cover of King Crimson’s fractured and complex classic “21st Century Schizoid Man.” As veterans of a metal scene as diverse as the shifting time signatures of the monumental prog track, its members have spent their years soaking up the sounds of the myriad metal acts who’ve graced the small island over the years—from the epic doom of legendary heavyweights Dantesco, to the the death/thrash style of more recent metal stalwarts Zafakon, the former band of bassist Weslie Negrón, and the crossover/thrash of their contemporaries Fullminator, whose frontman, Robert Santos, penned Moths’ single “Lepidoptera.” Combining jazz-infused prog, ‘70s heavy metal and stoner doom, death and thrash metal, and heavy grunge, Moths’ debut is nothing short of a behemoth.  Continue reading

La Tortuga China’s Ghostly New Album and the Puerto Rican Independent Music Scene

La Tortuga China

Photo by Alfredo Richner.

Francis Pérez has always demanded complete, uninterrupted attention. Notwithstanding his quiet demeanor and calm presence, throughout his career, he has managed to create compositions that eschew one of the most popular ways to consume music today—as background to other endeavors. As the former guitarist of indie rock band Superaquello, a beloved and highly influential institution in the Puerto Rican music scene, he created—along with members Eduardo Alegría, Patricia Dávila, and Jorge Castro—high-concept pop-rock that thrived on simple yet nuanced guitar, emotional melodies, haunting echoes, and clever wordplay that exposed in equal measure the most fun and painful aspects of the Puerto Rican experience.

After the dissolution of Superaquello in 2011, Pérez—a clinical psychologist by trade—created another musical outlet for himself, one where he could explore his interest in early electronic music, Puerto Rican folklore, and aural storytelling. The result was 2013’s Bio-Lento, his first album under his artistic moniker La Tortuga China, where he fused minimal electronica and found sounds with the rhythmic base of bomba and folkloric music like aguinaldo. But Pérez is not one to repeat himself, and his new album, Fantasma, is testament. As the electronic elements retreat to the background, Pérez brings to the forefront acoustic instruments and the spoken word to explore themes like nostalgia, repression, oppression, sexuality, and isolation seen through the lens of colonization.

Produced by Eduardo Cabra, who as Visitante founded the storied (and contentious) Calle 13 with his brother René Pérez, aka Residente, Fantasma is a contained world of sonic images meant to make you feel like you’re sitting in on a therapy session, where the three main characters—the doctor, the patient, and the radio—discuss the deep neuroses of a man hailing from a spiritist family.

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Casa Fantasmes is the Finest Homemade Recording Studio in San Juan

Casa Fantasmes

Photo by Pamela Baez.

On a busy corner in the Santurce neighborhood of San Juan, right behind a restaurant that doubles as a small theater, sits an inconspicuous two-story house that is estimated by its tenants to be a little over a 100 years old. With its weather-beaten, off-white paint job, the house could almost disappear into the city landscape, overshadowed by the modern architecture of the newer, taller, and shinier buildings that surround it. But its humble facade is a bit misleading—inside the structure is Casa Fantasmes, the studio responsible for some of the most enthralling, grungy recordings coming out of Puerto Rico’s DIY music scene.

The space was established by the members of the psych rock group Fantasmes—Mario Negrón, Darío Morales-Collazo, Daniel Sierra, and Juan Arroyo—along with Gabi Sifre, the owner of the label Last Bummer Records. The group was looking for a way to record their music without the limitations of time or space that come with a typical commercial recording studio. The band—specifically Negrón, who’s an engineer—had a specific vision for the sound they wanted to achieve: lo-fi, distorted, weirdly compressed music aligned with the sound of ‘60s and ‘70s analog rock ’n’ roll recordings.

They recreated this particular sound on their first two records, Redness Moon and Thralls to Strange Witchcraft, with found, traded, and sometimes purchased vintage equipment (a 1959 Hammond M3 organ, 1967 Yamaha Spinet piano, an Indian harmonium, 1979 Realistic Stereo Reverb, Maestro Echoplex tape delays, among many others). It became a hit with quite a few musicians in the scene, some of them even looking to replicate the sound and vibe in their own recordings. It wasn’t just because it was different, but because it suggested new possibilities for what Puerto Rican music could sound like.

