by InRO Staff Feature Articles Featured Music

Foreign Correspondent | Issue 4

July 3, 2019

In an effort to reboot our music coverage, In Review Online has launched some monthly features devoted to reviewing new album releases. One such feature is Foreign Correspondent, a survey of new releases from the international music world — which, going forward, will now be published bimonthly. The latest issue of FC includes albums from two different, female-led Japanese rock outfits (Tricot’s Repeat and Otoboke Beaver’s Itekoma Hits); a rising pop star’s latest bid for ‘world domination’ (Maluma’s 11:11); and the latest release from a Senegalese icon (Youssou N’Dour’s History). The issue’s Kicking the Canon selection celebrates the 50th anniversary of Chilean singer-songwriter/political activist Victor Jara’s seminal (and still, unfortunately, most relevant) album Pongo en Tus Manos Abiertas…

Maluma is currently having ‘a moment’ on the global stage — but not exactly in his home country, where he’s been having a moment since 2015, with two diamond selling records and several Top 10 Latin Billboard hits. And unlike that other really huge pop star lothario from Columbia, our “Dirty Boy” (a nickname he received after the title of his second studio album) hasn’t achieved this recent stateside acknowledgment by teaming up with trendy hip-hop acts, but instead by partnering up with the Queen of Pop herself. By willing to play second fiddle to Madonna in the role of her much younger boy toy, Maluma has showcased a certain level of savviness towards breaking into American steaming numbers that many in his field have yet to grasp: sometimes, it pays to branch out of your established comfort zone. This is all to suggest that 11:11, Maulma’s latest album, is yet another step towards world domination for the young buck; he pulls together an impressive list of eclectic features that range from reggaeton trappers (Ozuna on “Dispuesto”) to Latin pop forefathers (Ricky Martin on “No Se Me Quita”), with even the aforementioned Madonna popping up to sing, in broken Spanish, on “Soltera.” What’s most impressive about these seemingly gratuitous features comes less from their name recognition, and more from how expertly they play off our central star’s delicately youthful vocal. It’s with these impressive pipes that Maluma’s able to devilishly saunter across the bi-lingual “Tu Vecina” with a more than game Ty Dolla Sign, while also digging into his higher vocal range on “Te Quiero,” soaring in tandem with the track’s vibrant horn section. At 16 tracks and a near hour length, 11:11 can seem a tad overblown from a singer who’s a little too eager to please every demographic streaming services can allow him, but the distinct pleasure in watching a wide-ranging artist right on the cusp of international fame can’t be denied; for Maluma, half of his charm comes from trying to figure out just what he’ll attempt next in order to grab your attention. Paul Attard

Tricot pack a lot of musical ideas into a single song — and they unwind or abruptly pause their guitar playing, all based on a sense of intuition. However, the band also prizes economy on their latest five-track EP, a set that’s tightly sequenced for a concise and continuous narrative: one falls out of love (“Daihatsumei”), yearns to fall back in love (“Butter”), finds something new (“Reflection”), has a fight and makes up (“Waruguchi”), rinse and repeat. “Daihatsumei” introduces a classic Tricot line-up of scribbled guitar riffs, stuffed drum fills, and a sharply shifting chorus. Caught in the commotion, frontwoman Ikkyu Nakajima remains bashful and hopeless: “At this point, confidence/ A secret trick / I’ve got none,” she sighs, giving up on saving a crumbling relationship. Her defeated vocal bleeds into “Butter,” which grows denser in its melancholic mood as the band stretches out this pensive longing in a near six-minute slow dance. “Reflection,” meanwhile, acts as the flip-side to the preceding song, with its length dedicated to admiring a newfound love from every angle. The languid music gets cut in “Waraguchi” (‘Badmouthing’), but the effervescence still shines through, shading the narrative about a lover’s quarrel in support of an endearing story: “I can listen to it forever/ Because that’s you” Nakajima affectionately sings, referring to her partner’s various flaws. If set right, Repeat eventually circles back to the opening line of “Daihatsumei”: “Ah, it always ends up the same / My ex-charm points get on your nerves.” And Tricot wrestles, again and again, with the set narrative, as if they don’t already know the course of their story. Ryo Miyauchi

Youssou N’Dour has always been a huge personality — as has been expressed through both his music and his status as a public figure and unofficial cultural ambassador for Senegal. But the last decade of his life has seen the icon up his profile in heretofore unexplored ways. A brief entrance into the 2012 Senegalese presidential election may have resulted in N’Dour’s disqualification, but it also opened the door to a political career that saw him become the actual Minister of Culture for his country. Somehow, he’s also kept up a fairly steady flow of music, especially if you count his domestic releases — which consist of more raw mbalax (a polyrhythmic African form that N’Dour pioneered) — as well as his international albums, which aim for a broader pop sensibility. And if it sounds like the mainstream stuff is a more compromised Youssou N’Dour (and maybe it isn’t his preferred mode of working, who knows), in actuality, the Western pop albums outstrip the ‘authentic’ African ones about as often as the other way around. Or rather, things tend to go in cycles: in the 2000s, nothing could touch N’Dour’s albums on the American world music label Nonesuch, including the stuff he was putting out at home, but that balance has shifted in recent years, on a middling album for Sony and a dreadful reggae fusion set for Universal. N’Dour’s latest, however, arrives after his political position has diminished some; he’s gone from a cabinet member to the more nebulous assignment of “promoting his country abroad.” And on the latter point, History is a great piece of promo from an artist suddenly rejuvenated and ready to resume his peerless fusion of African and Western pop. This is the smoothest, most tuneful, and amiably modern music that N’Dour has released — especially in the west — since 2007’s Rokku Mi Rokka. The feat is achieved at least in part by following the instruction of the album’s title: Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji, dead since 2003, posthumously features on two of the best tracks here, and both of N’Dour’s revisited songs, his classic “Birima” and the deeper cut “Salimata,” are delivered in versions that rival their historical predecessors. “Birima” offers the surest sign that N’Dour views History as a continuum, opening with a brand new, English-language verse from Swedish-Gambian singer Seinbo that melts into the song’s soaring, classic melody — a meeting of cultures, of musical styles, of past and present. It should come as no surprise, for an artist who’s constantly pushing himself further, that when he decides to call his album “history,” he isn’t talking about a nostalgic look backward — he’s talking about making it. Sam C. Mac

