When I first met Café Tacuba in early 1993, they were hunched in a typical suburban garage on the outskirts of Mexico City, working the kinks out of “24 horas,” a Beatles-esque teen-pop love anthem that would appear on their ’94 masterpiece, Re. But despite the apparent nods to Anglo rock convention, Tacuba were feeding off the energy of the Columbus Day quincentennial, a time when many Latinos were speaking out against the European conquest. Part of the second wave of the Mexican rock rebirth, Tacuba were one of the first rock en Español groups to break from their contemporaries’ blues-based or progressive-rock trappings and merge Mexican son jarocho and Afro-Cuban beats with techno and Europop.
With Re, their second album, they invented an astonishing new style of Latin rock hybridism, which influenced bands from Los Fabulosos Cadillacs to Plastilina Mosh. In the cannibalistic spirit of Brazil’s Tropica listas, Tacuba allowed the indigenous and mestizo traditions of the Americas to gobble up European conceptions of art and music. It was as if to say, as some scholars interpret the Aztec co dices, that the conquest was all part of the plan. But now the wheel has begun to turn in the other direction and it’s time for the conquered to do the conquering. After all, in the climactic lyric of Re‘s “Ciclón,” Tacuba had proclaimed that “Life always returns to its circular form.” Such is the guiding philosophy behind their new double CD, Revés/Yosoy (Reverse/I Am).
Sometime last summer Tacuba presented the instrumental CD Revés to their label for release. Extrapolating on themes built around acoustic or electric guitars and electronic effects and filled with languid, jangly passages that suggest a Mexican Music for Airports, Revés is space music for the urban nomad. But the band received mucho resistance—the material was acceptable, but a marketer’s nightmare. So they went back into the studio and re-excavated some songs they had been working on before and during the tour for their last album, Avalancha de Exitos, as well as penning some new ones. They switched up instruments on a few tracks, with lead singer Rubén Albarrán dabbling at guitar and keyboardist Emmanuel del Real and bassist Quique Rangel trading off to play the Mexican jar ana, a small folk guitar.
The prevailing theme of Yosoy is self-discovery, the next logical step after the radical self-doubt that produced Revés‘s experimentalism. “El Padre” voices fears about turning into the patriarch you hate most, and “El Espacio” is a spare ballad about being alone with one’s thoughts, seemingly composed in a sensory-de privation tank. Songs like “El Ave,” “Arboles Frutales,” and “El Hombre Impasible” have a mythopoetic quality. But in contrast to Revés‘s adventurous dynamism, Yosoy comes off like a series of incomplete, if some what brilliant sketches. None of the songs have the impact of Re‘s “El Fin de la Infancia,” “La Ingrata,” or “Tropicó de Cáncer,” or Exitos‘s “Chilanga Banda,” anthems that al ways seem to result from their collaborations with longtime producer Gustavo Santaolalla. (Santaolalla’s recent work with Mexican rap-rockers Molotov and the current rulers of the Argentine scene, Bersuit Vergarabat, has produced two rabble-rousing hits. Molotov’s “Gimme tha Power” insists the only thing working-class Latinos have to lose is their chains, and Bersuit’s “Sr. Cobranza” accuses Argentine president Carlos Menem of being a front man for drug cartels.)
At last month’s Midem Americas conference in Miami, Tacuba screened a video inspired by the music on Revés, directed by old school chum Adolfo Davila. “We wanted to work on the assumption that music could generate images, not the reverse,” said bassist Rangel. The video begins with a staccato swirl of images reflected through a hubcap—again, the circular narrative ploy—moving through life in Mexico City from the p.o.v. of a petty street criminal and a working woman. Shantytowns are juxtaposed with PCs and tabloid TV violates an ancient pyramid, the visuals pulsing to the rhythmic imperatives of Tacuba’s Aztec ambient. “This is a rhythm that’s played in reverse,” Tacuba chant in the title track, as a boxer comes back up from the canvas, and a cliff-diver in Acapulco floats back up to the precipice.
Tacuba may be guilty of overdoing some shtick (lead singer Albarrán, who takes on a new alter ego with each record, is here known as Nrü, a/k/a Amparo Tonto Medardo In La k’ech), but their music is as rich in complex harmony and evocative, austere melody as any in contemporary alterna-pop. Producer Santaolalla is a wizard at reconciling their samplers and sequencers with their acoustic plucking and scratchy, sometimes shrill voices. Whether it’s the jangling Feelies chords on “Locomotora,” the jazzy piano offsetting a haunting hollow-body on “Dos Niños,” or the trip-hoppy wah-wah ranchera dirge “La Muerte Chiquita” (reprised instrumentally with the Kronos Quartet on Revés), Café Tacuba’s tunes transport the listener to the apocalyptic border lands of the soul. It’s a place where America’s inner indio protects itself—where The Day of the Dead is a celebration of a people reborn.