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ÌFÉ’s Otura Mun Explores His Divine Destiny

Ife

Photo by Mariangel Gonzales.

DJ, producer, percussionist and composer Otura Mun was born Mark Underwood in Goshen, Indiana. A drummer fluent in R&B and jazz (and the youngest member of the renowned University of North Texas drumline in his freshman year), Otura Mun took his first life-changing trip to Puerto Rico almost 20 years ago. He now calls the island home, and it’s where he and his ensemble ÌFÉ create electronic music that channels the musical and spiritual worlds of the African diaspora throughout the Americas and the Caribbean.

The ensemble and the music they make are also connected to Mun’s desire to study the Cuban rumba—which led to his initiation as a babalawo, or Yoruban high priest. The perspective now orients both his musical and his personal life.

As Otura Mun explains it, he chose the title IIII+IIII for ÌFÉ’s debut because it marks “the beginning of a new era, a change in the guard, a spiritual awakening,” a path an individual can take on their divine destiny.

To talk with Otura Mun is to become caught up in a heady whirlwind of ideas about music that’s constructed with layers upon layers of aligned signs and evoked meanings. We caught up with the San Juan-based Otura Mun via Skype to get a glimpse of the wondrous, spirit-filled world that informs his music.

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Alynda Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff on Navigating Identity and Exploring Her Puerto Rican Roots 

Hurray For The Riff Raf

On the first three Hurray for the Riff Raff records, singer-songwriter and frontwoman Alynda Lee Segarra paired a freewheeling take on country and Americana with lyrics that swung from heartsick love songs to rollicking celebrations of community. But on “The Body Electric, ” the stunning centerpiece of 2014’s Small Town Heroes, her approach shifted. Instead of the all-join-hands spirit-rousing of songs like “Look Out Mama” and “Little Black Star,” “The Body Electric” instead is deft subversion of the age-old murder ballad trope. In the song, Segarra sets her source material against itself, creating a cutting critique of the normalization of violence against women in the process. “Tell me what’s a man with a rifle in his hand/ gonna do for a world that’s just dying slow,” she sings, “and tell me what’s a man with a rifle in his hand/ gonna do for his daughter when it’s her turn to go?”

That song topped a number of year-end lists, and gave birth to the Body Electric Fund, which benefits organizations that fight gendered violence. It also made explicit something that had been central to the band since its beginning: their desire to be a voice for those who are often marginalized by society—people of color, LGBTQ folks, and resilient women, like Segarra herself.

Yet despite her mission to give voice to the voiceless, Segarra’s own story seldom surfaced in her lyrics. A teenage runaway from the Bronx who rode freight trains for years and eventually settled in New Orleans, Segarra struggled as a teenager to reconcile herself to her Puerto Rican heritage. Her search for meaning and identity eventually led her right back where she started: in New York, researching Puerto Rican and Nuyorican political and musical history, and grappling with the questions that had haunted her since she was young: Where do I come from? Where do I belong? How can I reclaim my identity and space in the world?

The product of Segarra’s search is The Navigator, a concept record in which Segarra not only reclaims her own history, but also redefines Hurray for the Riff Raff’s sound, breaking it free of its folk-music mooring and incorporating ’70s rock and Latinx musical styles in equal measure.

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The Dreamy Synth Pop of Puerto Rico’s Los Wálters is Rooted in Themes of Distance and Escape

Los Wálters

Towards the end of Isla Disco, the third full-length album from the Puerto Rican synth pop duo Los Wálters, is the following line, heard in the characteristically harmonious vocals of the band’s members, Luis López and Ángel Emanuel Figueroa, and buried underneath seemingly unending layers of bass and synths: “No hay nada violento en escapar.” There is nothing violent in escaping.

