Los De Abajo, Islington Academy, London

Nick Hasted
Monday 14 July 2008 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


It is when Los De Abajo don the Mexican wrestling masks that things start to make sense. I am just thinking how these also look like the sort of balaclavas you might hijack a plane in, when this Mexico City collective's female singer Odisea Valenzuela cries, "Viva Zapatista!", and a cacophony of sirens, dogs and techno-funk leaps from a laptop. The band hug the stage for the second time tonight – this time as if on the run for their lives. But, like the music, the experience seems fast and exciting. They are acting out the thrill of rebellion.

Los De Abajo's music is rooted in Mexico City's divisive realities, and inspired by the Zapatista rebellion in Mexico's Chiapas province that was led by the legendary masked Subcomandante Marcos. Ever since their second album, Cybertropic Chilango Power (2002), which won the Radio 3 world music award, they have also tried to fuse traditional Mexican styles with loops, and genres from rumba to rai. But what really strikes me watching this sprawling, modernised big band is its debt to the Caribbean, and to Coventry.

The Latin-ska sound that dominates their home city still powers them. Their new album, LDA v the Lunatics, even sees them cover The Fun Boy Three's "The Lunatics (Have Taken Over the Asylum)", with Neville Staples on vocals. And watching them skank and moon-stomp to sax and trombones recalls Madness's "heavy, heavy monster sound".

The techno elements indicate openness, subtly used to keep the stage seething, alongside two or three drummers. More important is the theatricality expressed in those masks, and Valenzuela's versatile vocal character. She can chide, be coquettish and pierce like a torch singer, in the rare, valuable moments when the band's abrasive business relents to acoustic quiet. Lider Terá*is the male singer, sometimes leaning into the crowd romantically, a friendly figurehead who also raps in a style recalling the music's New York roots. The politicised details are lost on me. But they could build bridges to the Mexican diaspora in rap's new home, LA. Damian Portugal, tall and punkish with a saturnine beard, is the third crucial element, a wild dancing talisman who finally leaps into the crowd, leading us in a conga that almost topples as he starts to sprint.

The Mexican president is being abused at the end of two urgent hours, politics the motor in a way even Joe Strummer might not have matched. More subtle quiet in its delivery would spread that message further.

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