Weird New Pop, Vol. 6


Photos: Stephen Mejias. Design and animation: Todd Steponick, Nice Looking Designs

Track 26

It's true that our indignation has acquired a hollow, meaningless sameness. The high-end audio industry's interest in attracting a younger and more diverse audience is something like our government's interest in putting an end to horrific mass shootings, working toward racial equality, rebuilding Puerto Rico. If we really wanted to make a significant change, we would. Of course, the stakes couldn't be more different: In high-end audio, we're only losing customers.

Track 27

On October 9, 2016, my wife and I stood with my aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, and others at the altar of La Ermita Espinar, in Aguada, Puerto Rico, not far at all from where Christopher Columbus is said to have landed in 1493. The small chapel, originally built in 1525 by Spaniards with the goal of converting the local Taino community to Christianity, was almost entirely destroyed just four years later during a Carib revolt against the Franciscan priests. Today, ruins of the chapel are enclosed and preserved within a more modern structure, albeit one that is still rather modest and primitive by stateside standards: Parroquia Santuario Protomártires de la Inmaculada Concepción, where, until recently, my grandfather served mass.

It was hot and humid and the ground surrounding the chapel was marked by large pools of mud from the impressive thunderstorms that occur every year around this time. We were there to celebrate my grandparents' 60th anniversary: 60 years of struggle, commitment, sacrifice, faith, hard decisions, heartbreak, small triumphs, laughter, love, and more. We gathered around them at the altar and cheered proudly and couldn't hold back our tears.

Later, Kathryn and I sat at a bar and talked about the future. I held a challenging, lucrative position for a well-respected company made of kind, talented people, and I felt unfulfilled, unhappy. There was something more I needed to do for myself and for my family.

Track 28

I shouldn't do this without talking about music. Fortunately, it's easy to talk about music when talking about Puerto Rico. The summer before my senior year in high school, I traveled alone to the island to spend a few days with my family in Aguadilla. My Aunt Aleida, the oldest of my father's seven siblings, had just married a handsome, charming man named Jack, a woodworker and former surfer, well known among the island's vibrant beach communities.

There were cases of wine and boxes of cigars that remained from their wedding ceremony, and, one night before they went to bed, the newlyweds invited my older cousins and me to enjoy the leftovers. In those days, Aleida was all smiles and Jack all kindness.

My cousins and I sat on the tiled floor of a small room at the front of the house, with large wooden shutters that opened onto the street. I watched Casey happily dissect a cigar to create a blunt, removing the tobacco inside, replacing it with weed, and sealing it again with saliva, honey, and care. It worked perfectly. Meanwhile, Nasinne poured red wine into plastic cups and passed them around the room as Omar, Adam, and Hannah rifled through a shoebox filled with cassettes. We popped them into a small boombox, pressed Rewind and then Play, Rewind and then Play, side after side after side, again and again as the night burned away.

While the tape spun, I unfolded each of several J-cards and inhaled their liner notes. I wasn't drunk or high, but both. It was 1994. We listened to:

The Pixies: Surfer Rosa
Mercury Rev: Boces
Violent Femmes: Violent Femmes
Dinosaur Jr.: Without a Sound (It might have been Where You Been. I'm not 100% sure.)
Velocity Girl: Simpatico
Morphine: Cure for Pain
Beastie Boys: Ill Communication
Beck: Mellow Gold
Sonic Youth: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star
I've enjoyed many marathon listening sessions since then, through far more capable stereos, but never another as significant or powerful.

Track 29

I don't look typically Puerto Rican and I can't speak Spanish and, in general, I often feel awkward and out of place, so, throughout my life, I've spent a significant amount of time and energy trying to form bonds and plant roots in whatever ways I can, attempting to own something and to belong. I succeed mostly through music, partly because I can spend as much time with it as anyone else.

A little more than 10 years ago, just before my 30th birthday, I went on one of these journeys into my background, devouring as much salsa music as possible. I bought Fania reissues, read liner notes, made pilgrimages to Spanish Harlem and the Bronx, and took dance lessons. I was stunned and energized upon learning that salsa is an American musical form that was created primarily in New York City by young Cubans and Puerto Ricans who combined their ancestor's folk rhythms with the rock, jazz, and funk of the late 1960s.

I loved everything I heard. Over email, I asked Aleida to help me distinguish good salsa from bad.

First, she discussed lyrical content: "Great salsa," she wrote, "tells a timeless story. The lyrics are as vibrant and illuminating today as they were 20, 30, or 40 years ago. They speak to our many deep and profoundly Latin love of loves: love of parents, love of children, love of country, love of lovers, love of self, love of life."

Then, she discussed improvisation: "Any good group of musicians or students can play technically good salsa. But what takes salsa to a higher level is the improvisation that occurs when a few masters get together, one of the musicians veering off into some incredible sequence of improvisation, and, before you know it, two or three others are introducing their own complementary improvisations, creating an extraordinary rendition of an already dearly beloved song."

Finally, she discussed soul: "Salsa music comes from the soul of our Latin people. Great salsa is infused with cultural nuances that have evolved over many generations and, if you are attuned to these nuances, they can be immediately recognized as heartfelt. Sometimes you hear it in a certain pause within the beat, in a certain inflection of the voice, in a certain pronunciation of a word, in the rise and fall of the tempo that drives your hips and shoulders into a certain naturally known (not learned) sway, a distinct but faraway memory that courses through our blood, blood of our rich and varied origins—the African, the Caribbean, the Spanish, the Moorish, not any of these alone but all of them together, not any of these as they are or have been, but the essence and spirit of these transformed into a new Latin soul. When you have all of that, interpreted by a few masters, you have great salsa."

