Los de Abajo: Living la vida Mexico

Punk salsa? Tropipunk? The riotous, political, ska-inflected sound of Los de Abajo is heading our way

By Robin Denselow
Saturday 06 July 2013 03:49

The current Mexican renaissance is headed by the delightfully quirky Lhasa and the Mexican-American fusion of Lila Downs, but if there's one outfit that best sums up the glorious musical confusion of Mexico City, it's the frantic and wildly varied bunch who begin their British tour in Gateshead next week.

Los de Abajo describe their music as "tropipunk - a fusion of tropical rhythms with ska, fast punk and polka". David Byrne of Talking Heads, who gave their career a huge boost by signing them to his label, suggested "punk salsa".

Either will do, for they play almost anything. Their new album LDA v The Lunatics (Real World) includes a Latin-flavoured, Spanish-language treatment of the old Fun Boy Three hit from back in 1982, "The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum", with one of the original Fun Boys, Neville Staples, joining in. It's a wild, unlikely-sounding track that reflects the ska revival that has swept through Mexico City in recent years.

According to the keyboard player Carlos Cuevas, ska has become popular with "the humbler classes of disenfranchised youth living in the marginal suburbs of Mexico City. The aggressive style of performing ska there makes it more like hardcore punk."

The album was produced by the British Temple of Sound team, Neil Sparkes and Count Dubulah, who set out to capture "the contemporary Mexican sound" and the ska subculture. Sparkes found that for Mexican fans, "Madness and The Specials are the lions, like the Charlie Parkers of the musical world".

But ska is only one of the many styles that interest Los de Abajo. The new album includes a burst of cool hip-hop on the opening "Resistencia", along with a brassy salsa track, "Mi Candela", acoustic ballads and echoes of cumbia, polka and mariachi, while the instrumentation includes anything from traditional local instruments like the ukulele-like requinto and jarana, through to tuba, accordion, strings and electronics.

LDA's earlier albums didn't capture the impact of their live shows, so Temple of Sound insisted that the band fully rehearse the new songs, and recorded many of them live. The result, says Cuevas, shows the band's range and energy, "and there is a balance between traditional Mexican styles and the European electronic influences".

Los de Abajo started out in 1992, while Carlos was at high school with lead singer Liber Teran, guitarist Vladimir Garcia and drummer Yocu Arellano. The aim, Liber said, was to make music that was "100 per cent danceable, and take it beyond our borders. We've always had an itch to mix the local with the global".

There was another ingredient: a dash of revolutionary politics. The band, who took their name from a historical novel by Mariano Azuela about the struggle against injustice in early 20th-century Mexico, insist that change should come "from below".

According to Carlos, "the 1994 Zapatista uprising branded our way of thinking. We look on ourselves as spokesmen for youth disenchanted with the world. Our parents grew up with hopes of improving the world, but now there is only savage capitalism and the globalisation of plundering."

Many of the band are from families who were involved in left-wing political movements in the Sixties and Seventies. Teran added: "My parents and uncles were leaders of the student movements and militants in the Communist Party, and Vladimir's mother is a news reporter who was outstanding in the feminist struggle in Mexico. This made us have a politicised DNA that shows up in our music. But if our parents identified with Che Guevara, we identified with Bob Marley, John Lennon, The Clash, Ruben Blades and the Zapatista National Army." It's no surprise that a Zapatista leader, Commander Esther, makes an appearance on the new album.

LDA may regard themselves as political, but they have never been solemn. In the early Nineties, they were listening to the "mestizo" (halfbreed) rock of European bands such as Mano Negra, as well as ska, salsa and reggae. Their first album, in 1998, was "practically a record of political songs, with a punk attitude inspired by The Clash".

Revolutionary sentiments and an equally revolutionary mixture of musical styles were not easy to promote on the international market, or even back in Mexico, and the band found it hard to find a major record label. Then they contacted David Byrne, an enthusiast both for Latin styles and the unexpected, and were signed to his Luaka Bop label, with Byrne himself involved in mixing some of the tracks. A second album for his label, Cybertropic Chilango Power, followed in 2002, with production by the Spanish electro-dub outfit Macaco.

LDA have now played in 26 countries, and have at last recorded an album that does justice to their live shows. If they still face a challenge, it's not with their global following but with their audience back in Mexico. Their ska songs may be popular - two years ago they recorded the album Latin Ska Force specifically for the local market and sold 20,000 copies in Mexico City alone - but their brave range of other styles seems to leave many Mexicans confused. As Leber put it: "The Mexican market is more hostile to musical fusion."

Los de Abajo tour from 13 to 23 October, opening at the Sage, Gateshead (0191-443 4661). The London show is on 18 October at Islington Academy (0870 771 2000). 'LDA v The Lunatics' is out on EMI/Real World

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