I Consider Myself a Pan-Caribbean Artist: An Interview with Rita Indiana08 September, 2020
In 2010 Rita Indiana released El Juidero, an album that signposted the direction that alternative Latin music would take over the following years. Hailing from Dominican Republic, she took merengue as a starting point but then imbued it with an inclusive, punk spirit. Latin American, and more specifically Caribbean, music was thrown into the 21st Century, and she became an idol for millennial Latinxs trying to give their generation an identity. Yet, following that album, she went quiet on the music front, returning to her writing roots, which is where she began any way, and brought the same “give a shit” attitude to her novels, loved in their original Spanish form, and as English translations: Tentacle, Made In Saturn and Papí.
Now, she is back making music, set to release Mandinga Times, her first album for 10 years. It was recorded in Puerto Rico, her new home, with the in-demand producer Eduardo Cabra at her side (he’s also her neighbour), and finds her back in fine form, with the potential coming apocalypse on her mind. We discuss the album, the recent English translation of Made In Saturn (the tale of a disillusioned artist set in Cuba and Dominican Republic), why Latinx is a hard term to fully embrace, and so much more in this long, but captivating, conversation.
Where are you and what’s on your mind?
Well, I’m in Puerto Rico. It’s an island in the Caribbean. I’m from another island next to this one, from the Dominican Republic, an island shared by Dominican Republic and Haiti, but I live in the island next door, Puerto Rico, which is still a colony of the United States.
Are you in San Juan?
I’m in San Juan, yes. What’s on my mind? I guess it’s something I think is on everyone’s mind right now, I guess in one way or another, survival, survival of our species, survival as an individual, survival of art as we know it, which is what I do for a living. Survival of my kids. I have three sons, my wife and me, and my family. Humans in general.
Yes, I was getting the sense of that across your new album, of these macro and universal issues going on. What was the impetus for getting back into making music after this long absence?
Well, I’ve been writing books and I’ve been making music for films, in the Dominican Republic and doing other things, a little bit of advertising, some translating, like doing different things to survive. But I guess, this is something that I say I don’t know if it’s the right thing, but I feel music, it reaches far more people than literature right now. I wanted to say some things. I wanted to tell some stories that I felt through music were more… It was a better media to tell them through. And I guess, it was time to do it. I felt like I had the time to put it into an album. I felt the need to write songs again and tell stories through songs. And I guess that was it.
You’ve said that one of the reasons for turning away from music after El Juidero was because of the whole promotional aspect of it and the fact that it did reach so many people that also meant that many people would recognise you and it made life very different. Do you feel you’re more prepared for that side of the music industry now?
I don’t think I’m better prepared. I guess I’m just doing it because I have to. It’s really tough because now you’re a musician, you have to be, in many ways your own photographer, your own PR. Even though you hire people for these things, you still have to do a big part of it through social media and all that. And that takes a lot, I guess, from the time that you should be putting into creating things that are worthwhile, at least for me. I mean, it can be fun sometimes. And it can be fun thinking about content and things that you want to upload for your community and creating a community. I mean, it has a powerful side that you can use towards that, like creating a community and getting a message out or doing some activism or whatever. But there’s another side of it that’s really shallow and, like I said, I think it takes so much time that that should be put into the creative work. So yeah, I had problems because I was in Dominican Republic when the whole thing, the first album exploded and it’s half an island, a small country and there’s a lot of people. In the city I couldn’t really move around and do things because I was always being asked for a picture or whatever. It took away what I did before. Before I made music, popular music, I was a writer, and I really appreciate, a bit of…how do you say “anonimato”? I don’t know how to say that in English.
Yeah. So you can look at things and write about them or listen to people, listen to their stories. But at that point, I couldn’t listen or watch others or see what was happening around me because all eyes were on me. So yeah, that was a big reason to leave and not make popular music for another 10 years.
How long have you been in Puerto Rico now?
I’ve been here for 10 years.
Okay, that’s interesting, because there’s definitely some elements of Puerto Rican music that I can notice on the new album. There are some sounds that remind me of, I don’t know if this is just me inferring things, because I know Eduardo Cabra’s involved, but just remind me of Vicente Garcia, at least in the rhythms that are going on there.
