For those of us who grew up in Venezuela, resorting to migration to escape a wildly unstable sociopolitical environment was painful. Though riddled with vast inequities, oligarchy, and political corruption, Venezuela held up some semblance of function for a good portion of our lives. To watch one’s home fall apart from a distance, to question the decision to leave, the impotence and anger that occupies the void that was once filled with the peaceful hum of one’s tierra – this is the kind of loss that is imbued throughout Arca’s new self-titled album, out today on XL Recordings.
Alejandro Ghersi, the Venezuelan-born artist behind Arca, is part of a relatively recent and growing diaspora, and at a time when the political situation back home is at a fever pitch, it feels difficult not to see the ways this album relates to the anguish of that experience. Diasporic loss is one of the emerging themes in music from independent Venezuelan artists who have left the country to find relative safety in spaces unfamiliar and strange, and Arca’s contribution to that conversation is as devastating as it is expansive. In times of urgency and shifting world politics, Arca has found his voice.
Ghersi’s voice hasn’t appeared in his work since his long-abandoned teenage project Nuuro (he may not have tried doing so again if it were not for the advice of collaborator and close friend Bjork). Layered, haunting vocals – mostly improvised, frequently first takes, and always in Spanish – infuse new meaning and power into the musical enterprise that is Arca. “Spanish is the language my parents fought in and they got divorced in,” he says in a press release for the album. “It’s the language I witnessed family violence in. The ultimate theatre of emotion, when things fall apart, for me isn’t English. The language I purge through had to be the same.”
“The ultimate theatre of emotion, when things fall apart, for me isn’t English.”
At first glance, the lyrics seem to refer to lovers, and that may certainly be the case; sexuality and queerness are indeed at the forefront on this album. But anyone forcibly separated from their homeland will find the aching yearning of the album’s poetry to be deeply familiar. This unmet hunger permeates songs like “Sin Rumbo” (“Y que dolor/Que amargura/No saber, no poder sentirte/Poder besarte/Te veo cambiar a lo lejos/Vengo a adorarte/Pero desde la distancia/Desde la distancia te añoraré”). Vulnerable and piercing, its meandering synth stabs add intensity to the to tremendousness of the loss immigrants live with every day (“Camino sin rumbo/Pero camino/Aún camino”).
For queer diaspora kids who found the freedom to fully come into our sexualities while away from our homelands – and away from others’ conceptions of our identities – migration creates an interesting dialectic, further complicating an already difficult narrative. This experience essentially becomes another layer of isolation, an additional longing not only for a home one no longer has access to, but perhaps a home that one has never known: a home in which the person you’ve become fits into the place you left behind.
That longing is anthropomorphized once again on the ominous “Anoche” (“Anoche te soñé/Tu figura y tus brazos/Anoche te añoré/Aunque no te he conocido aún”). In the context of a Venezuela in shambles – which, even at its most functional during Ghersi’s lifetime, was merely a slower and more hidden chaos – the longing is directed at a utopia that one has never known, and perhaps never will (“Tejido de mis entrañas/Anoche te soñé/Aunque tu seas real o imaginario/Anoche yo sonreía/Al pensar que eras posible”). As emphasis, the visual for “Anoche” finds an injured Ghersi in heels and a corset, dancing amidst a room full of still and wounded bodies whom, upon caressing, he finds lifeless.
Ghersi ties queerness to monstrosity, all while ripping himself apart to spill wide open.
Ghersi further explores diasporic longing in his use of Venezuelan tonadas. Anyone who has spent time with the oeuvre of Simón Díaz – inarguably the most well-known and accomplished Venezuelan folklore singer and composer – will recognize his legacy all over this album. One of the more obvious places where we see Díaz’s artistic influence is in the lyrics of the soaring “Reverie,” taken from “Caballo Viejo,” one of the most celebrated songs in Díaz’s expansive catalog (“Cuando el amor llega así de esta manera/El carutal reverdece”).
But a more subtle – yet exceedingly clear – nod to Díaz’s tonadas is the way Ghersi uses his vocals. Often described as operatic or genteel, his singing style is in fact a direct descendent of the tonada, work songs of the agricultural laborers of Venezuela’s llano, or the vast central plains that house the country’s own cowboy tradition. “They are the songs that attempt to articulate that there are no words for suffering, for longing: they are songs sang to the moon, to horses, to nature,” explains Arca in the press release. “When I see the landscape culturally, the answer is natural: this is how I must engage with the worries of the world.”
Simón Díaz first began singing tonadas in the 1950s, after learning that the genre was in danger of disappearing as mechanical processes began to shift the nature of agricultural labor. Through Arca, Díaz’s efforts to preserve the tonada tradition are rewarded not only as inspiration in the work of one of the most innovative experimentalists of our time, but because he does it so effortlessly and effectively.
At the same time that he references folk tradition, Arca stretches the limits of music itself.
It’s not a heavy-handed effort to bring a local Latin American folk genre into the international spotlight; instead, Ghersi’s reimagining of the tonada tradition clearly stems from a quotidian immersion in the music of his home. While it’s possible to miss that legacy if you’re unfamiliar with Venezuelan folk music, for those of us who grew up as entrenched in them as Ghersi, the influence is effervescent.
In his embrace of the Spanish language and the tonada, Ghersi squarely situates Latin America as an obvious geography for musical experimentation. Though it’s fairly typical for Latin American artists to fuse folklore and synths, this isn’t a facile addition of electronic production to traditional sounds; it is a more imaginative, conceptual integration. Arca brings this reinterpretation to life in the way a gored bullfighter invokes a bull; in the ways things as inanely human as bruising and blood recall something more monstrous and surreal – but it presents itself, too, in his musical universe. Tonada-style falsettos morph into ghostly howls; piercing feedback shapeshifts into a melancholy melody.
At the same time that he references folk tradition, Arca stretches the limits of music itself. On “Whip,” a menacing, meticulous composition made up almost entirely of the sounds of cracking lashes, Ghersi guides us toward the borderlands of music and noise, annihilating those boundaries altogether. It’s a symbolically brilliant reference to queerness and BDSM, while at the same time invoking the Venezuelan llano – to cowboys and ganaderos, and the tools of the trade about which tonadas are traditionally sung. The following track, probably the closest thing to a club-ready production on the album, tempers the more accessible beats with graphic lyrics of a violent and explicitly queer sexuality (“Ámame y átame y dególlame/ Búscame y penétrame y devórame”).
Whether with words or sounds – and often a combination – Ghersi makes sure that queer deviance is always a part of this musical narrative. In an era where the wealthy, white gay and lesbian establishment seeks to push narratives of normalcy modeled after heteronormativity, Arca rebels. Instead, Ghersi ties queerness to monstrosity, all while ripping himself apart to spill wide open. He has always shown a fascination with the grotesque and, with his main visual collaborator Jesse Kanda, has created a dark, sprawling universe in which discomfort leads to beauty, discovery, and healing. This commitment to discomfort, as well as his firm positioning as a Latin American artist, is Arca’s effort to maintain a queer culture that is under attack. In the effort to sanitize, gentrify, and whitewash queerness, Arca has a very clear message: resist.
Arca’s self-titled album is out now on XL Recordings.