Otoboke Beaver: What is an all-female Japanese punk outfit from Kyoto? Itekoma Hits: What is a compilation of new tracks plus singles and EPs from the past few years serving as their latest album? Pretty fucking hard: How “hard” does this quartet go? In fact, Otoboke Beaver’s brand of punk has as much in common with speed metal as it does lo-fi or noise, because while the group’s overall sound is the sonic equivalent of getting a fist to the face (take, for example, the very literal threat of  “I am after you”), the density of their compositions and the technical precision of their performance is nothing less than virtuosic. For those completely, er, out of practice with their Japanese, they make it easy for us: heavily utilizing repetition of key phrases, like “I hate you” (on opener “Datsu Hikage no onna”) and frequently referencing genres in the midst of their otherwise psychotic, irregular song structures. Nothing is out of their wheelhouse, like the rock n’ roll of the previously mentioned track’s primary melody; the noise rock rant of “Akimahenka; the surf rock of “S’il vous plait”; or the cheerleader chant of “Bad Luck.” To listen to one track is to lose one’s mind either trying to intellectualize what they have painstakingly crafted or losing your body (and general sense of self) in the freak-out. A cursory listen to the incredible “Bad luck” sees the song move from low-stakes, New Wave-y chant to a waltz, its meter switching from 6/8 to 7/8 intermittently (think Phillip Glass), to pop-punk and then cheerleader-ing, each moment transitioning with some variegated, arhythmic punk meltdown served up at 200 BPMs — and that song is only two minutes and seven seconds. As various track titles allude to (my favorite: “Don’t Light My Fire,” but even more on-the-nose: “Binge Eating Binge Drinking Bulimia”), there’s a deconstruction happening — the videos follow suit, generally just as insane but clearly targeting gender dynamics and social norms. Punk shit, in other words. Joe Biglin

Kicking the Canon | Album Selection

In her biography on her late husband — renowned Chilean singer/guitarist Victor Jara — Joan Jara recalls the days leading up to the impending sea-change in Chile’s political landscape, in the early 70s. The Popular Unity party, a left-wing alliance behind Chile’s then-socialist president Salvador Allende, was in the midst of a cultural struggle against reactionaries who sought to recapitulate popular song traditions to instigate fascist rule in the country. “For the first time, during this campaign,” Joan writes, “the opposition used pamphlet songs in an organized way, in an attempt to counteract the influence of the New Chilean Song Movement. It was a sign that they recognized the political power of song.” The opposition would reinvent popular rhythms and ready-made cumbias. Even Jara’s most recognizable tunes, like ‘El hombre es un creador,” were propagandized. Jara’s body of work, like his activism, bloomed in those years, forming a document that cut backwards into folk traditions and forward into intentional and active solidarity with Chilean workers and peasants. And even now, almost a year after nine retired Chilean military officers were sentenced for the murder of the singer in a massacre at a stadium — orchestrated during a coup by August Pinochet — one can still feel this level of unity brimming on Jara’s fourth studio album, Pongo en Tus Manos Abiertas… 

The album was released on DICAP (Discoteca de Canto Popular; or, Popular Song Records) at a time when the United States and Europe had set out to conduct economic and political experiments in South America. Jara’s signature, syrupy delivery wended through South American folkways,  and he joined a multitude of voices to channel the “political power of songs” in an attempt to reconvene the history of popular movements against the backdrop of imperial assaults on the global South. This much is revealed in the album’s outset. On “A Luis Emilio Recabarren,” a Peruvian flute joins dampened, soft and exquisite chords, finger-picked in gratitude to the Chilean communist Luis Emilio Recabarren. “I put in your open hands, my singing guitar / Hammer of the miners, Plow of the farmers…Simply, I thank you for your light.” Jara almost sobs on this first track, with an inflection that stands in contrast to the more raucous, almost-mischievous moments on the record. “A Desalambrar,” originally by Daniel Viglietti, undulates between righteous address and joyous pantomime, as the irony and abuse of agricultural capitalism is laid out: “And if the hands are ours, it is our own profit that they give us.” “Duerme, duerme negrito” lullabies a black child to sleep while her mother is forced to work the fields and Emiliano Zapata is heard crying for land and freedom over mid-paced tango on “Juan sin Tierra.” “Preguntas por Puerto Montt” mourns the massacre of peasant squatters by a wealthy Chilean politician, and “Móvil” Oil Special” frolics amidst good old cumbia/cueca in recognition of revolutionary student movements. The album even includes the hit “Te Recuerdo Amanda,” which tells of the tragic romance of a factory worker. “Ya Parte el Galgo Terrible” channels Pablo Neruda; and Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer” gets a passionate reworking, in “El Martillo.” According to Joan Jara, her husband once spent a day visiting miners and singing with Phil Ochs and Jerry Rubin. This may be a testament to the troubadour’s resonant qualities; his songwriting would go on to inform folk-protest music more generally. However, what’s most striking about his work are its parallels to this form, as it evolved across continents, with its striking humanism never lost in translation. Hassan Abbas