Yeah, there’s definitely some of that. I mean, 75% of the musicians are Puerto Rican, people that I’ve worked with throughout these years when I was making music for films. It’s in there, even if it’s not maybe so obvious, like, plena or reggaeton, it’s there in many ways. And, of course, I am married to a Puerto Rican. I have two Puerto Rican sons. My eldest one is from the Dominican Republic. So it’s in the things that I’m seeing and listening to and the whole culture that has adopted me for the last 10 years.
Do you feel that Puerto Rico is a big part of who you are right now?
It definitely is. It’s a place of contradictions. It’s still the territory of the United States and has had some bad things and good things. It’s a place where the United States decides what comes through ports, what they can buy from or who they can buy from, who they can import products from. In a way it’s like an embargo backwards, like Cuba can bring anything from the United States and here it is they who decide what things can come into the country. Besides that, on the level of civil rights I have been able to marry my wife and the law protects my family. Also, there’s medicinal cannabis. It’s legal. There are some things that are very forward and that exists because of the relationship with the United States. I say it’s now my first home, it’s not my second home. I’ve been here for 10 years. More than 12 years, living here, and working with Puerto Ricans. I mean, there’s a big Dominican community here. So a lot of the people that I work with have one parent that is American and the other one is Puerto Rican. So it’s an interesting mixture of island cultures here.
It’s interesting, Made In Saturn is set in Dominican Republic and Cuba, and along with Puerto Rico, they are all Caribbean islands with these different cultures and identities, and yet are so close. Just with those three islands they must be a fertile source for writing about both music and literature?
Yeah, I consider myself a pan-Caribbean artist, because there’s differences like you say, but the differences are small and the things that we have in common are larger than the differences. I mean, pretty much our cultures were divided up through colonialism. Our cultures were created through slavery. And in all the Caribbean it’s very similar, like I can relate to anyone from the Caribbean. I can relate to their history, their food, the way they see life, the way they have been struggling. The struggle is very similar. The economic struggle, the sugarcane fields, that you can find probably in every single island in the Caribbean. There’s many, many, many things that connect us and connect our history and little differences even. I mean, the differences have to be more in the 20th century, what has happened in the 20th century with these countries, their projects as little nations. Their relationship with the United States, I would say that has been a very distinctive thing, that has influenced the histories of at least Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico.
That’s interesting because that was one of the things I wanted to ask you, in terms of how you define your identity because obviously, there’s this term Latinx that gets used a lot, especially for music that comes from minority Latin communities. Do you identify as Latinx?
I’m struggling with the whole stance towards language because I’m a novelist, and it’s like suddenly telling, like I can’t use these two colours, I have to use this one. It’s complicated. And I understand it politically. I understand how it’s needed, there’s a need for a change in language, but I am still struggling with the use of it and if I’m going to use it when I speak, when I write in social media, which I have sometimes. I am struggling with the use of it in my novels, in my songs, like how am I going to do this? So I’m at a point right now where I’m like, basically thinking about it. That’s where my mind is and that’s one of the things that I’m thinking about, how can I make this new look at language that is coming from feminism and trans-feminism and all these things that I believe in, but that will affect my work as a writer. I believe it is needed. Language is a liquid thing. I wrote an op-ed for País last year about writing in Dominican, writing in Dominican Spanish. And I do it a lot in my songs, in my novels. I write like people speak. It’s an interesting thing for me. I’m still debating when is the right way and when should I use this and when not and if I maybe shouldn’t use it all the time. I’m at a crossroads with that issue.
Is it that you’re trying to work out whether this Latinx would be inclusive to include who you intend to include or whether it is becoming too generic and could be applied to too many situations?
