A little over a week ago, during a flight to Berlin, I re-read an old National Geographic article called The Real Price of Gold. In this cover story from January 2009, author Brook Larmer describes the harsh working and living conditions of the modern-day miner, focusing on the town of La Rinconada in Peru, the highest permanent settlement in the world.
When, just a few days later, I heard the words “mejor habita en su concha el caracol” (a snail lives better inside its shell), I was immediately reminded of the article and its vivid description of labor under the cachorreo system (which entails working thirty days without payment for the chance to claim as much ore as you can carry on day thirty-one – a questionable arrangement resulting in a dangerous lottery). The coincidence of this recurring theme was as profound as it was uncanny, not just because I’d randomly picked out the old magazine from my collection or because the song’s lyrics closely reflected the article’s content, but mostly because “Arriba Quemando El Sol” was written more than half a century ago.
This acute reminder of an unchanging reality was indeed sobering, but it was just one of many things I found fascinating about this latest record I’d received for review – El Gavilan, by Sofia Rei and guest artist Marc Ribot, scheduled for release on April 25th.
If you’re familiar with The Music and Myth, you probably know how I feel about these two musicians. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I consider Sofia Rei the most exciting vocalist in the world at the present moment. The reasons for this are manifold: from her powerful, educated voice, exhaustive in its expression of the human experience, to the daring playfulness with which she combines modern arrangement techniques with age-old South American themes, to the captivating manner in which her natural charisma brings those timeworn stories to life.
But the most important quality that makes Sofia such an interesting musician to follow is simply the profound dedication with which she researches her subject matter. In many ways, listening to a Sofia Rei song is akin to reading a National Geographic article in that it manages to condense an impressive catalog of information into the limitations of its concise form. One need only revisit La Gallera for a convincing demonstration of her evocative talent. When I found out this self-described “song researcher” had recorded a tribute album to legendary Chilean artist and tragic figure, Violeta Parra, I was already interested.
If you’re searching for proof of Sofia’s ability to produce a memorable tribute, look no further than her superior take on La Llorona, arguably the most imaginative modern version of the song currently in existence. My excitement only increased when I found out she had invited one of the most intense and eclectic guitar players of this generation to be a guest artist.
The idea of this record became as mysterious as the concept was promising. How did Marc Ribot fit into the vocalist’s vision? It wasn’t hard to imagine that John Zorn’s go-to guitarist and one of the key-figures in Tom Waits’ abrupt, mid-eighties shift to the experimental side would make his presence felt, but what shape would the sound of this shape-shifting musician take? And how would the dynamic, colorful vocalist tackle Parra’s distinctively despondent poetry?
I have to be honest: it’s the first time in a while that I wasn’t sure what to expect from an album. On the one hand, this was a dream-collaboration, featuring my favorite vocalist and my all-time favorite guitarist, a pairing that had contributed to some of the most beautiful vocal songs of the last few years as well as the Music and Myth’s best vocal record of 2014.
On the other hand, I’m a documented fan of Sofia’s previous record, De Tierra y Oro, and I wasn’t sure how that would influence my experience with the bold musician’s first solo release in five years.
El Gavilan starts with “Casamiento de Negros”, in hindsight, the right choice for an opening track, though I was initially ambivalent about its placement since it’s immediately followed by one of the most powerful compositions in the set. All of the chosen songs are time-tested, so the record’s primary challenge was to bring them back to the forefront in a form that would make its existence musically relevant (the lyrics, as I’ve mentioned before, are still frightfully relevant today).
An enormous part of an album’s appeal, at least for me, is what I call its narrative coherence. Ironically, this appeal seems to increase in importance during a time when only the most ardent music enthusiasts listen to records as complete, cohesive bodies of work instead of just random piles of songs in a playlist. For that reason, I feel “Casamiento” was ultimately the right pick to start the journey, purely because of its straightforward introduction to the album’s stylistic direction – minimalist, experimental, centered around the multi-faceted use of vocals in creating atmosphere. Marc’s presence is beautifully understated throughout, his subtle but targeted contributions doing a perfect job of enhancing the effect of Sofia’s unearthly voice.
The song’s subject matter – a tragic recount of a “black” wedding and a destiny of inescapable poverty – clashes with the upbeat rhythm and melody, creating a certain discrepancy that brings to mind Parra’s original version. Here, it’s greatly enhanced by Sofia’s layered vocals and Marc’s unprecedented use of pedal steel to create a sort of sepia-toned, historical reverberation. Disturbingly, the listener discovers that the music is a lie, as the words reveal the burdensome truth: marriage, sickness and untimely death under the sign of abject poverty.
Se ha formado un casamiento
todo cubierto de negro,
negros novios y padrinos
negros cuñados y suegros,
y el cura que los casó
era de los mismos negros.