That's my Aunt Aleida.

Track 30

I've written before that the music was always there, during the happiest and most horrible occasions, holidays and days that marked nothing special at all. Even now, in the streets of San Juan, along the dirt roads of Cruces, and all over the beautiful devastated island, people are playing drums and singing a story of resilience.

All of my life, my family has been giving and giving to me. What can I give them?

This is the question I keep asking myself.

***

There are many ways to help those who are struggling in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Music is one: On Friday, October 6, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Puerto Rican playwright and creator of the hit musical "Hamilton," released "Almost Like Praying," a new song, featuring some of pop's biggest stars. Proceeds from sales of the song will go toward the Hispanic Federation's Hurricane Relief Fund for Puerto Rico. It opens Weird New Pop, Volume 6.

Hispanic Federation
Founded in 1990, the Hispanic Federation seeks to support Hispanic families and strengthen Latino institutions through work in the areas of education, health, immigration, civic engagement, economic empowerment, and the environment. This organization uses its strong relationships with grassroots programs and nonprofits to support the Latino community.

United for Puerto Rico
United for Puerto Rico is an initiative brought forth by the First Lady of Puerto Rico, Beatriz Rosselló, in collaboration with the private sector, with the purpose of providing aid and support to those affected in Puerto Rico by the passage of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane María. 100% of the proceeds will go to helping the victims affected by these natural disasters in Puerto Rico." The United for Puerto Rico initiative is openly supported by several large corporations, including Coca-Cola, Burger King, Walgreens, AT&T, and Microsoft.

500 Level
If you're a baseball fan like me, you might like to support the relief effort through the purchase of a t-shirt, hoodie, or cap. 500 Level has partnered with outstanding utility player, Kiké Hernandez of the Los Angeles Dodgers, to make this happen.

Tidal: Rebuild Puerto Rico
You might also like to support the relief effort through donations coordinated by the excellent music-streaming service, Tidal, and Governor Andrew Cuomo.

GoFundMe: Bello Horizonte
My aunt, uncle, and cousins live in Aguadilla and have businesses in Rincon. I started this fundraiser to help them through the long recovery process. They're kind, intelligent people, living and working in warm, vibrant communities. I'm putting all of the money into their hands, and any funds that exceed their needs will be redirected to the community.

These are just a few of the ways we can help. Individuals, bands, organizations, communities, and cities are reaching out, providing wonderful ways for anyone to contribute.

Weird New Pop, Vol.6

  1. Lin-Manuel Miranda: "Almost Like Praying"
  2. The Disfunction: "Rincon Town"
  3. Kelela: "S.O.S"
  4. Necro Deathmort: "80,000"
  5. Björk: "The Gate"
  6. Nosaj Thing, featuring Kazu Makino: "How We Do"
  7. Carla dal Forno: "We Shouldn't Have to Wait"
  8. Ibeyi: "No Man is Big Enough for My Arms"
  9. Cardi B: "Bodak Yellow"
  10. Jhene Aiko: "When We Love"
  11. Phoebe Bridgers: "Motion Sickness"
  12. Jordan Rakei: "Nerve"
  13. St. Vincent: "Los Ageless"
  14. Gucci Mane, featuring The Weeknd: "Curve"
  15. J Balvin, Willy William, Beyoncé: Mi Gente
Bonus Tracks: Salsa Means Soul

Weird New Pop: The Mega-Mix (Tidal Version)

The Tidal version of Weird New Pop is now 115 tracks strong and includes everything found in the latest Spotify playlist, except for The Disfunction's "Rincon Town," which has been replaced by their "Sunshine."

COMMENTS
insertusernamehere's picture

Track 26: As someone with a PhD from a top-5 PoliSci program and who, after half a dozen years spent as a professor teaching collegiate international relations and who has now worked in the policy world professionally for the past decade, it's always so amusing when the S-phile writers stumble all over themselves when they try and get "deep" and "serious" and "political." It's about as useful or enlightening--or welcome--as my embarrassing myself were I to try (and almost certainly fail at) writing intelligent about audio when I publish an article in, say, International Organization or International Security. Stick to music Stephen, Track 27-29, it's much more in your wheelhouse.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...is when people like you feel the need to be so unnecessarily condescending. Next time, leave that bit out or you will be banned.

Doc.

;-)

Alex Halberstadt's picture

For someone with a Ph.D. from a top-5 PoliSci program, you seem curiously unfamiliar with English grammar.

insertusernamehere's picture

[unnecessary flame deleted, Ed.]

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...try using your degree to educate. If you can't manage anything other than condescension, your comments are not welcome.
Mr Quiet's picture

Drowning out commercials on NPR while trying to find the free streaming of Circuit des Yeux's Reaching for Indigo mentioned on an RMAF post wasn't my finest move. I got it finally. Thanks for the heads up.
Maybe I've said it before, But I'll say again. What you say about someone may not tell me a whole lot about them; but it tells me a whole lot about you.
Thanks Michael, and Stephen.

deckeda's picture

I've missed your writing, Stephen. Thanks for sharing; it's what makes us human, when ideas and thoughts are well-communicated.

No PhD required.

EliaGar's picture

Stephen M.,

After reading your work in an audio context for years, I fully appreciate hearing your personal thoughts and feelings here - in this strangely 'modern' time our ours, where derision and rage are hurled about without merit or accountability, it takes genuine courage to be vulnerable, authentic, and sincere.

E.G.

FrankAMD1977's picture

Not a big fan of pop music here, but a few of these tracks are looking interesting. Will definitely check out the whole album at some point.

Thanks and have a wonderful day,
Frank

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