The thing is, I feel that with the Latinx, it’s still a little bit elitist, if I can say. I mean, how does this relate to the majority of the Latinx that are in the United States working the fields? They don’t even know about this word. But that’s how things work sometimes. They come from certain intellectual academic elites, and that’s what I find a little bit problematic, like it’s something that is just a small group of people are using, like how do we make a language revolution affect who we want these words to affect [what’s happening] right now. It’s something that is more used inside the LGBT community but I would say a part of the LGBT community that reads certain media, that read certain books, that are following certain politicians in social media. This is another thing that we need to think about, like how are these words going to affect more people? How are more people going to embrace these words as elements of freedom, as language that can liberate us? That’s why I believe maybe a bit more in what comes from the working class. I’ve always embraced that language. When I say Dominican Spanish, I’m referring to the Dominican spoken by the working class in my country, and abroad. That’s Spanish. A Spanish doesn’t come from an idea. It comes from not being able to speak the colonialist Spanish that was brought to us 500 years ago. It’s a Spanish that is broken because it’s organic, because it’s spoken from the mouths of people. I can only speak it that way and I feel it’s more powerful, and it’s what I’ve done, and it’s something that I will always honor, that speech of the working class.
Earlier I was thinking about the idea of punk in relation to Latinx, because even reading Made in Saturn, it feels like there’s just a generational shift. It’s almost like there’s a need in the younger generations of the Latin American community to create a year zero, as happened with punk. So I feel like there is that need for that but punk did come from below, it came from these musicians who had very little, and it came from designers who had nothing, etc. And I guess that’s the big difference in that example for one.
Yeah, and the fact that punk did come from the slang of people. It was not made up by musicians. Punk was a word that already existed and they just empowered themselves with the word like queer, or other words that had been insults become a tool of empowerment or, we decided we were going to call ourselves this. So it wasn’t a word created by musicians or intellectuals or journalists. It’s really, like I said, I’m at a crossroads with this, and I have to figure it out, and I’m definitely in favour of these changes. In Spanish, we’re using the letter E also, for example. Since we have gender like todos y todas, where they’re starting to use todes. Yeah, it’s something that’s happening in Spanish also and it’s something that, like I said, I’m embracing it sometimes in social media, but I’m still at a place of, what am I going to do with this when I write my next novel? Like, how do I include this? How do I work this?
Right, let’s talk about your new album. What’s the significance of the title, Mandinga Times?
Well, Mandinga is a word that is so important to me as an ethnic group from the African continent that came to the Americas during the slave trade. It was probably one of the biggest groups that were brought here. And it’s a word that means a lot of things in Latin America. It is used to describe someone who is black, someone who is a witch, someone who is a homosexual, someone with a large penis, a lot of different things and they all to me, sounded like… I mean, it’s a word that is used to demonize certain minorities and it’s also like when someone hits you like in my country, if someone gives you Mandinga, that means to kick the shit out of you. So I wanted to find a term to describe the apocalyptic times, but in a Caribbean way, and it was a good word to use for that. It has a lot of meanings and there’s a lot of towns and neighborhoods in Latin America that are called Mandinga also. In capoeira in Brazil, someone who is mandinguero, is like someone who could do certain tricks and is good with certain tricks. It has a lot of meanings and I wanted something to capture like the moment in time that we’re living, the moment of change, the moment of struggle. It is a moment where all these minorities are demanding their rights basically worldwide and I guess that’s what it means to be in times or the changing times where we want to be a little bit more optimistic.
I read “El Zahir” by [Jorge Luis] Borges because of your song [named after the story], and it’s interesting. I’ve never really thought about the significance of that story and how you could apply it to right now really. There’s one quote I got from the story which is: “When all the men on earth think, day and night, of the Zahir, which will be a dream or which a reality – the earth or the Zahir?” Is that where you’re getting at with that song to say that actually, people have just become so focused on the here, on the capitalist world as we know it, that they’ve forgotten about the reality, about the earth?
