November 9, 2017

Stream: xango/suave - Equis

Listen to xango/suave's newest release Equis.

xango/suave’s Equis is not about Hurricane Maria. It was written and recorded almost six months before the hurricane season that would bring two of the most powerful storms in Puerto Rico’s recent history. Maria, however, happens in and to the album. Maria happens in the album: it is the waves that propel the album forward, the sea without which the album could not exist, but which interrupts each song, forces a new one upon it: it is the way in which songs are ripped apart, each layer of production being torn off and blown away. The catastrophe of Maria, which is the catastrophe of PROMESA, which is the catastrophe of coloniality, the catastrophe of imposed precarity, this catastrophe happens already in Equis, is decried already by Equis. The album is not unchanged by Maria, though; it also happened to the album, it threatens to consume it entirely. It threatens to erase the album’s remarkable breadth and xango/suave’s deft production skills, to collapse the struggle of a queer diasporic Puerto Rican into that of a battered island. Equis, like Puerto Rico, like its diaspora, cannot be consumed by Maria; we must not let Maria continue to happen in the way it might like.

Multiplicity, heterogeneity, and multivocality are perhaps the albums greatest strengths. Sung half in Spanish and half in English, with discernible influences ranging from Alex G to Moses Sumney and from Boogaloo to Lo Fi to Trip Hop, the album bursts at its own thematic, stylistic and linguistic seams. It seems to embody, in this way, the destabilization inherent in queer (and diasporic) identities; stability is only ever found briefly. Album-opener “bumblebee,” for example, begins in a light and playful synth-pop register, but devolves into amelodic noise by the end, suggesting the untenability of the beginning’s superficial and peaceful engagement with the world. The next song, “cancer/cancer/cancer (suspiro.3)” - sung in Spanish over simple guitar - opens with a comment on the difficulty of identification, and the reality that xango/suave is best identified in a disguise (a disguise which they powerfully cast off in album standout “sin disfraz”). This change of tone, instrumentation and language is an awakening from the day-dream of the opening song: one can only dream for so long. Again and again Equis seems to contradict itself in this way, if it moves in one direction, adopts one voice, style, language, persona, political stance, it proceeds to take it question in the next song. It would be a mistake to read these shifts as contradictions, though. The album, and xango/suave’s politics are not of either/or but of both/and: it is not exactly that the hard realities of “cancer/cancer/cancer” are any more important than dreaming of being a bumblebee, but that the latter cannot exist without the former (nor vice versa).

The album’s centrifugal forces, however, are held at bay by the strength and cohesiveness of xango/suave’s production: the same synths and samples appear throughout the album and serve as threads to guide the listener through it, even as each time a familiar sound appears it seems to signify something new. Take, for example, the symbolic mutability of the sample of the waves of Lake Erie that appears on almost every track on the album (and which is one of the primary sites of Maria’s happening in the album). At times, as on “culito de rana,” a song in reference to a pan-latin american saying to soothe hurt children, the sound of the waves evokes tropical beaches. There, the waves are melancholic, a stand-in for a homeland that xango/suave has never quite experienced as such. From behind Fernie Borges’ poem on “rituals,” the waves of Lake Erie remind us of self-care, of radical self-love, of the lost Eden: the homeland experienced from exile. Later, on “sin disfraz,” water returns to mark the song’s thematic transitions. In the first half, the repeating patterns of distortion, guitar, (grandmother’s) vocals, and drum machine break like waves over and over. The second half becomes a fluid meditation upon the process of coming out, as the sample of xango/suave’s grandmother, delayed and rippling, comes in again and again, interrupting the increasingly distorted guitar lines. The joyous and carnivalesque finale, complete with real drums and a triumphant and glittery synth line, eventually gives way once again to water. This time, though, the sound is water dripping through a machine made of recycled cans and bottles. No longer peaceful waves and beaches, the water here counts the seconds as an old clock, perhaps a reminder that this too shall pass, perhaps counting down to the liberation ephemerally felt during the finale. The album, despite the struggles and setbacks it depicts, is at heart an effort to prolong and disseminate these moments of liberation to whomever has the pleasure to be its listener.


Ilan Desai-Geller and Margaret McCarthy