Helado Negro's 'Private Energy' Serves Up Distinct Musical Flavors
Tinsel mammals need hugs, too
Photo by Ben Sellon
Roberto Carlos Lange creates scintillating sounds as Helado Negro, a persona as unique as its 'black ice cream' namesake. The 36-year-old Brooklyn musician produces soothing sounds of electronic music, creating an understated atmosphere perfect for self-reflection. Helado Negro soulfully croons with lyrics that seamlessly play with Spanish and English. All his talents are best on display with Private Energy, his latest airy, tranquil collection of songs that he's bringing to the masses anew.
"The initial thought with 'Helado Negro' is that it isn't an immediate flavor that can be thought of," Lange says of his name. "Black is a color that embodies a lot, but in terms of a flavor, it's so ambiguous it can be anything." On a recent tour, a friend chimed that his music comes from a country that doesn't exist. Lange took it a step further calling Helado Negro its signature food.
Growing up Ecuadorian in south Florida, Lange spent his youth listening to the music of his parent's generation while getting into hip-hop and electronica. Raphael, Los Angeles Negros, and Julio Jaramillo played in the backdrop when he began creating music through samples. Then one day, Lange's two worlds collided. "I distinctly remember realizing that Portishead sampled a Raphael song," he says. "But the way they mutated it and created their own thing, all this was a guide to get me to where I'm at now."
These days, Lange finds himself in a comfortably creative place. Earlier this month he released Private Energy, a pensive, ethereal collection. He wrote his fifth studio album two years ago when 2014 began to end on an acrimonious note. "There was a lot of turmoil with the police murdering Michael Brown in Ferguson," he says. "More than anything, Private Energy is about preserving that energy that you have seeing all this stuff all this time and it drains you, not knowing what to do."
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Immigration is another national conversation that has emerged alongside #BlackLivesMatter since the recording of Private Energy gave new life to Lange's songs. "Young, Latin and Proud" and "It's My Brown Skin" became unintentional affirmations of identity in the midst of a xenophobic onslaught brought on by the Donald Trump's campaign for president. "Young, Latin and Proud," released the same week Trump announced his campaign and trounced on Mexican immigrants as rapists. Sounding less like a rallying call for public street demonstrations, Lange's songs exhibit a private space of vigilance against vitriol.
"I didn't write those songs as any kind of counterattack towards anything," Lange says. "The song 'Young, Latin and Proud' was about having confidence in yourself and embracing the things that you do know to empower yourself to feel good." Turning next to "It's My Brown Skin," Lange talks about how its message broadened to Middle Eastern refugees, who have also been demonized in the current election cycle. The musician cites the late Mr. Rogers as an unlikely inspiration. "He turns these dudes that are rock hard into kids," Lange says, noting Fred Rogers' congressional testimonies. "He's not condescending, he's just being a sincere human."
Unlike most artists who hone new material in recording studios wondering how the public will receive them, Lange already debuted Private Energy during a tour last year with Sufjan Stevens. "People have said that the songs encourage them more to feel this sense of connection," he says. On stage as Helado Negro, Lange brings 'Tinsel Mammals' with him. He devised the shimmering beings without race or gender in 2014. The Tinsel Mammals are a big part of the new album with the rhythms they dance to.
"The people who work inside them end up being people who had the desire to perform but didn't have the courage," Lange says. "The anonymity gave them this freedom to be whatever they wanted to be." It didn't matter if the show attracted 30 or 3,000 people, the privacy of the shimmering suits allowed them to express their own, unrestrained energy. As for Lange, being Helado Negro and creating new music gives him a personal sense of his own private energy.
"It's the most delicate thing you have," Lange says. "For me, its evolved from being eager to do as many things as I can with music. Now its sharing and being with people more and understanding how to participate in the world."
Helado Negro performs at the Constellation Room at the Observatory, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, observatoryoc.com; (714) 957-0600, Sun., 8 p.m., $10, all ages.
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