Yes. I mean now it’s even worse, because we’re sitting in our little homes, completely hypnotised by images. When I work, like my kids are in the next room studying through a computer. I don’t think this computer is a substitute for the real thing, for what is real. Now, they have a teacher on the screen. And I have to be opening the door a couple of times so that they don’t go to another screen somewhere else. It’s like they’re in this weird void full of things that can distract them, and I catch them a couple of times seeing other things, watching a film or doing whatever, just bored out of their minds. With the bedroom where they just woke up and they’re gonna be there for five hours. It’s like, ‘what is reality?’ It becomes something of a luxury for those of us who are not rich, like reality in terms of what is not virtual, like going to school, being able to have a teacher come and have a personal relationship with your child. I mean, rich people probably can now have their child, with two more children or four more children in a classroom with one teacher just for them. It’s interesting because it’s about money. If you can’t pay for the real thing, then you’re going to be stuck with the screen forever, and that’s what you’re going to get. And it’s happening already with live music. It’s going to become an experience for those who can pay for the tickets and how they’re going to be more expensive. Now, like there’s more space, less people so it’s more money. And so, it’s going to be the real thing for those who can pay for it.
The idea of the internet just feels so liberating as if it should be a great equaliser but the reality is that it’s going to become the cheapest tool. So it will be the tool use most by the poor and then they’ll be missing out on the actual reality which will cost more.
Yeah, I still believe in the liberating potential of the internet. I mean, you could have called me through WhatsApp and it would have been free. So people like me for example that have my family in the island next door or I have some family that lives in the States and Europe, I can talk to them for free because of WhatsApp. So there’s a use for these things that is positive, that allows us to be closer to each other and to plan a massive protest in minutes, but there’s also that dark face too, and you don’t what you’re gonna get. There’s no more public education. It’s going to be at home and we’re gonna have to deal with the kids and the screen.
What’s the feeling of having this album coming out, but not being able to perform the album live, at least for the interim?
Well, to be honest, I think for me is it has been a good thing right now because it has given me a space, the whole pandemic thing. We were going to put it out in June, and then we moved it to July and now it is coming out in September finally. But it gave me a space to think, to really think what I want to do with the album in terms of a live performance. We’re gonna put up a live performance we recorded last week. It’s going to be available for 24 hours. And we did something that I think I wouldn’t have been able to develop. My wife, it’s a concept she developed for the live performance, and we wouldn’t have had time to develop something like this, like what you’re going to watch if you watch it, if we had put out the album. Maybe we would just come out with a live show, whatever, and just sing and dance.[But] we got more political. I think I definitely have been radicalised by the pandemic in my work. And I think everyone has. Here, in the artistic community in Puerto Rico and in the Dominican Republic as well. So I think it has been good because it has given me a space to think things over, to read other things, to understand why am I putting this album out and to really make every piece something that I’m really proud of, and something that was well thought out, and I won’t be feeling bad about 10 years later. So you’re gonna see an experience that we created called After School. It was shot at one of the public schools closed by the government last year.
Nice. I will look forward to that. You cover a lot of topics or themes on the album. There’s the song about the 43 in Ayotzinapa, and “Estoy en la Calle”, is that about the protests in Puerto Rico?
No, I mean it’s cool that you related to that. It is pretty cool. It’s about whatever you want, but it’s about being on the street, when I was 12, 13 years old, and my dad died, and I was into metal music and punk rock and skateboarding. And I was just a little butch teenager, hung out with a bunch of boys skateboarding around the city and just the experience of the city, firsthand, not from my father or my mother’s, or the school bus or whatever, or the window, just going out there and being in places that I shouldn’t have. And experiencing the city, the street, experiencing it firsthand from hanging out with these young men. And that thing has been a part of me in my writing and my songs, the streets, the city, the organic things that happen, living and understanding space, public space. So feeling that you can create something on top, which is what skateboarding does. I’m a big fan of skateboard. I have been skateboarding for 20 years. And I wouldn’t try right now, but it’s my favourite sport. It’s a form of art, also a philosophy. And that has given me a lot of tools to learn in my work and in my life and my relationships.
Can you tell us about the alibaba carnival rhythm, which is used on the title track?
It’s a rhythm that plays in carnival in the Dominican Republic. It’s really punk rock for me, and in spirit, it’s very urban. It’s got some Afro-Dominican elements of folklore but it developed into something else. It’s totally urban made by the kids in the barrios and there’s like, different teams or clubs that go to the carnival and play their music and they’re dancing and both are very fast paced and very aggressive. And I wanted to bring that into the title track.
