25 years of ‘Re,’ Café Tacvba’s Eclectic Tribute to Mexico’s Multicultural Reality

One doesn’t have to look further than the first track on Re to know that there’s something extraordinary in store. The opening song on the album, “El Aparato,” begins innocently enough as a huapango — a typical musical style from various parts of Mexico — when a synth comes in. Before the song is over, we have gone through strings and pan-African chants. The fact that everything works together on this song is a testament to the magnitude of the album, and the talent of Café Tacvba as musicians and songwriters. And the album remains a piece of art for Latinx people everywhere to identify with is nothing short of stunning.

Rock en español was riding high in 1994, conquering big stages in Latin America and Spain, and getting some recognition from the world at large. Some arguable classics had been released in a span of a few short years, and a palpable identity was in place. Café Tacvba was not one of the founders of this movement; rather, they seized the territory to redraw the borders of what one could do with the song format, and redefined the rock genre in their image.

Re arrived two years after their eponymous debut, when Mexican rock was well placed in the mainstream, as well as recognized in other territories like Spain, Argentina, and cities like Los Angeles and Chicago. Thanks to tracks like “Chica Banda,” “María,” and “Rarotonga,” Café Tacvba managed to find an audience at home and abroad. By the time they released Re, people were already listening, even landing in the New York Times, where critic Jon Pareles compared its wide-ranging sound and songwriting to the Beatles’ White Album.

“At the time, we didn’t know where we wanted to go but we knew where we were coming from.”

Although their debut had already showed the curiosity of the four Tacvbos — brothers Joselo and Quique Rangel, Emmanuel “Meme” Del Real, and Rubén Albarrán, going by the nickname Cosme for Re — it was the relentless tour behind the album that informed their sophomore release. Touring in Mexico exposed them to many different styles of music that sparked their creativity, going as far as writing during this period, and debuting some of the songs live. The results are 20 songs in 59 minutes, and hardly any of these tracks are skippers. According to bassist/multi-instrumentalist Quique Rangel, when discussing the album with Remezcla in 2014, the number of tracks came as a result of their erupting creativity, after a rigorous seven-week writing session. “At the time, we didn’t know where we wanted to go but we knew where we were coming from,” said Rangel.

Without a doubt, the most impressive thing about Re is the sprawling collection of sounds it houses, but one of the reasons it works so well here is because the music supports ambitious lyrical choices. The band writes intrinsically Mexican short stories based on real facts or places, be it the story of how the parents of Albarrán met, or the subway system in Mexico City that inspires the Kafkaesque tale of a guy who is trapped in its tunnels. Elena Garro, Arthur C. Clarke, and D.H. Lawrence are among those present in the words sung by Albarrán, and tales of ordinary people in ordinary situations ignite the imagination, sometimes laying down a clear path for them, sometimes implying something beyond what’s been said, all put forth with language, imagery, and specific references to their country. Yet the message remains universal.

There’s a theme of cycles, of picking up and starting again, and repetition as well, and resistance against opposing forces. It’s in many of the songs, and even on the art of the album, the hard spiral conch of a snail. It’s most notable in the song “El Ciclón,” one of the songs that helped break the album into the larger public, and a sign that something exciting was afoot.

You can pick apart any song on the album, and can come up with a thousand words to describe what any of them represent or just to pinpoint references. “Esa Noche” might seem like a direct interpretation of bolero in the style of trios from the 1930s, yet it’s hardly just a tribute, blossoming into full force at the end, when the band harmonizes and Rubén’s voice soars above everyone. Vocally, this might be the band’s most adventurous record, showcasing Albarrán’s technical and emotional range, as well as the many voices he can inhabit while always sounding like himself.

While technical skill and songwriting talent would have been enough to secure a place in some people’s hearts, one of the things that makes Café Tacvba such a universal phenomenon is their ability to connect with so many people. It’s easy to pinpoint songs like “El Baile y El Salón,” where the catchiness of the chorus and their lyrics can be adopted by many lovelorn listeners, but some other songs go beyond that. “El Borrego” might come off as the most edgelord of songs in their catalog on first listen, but lyrics that refer to wearing black lipstick yet having to wear a suit in order to have a job might be something more than a few of their fans could relate to. It also gives their audience a chance to laugh off their own situation.

One of the centerpieces of the album is, of course, “La Ingrata” – a polka/corrido norteño/ska rocker that became synonymous with the band during the era. However, years later the band sparked controversy when they considered abstaining from playing the song in support of femicide victims in Mexico, one of the countries with the highest crime rates against women. Although there are reports they have since intermittently played the song onstage, the fact that they decided to talk about it at all speaks about their commitment to highlighting important issues.

Though producer Gustavo Santaolalla had already come on board for their debut album, here’s where their collaboration truly shone, making sense of all the diverse instruments and styles to string them together in well-rounded and arranged songs. Every track featured seamless layers of instruments and sounds that made for a rich listening experience. The rich sounds on Re never get old.

Released on July 22 in 1994, Re took time to find its footing, thanks in no small part to the financial crisis Mexico went through at the end of the year. According to Rangel, the record was initially rejected by the media, and not pushed by the label, who felt it lacked singles. Latin American radio in Chile and Colombia pushed tracks like “El Ciclón” and “Las Flores,” both of which became some of their most recognized songs. Much touring followed, including a taped performance for MTV Unplugged, and more recognition, including going Gold in their native country. David Byrne became a fan and collaborated with them. In 2012, Rolling Stone named it the greatest Latin rock album of all time.

In many ways, Re is the pinnacle of Café Tacvba; in other ways, it’s a high point of an ever-changing career. Two years later, they released Avalancha de Éxitos, a collection of songs by artists such as Leo Dan, Juan Luis Guerra, Botellita de Jeréz, and Jaime López done in radically different arrangements, bringing them even more mainstream success. On the contrary, their 1999 effort, Revés/Yo Soy was a double album heavily influenced by minimalist/contemporary classical figures like Steve Reich and John Cage that gave them a nomination for a Latin Grammy, yet sold poorly and got the band dropped from their label. 2003’s Cuatro Caminos helped them regain their status and establish them as mainstays of the genre – with each of their albums an event, and each tour a new chance to appreciate their legacy and continued effort to find new avenues for their artistic as well as social, political and environmental concerns.

25 years on, the record is more contemporary than ever, thanks to their sample-based practice of incorporating everything but the kitchen sink into their sounds – years before the internet normalized such practices. Re’s humanity remains vital as well, ready to be rediscovered by new generations who can learn more from a world that looked a lot like ours, just perhaps a bit more empathic.