All the recent talk about mash-ups and wacko mixes just proves that music's hipster elite—your Pitchforks and Spins—are a bunch of culture-ignorant dolts (remember rhythm & blues, guys?). To Latinos, the mash-up "phenomenon" is as old as the Conquest. Musical miscegenation isn't a trend in Latin America; it's day-to-day life. It's Mexicans blasting bastardized polkas and waltzes from their pimped-out Chevy Suburbans and Russian-named Dominicans blasting grand slams toward the upper decks. And three recent Latin alternative releases mash their music in a way that shows again that Latinos can do almost anything better and more efficiently than Americans can.
The Nortec Collective, a group of Tijuana-based electronic mavens who mix digital landscapes with traditional Mexican music, returns after a four-year hiatus with Tijuana Sessions Vol. 3. The first session bored listeners with its cold drones, never mind the critical acclaim; what makes this session succeed is that Nortec now places the emphasis on Mexican rather than electronic sounds—an album with a rancho soul but DJ smarts. Nortec's five members—Bostich, Clorofila, Fussible, Hiperboreal and Panoptica—allow accordions to treble on while trombones and tubas burp gaseous oomph-pahs and thick bass and synthesizers hover in the background.
Nortec also remembered to include humor this spin-round. The fun starts with the cover art—a fat, mustachioed, Stetsoned Mexican who might just be my uncle. Tijuana street slang slips in here and there, but the highlight of Tijuana Sessions is Fussible's anthem to the group's hometown, the unapologetically goofy accordion-techno number "Tijuana Makes Me Happy," with the proud opening lyric, "Some people call it the happiest place on Earth/Others say it's a dangerous place/It has been the city of sin/But you know, I don't care!" You can play most of Vol. 3 during a quinceaera set, and the old folks won't flee the dance floor in disgust—the ultimate Mexican musical compliment.
Nortec's emphasis on re-inventing Mexican regional music is a much-enjoyed relief from the current plague in Latin music known as reggaetn,a genre even the scintillating New York septet Yerba Buena indulges in on "Sugar Daddy," the bawdy love poem on their sophomore effort, Island Life. But guitarist Andrs Levin—the same magus who produces Venezuelan sex-funk superheroes Los Amigos Invisibles—quickly ditches reggaetn for effortless mash-ups similar to those found on Yerba Buena's 2003 smash, President Alien, this time pairing Middle Eastern-inspired bolero dervishes on "Belly Dancer" with flamenco raps, various salsa meltdowns, and muggy cumbias that rumble with furtive beats and chants straight from the African motherland.
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And while the many cameos on Island Life at times distract from the raspy voice of lead singer Xiomara Laugart—do we really need John Leguizamo wolf whistles and a from-the-grave appearance by Celia Cruz on the same song?—the group counters with rocking sensuality, sharp musicianship and ability to invigorate the shoulders. Even better, Yerba Buena follows the steps of the Big Apple's proud salsa tradition by combining the political with the cadera-shaking: the case Laugart makes for bilingualism on "Bilingual Girl" ("I'm a snake/With my two tongues, I'm going to love you") is an argument so persuasive even Ron Unz would rumba with Nativo Lopez for this track.
Still, it's European-based Zuco 103 that bests both Yerba Buena and the Nortec Collective with its latest release, Whaa! The group's makeup is schizo enough: two of the members are Dutch and German and blip the ever-twitchy club beats of Europe, while Lilian Vieira supplies a sultry howl amidst a panoply of acoustic rhythms from her native Brazil. On Whaa!, the trio shakes its native sounds over American genres like hip-hop and Famous Flames-style repetitive funk for the musical Neapolitan of the year.
Like Brother James and the aforementioned Nortec folks, Zuco 103 remember to have a funky good time with their sumptuous electro-tropicalia. One track, "Futebol," turns soccer into a metaphor for dueling lovers—it almost sounds like the Ohio Players at Carnaval. Even more entertaining are those involving Jamaican reggae legend Lee "Scratch" Perry: on the bouncy "It's a Woman's World," Perry advises the boys of the world to "be good to the ladies" and later offers a lesson for the Christian Right on "Love Is Queen Omega"—"Make no mistake/My God is great." Just put an arresting dub beat behind it, Paul Crouch, and you can make dogmatic fundamentalism fun!
NORTEC COLLECTIVE, THE TIJUANA SESSIONS, VOL. 3, NACIONAL RECORDS; YERBA BUENA, ISLAND LIFE, RAZOR & TIE. ZUCO 103, WHAA!, ZIRIGUIBOOM/SIX DEGREE RECORDS. TICKETS CURRENTLY ON SALE FOR YERBA BUENA'S SHOW AT THE GALAXY CONCERT THEATRE ON SEPT. 28.