That’s a great tune. So much energy.
That’s one of my favourite ones.
And then the last track is “Claro Oscuro”. That one definitely reminded me a bit of Calle 13. Can you explain a little of what that song is about?
It’s about friendship, relationships, envy, being able to create something with someone else. It’s basically about if we’re going to change this shit, we have to start with ourselves. It’s very corny but that’s what it’s about. It’s about who we are as human beings and I can be talking shit and then buying all this fucking plastic for my house, which I still consume, or having someone come to my house to help me out and not paying them enough or being outside and being able to do something for someone, and not doing it or just having a proper relationship with my friends and just relationships with my musicians, paying them what they deserve and having a relationship with my wife and dealing with or negotiating things that we have to do at home and how we get there for the children and how we work and having to revise everything. I think for a change to happen, of course, there’s the legal aspects of things that have to happen in government and legislation and the big things, but the small things, everything starts in the hearts of people, and in their minds and in their houses and how you educate your children to be better human beings.
It’s a nice way to end the album. I sense that with the way that the verses are building, just even within the music. You can tell that there’s something, some good, some flowers blooming.
Yeah, there’s still light that we can we can reach out.
I wanted to contrast this though in terms of a solution actually, something that a British writer called Zadie Smith was talking about. Do you know Zadie Smith, the writer?
Okay. So in an interview, she was saying that she used to believe that to change things we had to all believe, we all had to change ourselves basically. And eventually, once we educate everyone, then we’ll be able to actually have a fairer, more equal society. Now she doesn’t think that’s the case. For her, it’s more about regulation now. So using one example is to talk about the whole bank crash in 2008 that just sent the economies around the world into spiral. And the issue with that is that there wasn’t regulation in place to stop those bankers from doing what they did. Because the human nature is that if you put someone in that situation, someone eventually will get greedy and make the mistake. I mean, how do you think about that in terms of talking about regulation?
Yeah, I definitely believe there has to be regulation, legislation. The big picture because, yeah, human nature, usually when you put people in certain situations, starting with, okay, I’m a cop and in D. R. they pay you nothing. You can’t live as a policeman in the D. R. with the amount of money they pay you per month. So what are you going to do for extra money? You stop people in the streets, and I mean, that happens at every level of government. So regulation or legislation are needed, but at least for me, we have to cultivate ourselves also. I don’t think that we’re going to go educate everybody but I believe in education as something that is very powerful to give us a sense of justice and history and understand ourselves, better processes, and have urgency in certain matters. Like for example, climate change. Is it regulation that’s going to work? It’s not going to. I mean, education is not going to work right now. Regulation, legislate, “okay, you do this, you’re gonna have to pay this, you have to close this.” We have to end certain kinds of businesses and it’s gonna be painful, but if we don’t do it, we’re gonna lose the planet. So, there I think there’s the personal and the human aspect of educating and learning and of changing. And then the big aspect of how are we going to turn this around? Definitely, through regulation and legislation.
I know that was a bit that I found the most worrying. Thinking about how the future is going to arrive just whether those in power are going to put the legislation into place, but again that may have to be a movement that comes from below that puts the pressure on…
I don’t know how it’s gonna happen. I mean, sometimes I feel like these things happen because some good people arrive at the places of power where these decisions are being made, but at the state of democracy, it’s not in a very good shape worldwide. So I’m worried. Right now, there’s a change of government in my country back in the Dominican Republic. There’s a new party that won the elections and some like very decent people are there and I think they have the right mind towards civil rights and the environment and the economy and social justice and all this but they just arrived, and what happens sometimes with people that you put your trust in, you vote for them, and then they become something different, like it could be a karmic arising. This happens when people are put into places of power. So we’re gonna have to wait and see. But I mean, it definitely depends a lot on the weight put on politicians to make the right decisions right now for things to change.
And that seems like a good positive note to finish the interview on. Thanks Rita.
Mandinga Times is released today and available from digital platforms
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