Coati Mundi, Back in the Fray

A prince of surrealist alt-Latino pop returns to his kingdom

Dada and surrealism have a historic rivalry, especially when it comes to their approaches to politicized art. But despite philosophical turf wars, they accomplished more together than apart, especially once Afro-Caribbean "Negritude" emerged as the missing link needed to make sense of Dada nonsense and constructively embody surrealist dreams. Consider New York City's high-concept Dada dance combos Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band (formed in 1974) and, subsequently, Kid Creole & the Coconuts (born in 1979): Both used music and musical theater to liberate their fans, transforming every stage into the Cabaret Voltaire with a Pan-African backbeat.

When Andy "Sugar Coated" Hernandez, a core member of both bands, released his first solo album (1983's Former 12-Year-Old Genius) under the name Coati Mundi, he immediately established himself as the unofficial leader of a very new school of alt-Latino pop, paving the way for similarly multicultural musicians like Ozomatli, Lila Downs, Santero, and Carne Cruda's Greg Landau. Their music, like his, is highly collaborative and hybridized. Yet Mundi's initial pioneering blend of rap, funk, salsa, "dazz," and Max Fleischer cartoon kinetics has yet to be equaled. Until now. By him.

Dancing for the Cabana Code in the Land of Boo-Hoo (Rong Music), his first solo release in more than two decades, is a shrewd and polished reinterpretation of contemporary trance and techno riffs, enlivened by the vintage disco, funk, and Latin-jazz embellishments Spanish Harlem's favorite stunt-vibraphonist is already known for. From the "bata" ritual drum chants that open "Voyage Libertad" through the elegant vibe and keyboard licks of "Dancing Disco 101" to the dubby reggaeton flavor of "One Day We Will Pay," Mundi smoothly celebrates all his musical roots and branches.

Dancing's CD cover art is deliberately drawn in the bubble-deco style of the first two Savannah Band albums, and that's not the only homage to deceased Savannah Band leader Stony Browder Jr., who passed in 2001 from complications following a stroke. Mundi's cryptic album title—only partially explained by the surreal little fairy tale written for the liner notes—is reminiscent of the delightfully quirky fables that once accompanied his old band's sheet music and press releases. In "Bundas Bom," unusually deep, resonant acoustic drums remind us that Stony liked to record African percussion on rainy days because of how the moist air affected their timbre. Also, the way Mundi and his British co-producer Elan "E-Love" Polushko present the choral parts on the new "No More Blues" has the same stark, foregrounded quality heard on Savannah Band classics like "Sunshower" and "Soraya."

Mundi's lyrics, meanwhile, are stream-of-consciousness broadsides, full of goofy double entendres, sardonic advice, prophetic repetitions, and bilingual asides. "When I say 'holler'/You say 'dollar,' " he sings on the faux-capitalist manifesto "It's All About the Money, Money"; elsewhere, he (euphemistically) describes the look and feel of a friendly vulva, positing it as his cure for depression, on the color-coded "No More Blues." Don't sleep on the seemingly silly odes to his dog, or shopping malls, or Brazilian butts, because between self-deprecating allusions to his own sexual and fiscal obsessions are social critiques as poignant as a Magritte painting.

He's done this before: Back in the '70s, Mundi and his cohorts strove together to soundtrack a cultural revolution meant to explode existing stereotypes of what black, Latino, and white kids in this country were supposed to be and do. Now, returning to the battlefield of American pop after a peaceful interim of low-profile labor in Hollywood, he brings his witty, manic, Dada ass back to the fray. Because the struggle against stereotypes continues . . . even in the age of Obama.

 
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