Cuando empezaron la fiesta
pusieron un mantel negro
luego llegaron al postre
se sirvieron higos secos
y se fueron a acostar
debajo de un cielo negro.
(A wedding has taken place
All covered in black
Black were the groom and the bride
Black were the in-laws
Black also was
the priest who married them
When the party started
They placed a black tablecloth
When they got the desserts
Black figs were served
And they went to bed
Under a black sky)
Spearheaded by Sofia’s use of the caja vidalera (an Argentinian drum) and the guitarist’s electric, confrontational approach, “Arriba Quemando El Sol” plays like a call to war, quickly becoming the record’s unofficial anthem. Summoning the ghost of Violeta Parra, the vocalist manifests her voice in its rawest, most single-hearted form to lament the historically unchanging fate of the miners.
Cuando vi de los mineros
dentro de su habitación
me dije: mejor habita
en su concha el caracol,
o a la sombra de las leyes
el refinado ladrón
Y arriba quemando el sol
(When I saw the miners
Inside their rooms
I said: a snail lives better
inside its shell,
Or under the shadow of law
the refined thief
and above the sun is burning)
The final line of each stanza – repeated for emphasis – is delivered with complete abandon, breaking off into a banshee’s shriek to create a fitting impression of perpetuity.
“Una Copla Me Ha Cantado” is a mournful ballad where Sofia draws from her work with John Zorn’s Mycale to tackle another important theme in Parra’s work: the agony of lost love. Reminiscent of the most delicate moments in Frantz Casseus and Silent Movies, Marc’s guitar seems to haunt Sofia’s voice. Meanwhile, the singer delivers this splendid ballad with an almost reverent restraint.
In “Maldigo Del Alto Cielo”, the only track that features only the vocalist, Sofia makes the most pronounced use of her layering techniques (to an almost distracting extent) in order to symbolize the character’s infinitely echoing curse. The song gets off to a bit of a rough start as the combination of vocal percussion and piercing charango makes it difficult to warm up to, but the course is quickly restored by the inspired use of tempo and echo to create the illusion of space-time dilation. Ultimately, it becomes one of the most interesting songs on the album.
“La Lavandera” is as simple and straightforward as a ballad can get. A traditional duet that sees vocalist and guitarist on equal footing, this gorgeous piece relies entirely on instinctive force and calculated frailty. Here more than anywhere else, the two musicians seem to have an almost otherworldly understanding of each other’s strengths. Parra’s incisive poetry serves to emphasize the raw, romantic interplay, making for another one of the album’s highlights.
Reminiscent of “Arriba Quemando El Sol”, the aggressive and visceral “Corazon Maldito” again shows Sofia unhinged, banging on her caja from amid a veritable wilfdfire of guitar effects. With unparalleled vigor and more than a hint of madness, the vocalist cries:
sin miramiento, sí,
ciego, sordo y mudo
de nacimiento, sí,
Me das torment
You have no mercy,
You have no mercy on me,
Blind, deaf and mute
You torment me)
This introspective hymn increases in intensity, building up towards the record’s uncontested thematic centerpiece.
At almost fifteen minutes long, “El Gavilan” merits perhaps its own, separate review. Essentially documenting a person’s psychological breakdown, this story of love and betrayal is constructed almost like a play. With a method actor’s dedication, the vocalist brings to life a tortured character, running the gamut of emotion, from anxiety to sorrow, rage and, ultimately, delirium. This bipolar frenzy is aided by Marc’s dual use of his instrument. Its ominous, acoustic form builds up tension while the faded, electric effects allude to the character’s perceptible aura of madness.
This is a truly colossal work, a veritable study in storytelling and emotional expression by two of the best in the industry today. It’s a rare, unsettling and fascinating accomplishment that would have completely carried the record even on its own. As it stands, it’s a climactic conclusion to an unbelievable stellar recording.
The final track, a beautiful, pensive version of “Run Run se fue pa’l Norte” features Angel Parra on guitar. Sofia’s arrangement feels ethereal, ending a bleak story on an almost encouraging note. The words “y cuenta una aventura que paso a deletrear” (and speaks of an adventure that I now begin to spell out) signal the end of Violeta’s life and the beginning of her legend.
Often times, the enormous difference between Violeta’s organic, unrefined delivery and Sofia’s faultless, all-encompassing vocals leads to a sort of transcendent interpretation of the songs. By the very nature of her voice and the energy of her delivery, the vocalist has, in a way, liberated these songs from the bondage of their intrinsic emotional weight, preserving them in a timeless and boundless form.
Through this carefully crafted tribute, Sofia Rei manages to outdo herself, paying homage to her influences as she claims new territory. El Gavilan continues to add depth to one of the most interesting musical résumés of the last decade.