This theme, the need for a mental (if not always physical) respite from reality, is one that has appeared throughout the duo’s discography since they burst onto the Puerto Rican music scene in 2011—whether it be in their relentless layering of harmonies, their dizzying array of synth lines, the understated references to tropicalia, the dreamy quality of their lyrics or the visual dreamscape they create in their videos. It has defined their approach to music and the world that surrounds them while thrusting them into a category of their own in the island’s scene, farther away from the smaller venues, closer to larger stages and dominating festival line-ups in the Caribbean and in Miami. In a scene dominated by punk, hardcore and rock acts, Los Wálters have formed a uniquely tropical brand of synth pop, influenced by everything from Italo-disco to ‘80s pop and new wave to the oft-cited movida madrileña, that aims to provide a different soundtrack to the lives and experiences of Puerto Rican youth today.   

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The Puerto Rican Punks in Orquesta El Macabeo are Shaking Up Salsa Traditions

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Orquesta El Macabeo is an anomaly in the dwindling salsa scene in Puerto Rico. The group’s lack of pre-existing requirements—formal musical training, paying dues for years in traditional salsa orchestras, and a strict adherence to the 3-2 or 2-3 clave—puts it at odds with the traditional orchestras dominating the island’s festival circuit. For the older generation of Puerto Rican salsa musicians and fans who revere artists like Héctor Lavoe, Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz, El Gran Combo and, to a certain extent, Marc Anthony, Orquesta El Macabeo’s music is an affront to “good taste.” The band has weathered every slight under the sun: It’s not music for the bailador and the singer goes off key. The group can’t keep time, is too brazen, and is most definitely not salsa. Throughout its eight years of existence, its critics’ complaints can be summed up in three words: “How dare they!”

If any of these critiques sound familiar, it’s because they’ve been used throughout music history to discredit those who break with the paradigm and flourish against all odds. With every performance and new record, Orquesta El Macabeo topples the rigid standards that hinder Puerto Rico’s salsa scene. The group’s wild success has taken them on tour across Europe, and its records have made it into shops as far away as Japan. Since the release of its first album, Salsa Macabra, band members have acknowledged that they are, in every sense, punk rockers who play salsa. Most of the 11-piece orchestra’s musicians come from punk and ska bands—with José Ibáñez, the band’s bassist, owning a small punk label, Discos de Hoy. Some of them are into hip-hop; others do theatre and teach. Some have formal musical training, but none of them really care if you think their music is salsa or not. “I like that we created our own sound,” Ibañez says. “For better or for worse, it sounds like us, it has its own identity and that’s pretty cool. I think that’s worth more than playing something that sounds like something else.”

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International Dub Ambassadors Bring Classic Reggae to the Modern Age

International Dub Ambassadors
International Dub Ambassadors

Though they’re currently one of the most celebrated bands in Puerto Rico dedicated to playing strictly dub, the International Dub Ambassadors didn’t exactly arrive fully formed. They began humbly in the reggae scene in the mid ’00s, playing covers of the genre’s classics to perfect their sound. Eventually, they began creating ska arrangements of ’80s 8-bit video game music, ending up with something like The Skatalites by way of Super Mario. That project increased their following, so the quartet—Bobby Connelly, Javier Pérez, Daniel Lo Presti and Quique Torresdecided to go for broke and compose their own original music, emulating the work ethic and studio production techniques of their heroes in the Jamaican dub scene: King Tubby, Scientist, Lee “Scratch” Perry and Prince Jammy. In the process, they managed to make the sound their own, with a particular flair that comes less from imitation and more from deep respect and understanding of its origins.

With limited means of production and studio time, the band managed to create two immaculate EPs, Dub Ambassador and International Dub Ambassadors meet Gomba Jahbari. Both are a testament not only to their incredible musicianship, but to their commitment to promote and elevate dub music on the island’s stages, and establish a musical conversation with neighboring Caribbean nations. They’ve collaborated with bands from Jamaica and the Virgin Islands, as well as dub musicians like Addis Pablo and Von Benjamin. This fall, they’re releasing one of the few Puerto Rican dub plates in existence, with art inspired by the works of  British illustrator Tony McDermott, who’s designed record sleeves for dub luminaries like Scientist and Sly and Robbie. We caught up with Javier, Daniel and Quique in San Juan to talk about the recording of their newest EP, International Dub Ambassadors Meet Gomba Jahbari.

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