Wednesday, June 24, 2015

This Mexican walks into a bar in Brooklyn...

There’s a tendency to view Brooklyn through the lens of hipsterdom. You know, white millennial creative types who populate formerly gritty neighborhoods, driving up real estate prices and driving out long-time residents, gradually transforming a formerly diverse ethnic neighborhood into a homogenous land of pour over specialty coffee, black frame glasses and mountain man beards.

There’s a glimmer of truth in all that. Neighborhoods do change as young people move to them. Sadly, this often causes rents to go up as long-time residents leave for someplace more affordable. What is also true, but not usually accounted for in these stories, is that these creative types are also surprisingly diverse. In some ways, Brooklyn is as it ever was: A destination for immigrants. Two of my favorite ‘world music’ bands, Chicha Libre and Red Baraat, call Brooklyn home. Dev Hynes, an Afro-Brit who records as Blood Orange, makes edgy yet strangely elegant 21st century R&B. The Dutty Arts DJ collective mashes up all sorts of Latin American sounds to keep dancefloors hopping. The empress of carioca funk, Zuzuka Poderosa, also calls Brooklyn home, and even René Pérez of the Puerto Rican duo Calle 13 is rumored to have a place there. The close proximity of these musicians to one another all but insures that music coming out of Brooklyn often draws from unlikely sources.

And the, there’s Rana Santacruz, a creative if there ever was one. He was born in Mexico City and led an alternative rock band there called La Catrina. That band had an affinity for genre-jumping, sometimes in the course of a single song. Moving to Brooklyn in 2002 only accelerated Santacruz’s eclectic tendencies. He released a well-received recording in 2010 called Chicavasco and has just come out with a second, Por Ahi

What Rana Santacruz has most in common with many other Brooklyn artists is a drive to make music on his own terms. Colors and styles that engage him work their way into his canvas, but his music isn’t calculated to cross over in the direction of the mainstream. Instead, it asks politely that you travel a bit to get to where he’s at. If you do, there’s much to reward you.

I’m going to refrain from a track-by-track analysis, but depending on where you drop the metaphorical needle, you are going to hear bits of several musical styles going on at once. French chanson, bluegrass breakdowns, Celtic sea chanties, East European polkas and more are interwoven with Mexican and other Latin American forms like son jarocho, mariachi, cumbia and tango. This all might play out as an amusing diversion if not for the fact that Santacruz is a first rate songwriter of the storyteller variety, vividly creating characters with their various passions, desires and obsessions. In an Anglo context, both Randy Newman and Tom Waits are masters of this form. Santacruz aspires to be among them, and judging from the songs on Por Ahi, he’s got the chops to pull it off.

All of these stories are in Spanish, but if you’re an English dominant whose grasp of other languages is shaky (yes, my hand is raised here) you can follow along with a translated lyric booklet. To be sure, Santacruz has not abandoned Mexico. Rather, he’s expanded its cultural reach and found a new context in which an old Mexican form—the corrido—can flourish. The music is resolutely acoustic, but does not lack for energy. Banjo and fiddle figure prominently, as do mariachi horns. Santacruz leads on accordion, and though he’s no Flaco Jimenez, the instrument provides just the right amount of color to enliven the arrangements and lend credibility to other genres like tango, Irish reels and Gypsy jazz.

As long as Brooklyn keeps producing music like this, I’ll keep listening.


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