“Retumba es playa,” says Cristabel Acevedo pointedly into the camera. A simple yet vivid description of MULA’s 2016 single, the quote comes from a mini-documentary released on March 6 ahead of the official launch of the band’s sophomore album Aguas. With three singles spanning over a year of buzz, the Dominican trio has perfected its mix of whirring, featherlight beats and rapid-fire Dominican rhythms for an album that is playful, urgently feminine, and endlessly danceable.
MULA’s self-titled debut was a somber offering of dark dembow, which led them to conceive Aguas as a deeper exploration of their Caribbean roots. Inspired by the energy of local shows, as well as performances in Puerto Rico and Cuba, Aguas champions island pride, drawing vivid soundscapes with every color in the Dominican crayon box. The band has garnered high praise and a loyal following for their ability to source and reimagine traditional Dominican rhythms like perico ripiao, bachata, and dembow.
With twins Anabel and Cristabel Acevedo focusing on lyrics and vocals, Rachel Rojas helms the group’s sonic direction. The three musicians linked up after Rojas returned from studying music production in Argentina and began looking for artists with whom to collaborate. In a Skype interview with Remezcla, Cristabel and Rachel recalled how the crew came together.
“We eventually coincided,” says Cristabel describing MULA’s inception. “One day she sent us a track and we sent her the vocals the next day. The spark was immediate, and with all the ideas and songs that began to pour out, we felt it was impossible not to form a band.”
Rachel’s studies in Argentina were crucial in shaping her musical identity, as she found her Caribbean roots to be a powerful asset. “I was studying electronic music production, but the thing that stood out most was the fact I wasn’t Argentine and I wasn’t making techno,” she recalls. “I know they weren’t fans, but I left school feeling like I taught my professors that reggaeton was OK. They taught me how to do one thing, and I came out making something completely different.”
“I left school feeling like I taught my professors that reggaeton was OK.”
This philosophy of contrasts once again proved useful to Rojas as she mapped out MULA’s sound. “When I began working with the girls, they were making folk music and I was just coming from Argentina where I went to drum and bass parties, and was listening to lots of dubstep. We were on two very different musical currents, and our only unifying factor was the music that was made here, on the island. It was that dembow, that hip-hop and palo and merengue. That was our starting point.”
Aguas proudly brandishes MULA’s Dominican heritage with meticulous depth. The running tambora-driven beat of “Nunca Paran” or the masterful collision of dubstep and perico ripiao on “Diamantes” are merely surface-level references. The trio draws inspiration from the nostalgia of Dominican childhood, lived experiences that might be lost to outsiders. “It all comes from squeezing the emotion around those memories,” reflects Rachel. “The joy as a little girl jumping around a birthday party or watching El Club de Isha. I remember being six years old and asking my mom to buy me a Sandy y Papo cassette because I really wanted to dance like boom-boom-boom. It’s the influence of a time I don’t remember well, and working with MULA it becomes clear again.”
That nostalgia is effervescent in MULA’s lyrics. Cristabel explains that her upbringing was filled with “música para trapear,” a genre used to describe the classic and often cheesy pop Latinx parents blast while cleaning around the house. She cites grand dames Ana Gabriel and Juan Gabriel as recurring figures in her and Anabel’s childhood home, themes that emerge exuberantly on Aguas. “Quiero Que Tu Quieras” is a longing and aggressive plea to a lover to “want the exact same things I want.” “Juego de Amor,” on the other hand, takes a despondent turn, where a scorned paramour thanks her tormentor for the lessons learned through heartache.
“As women, we definitely want to lend perspective on voices that are not always heard.”
It’s perhaps the album’s oddest song that has the biggest payoff. “Ten Cuidado,” a cautionary tale of a woman with a man-eater’s reputation, takes an unhinged turn when Gallo Lester comes in on the hook. A controversial figure for his gimmicky rooster persona yet supremely catchy compositions, Gallo Lester’s appearance breathes whimsy into the otherwise tenebrous track, not unlike the one-two punch effect a Busta Rhymes guest spot might have. Having met Lester at a show in New York, the girls described their connection as “animalistic love at first sight.”
The provenance of the band’s name are mules, the hybrid species between donkeys and horses. As Cristabel adds, “Not only did we really like the sound of the word, the band within itself emerged as a hybrid of two very different projects.” Aside from Rachel’s own production work, the second project in question is of course Las Acevedo, the sister’s sweet bedroom folk project. “I never saw it as one project becoming another,” says Cristabel, “but instead two very different musical directions coming together. From the moment we met Rachel, a different side of us began to emerge.” It should be noted that Cristabel also expressed a desire to revisit Las Acevedo in a future where working with MULA doesn’t command all of the band’s time.
A wave of new hip-hop artists have reinvigorated the underground scene in Santo Domingo, with names like Whitest Taino Alive and Cohoba at the forefront, and La Ñapa and the Mitel Dico collective representing Santiago. The exclusivity of this national boys club is not lost on MULA’s members.
Though MULA sees their existence as a band composed only of women as inherently political, they also address gender and sexual identity on “Espejos en la Azotea (1965).” The song references La Cuadrilla Chancleta, a guerrilla group that fought in the Dominican revolutionary war of 1965 and was comprised of queers, trans people, and sex workers. “Cree que algo le falta por su minifalda,” they sing, “pero es que le sobra lo que nadie nombra.” It’s a story of unappreciated patriotism told through images of camouflage clothing and smeared makeup.
“As women, we definitely want to lend perspective on voices that are not always heard,” offers Cristabel. “Many women fall into the trap of masculine discourse, so it’s very important to us that no matter what the song, it should have a recognizably feminine point of view.” When asked about Dominican machismo, they snicker and call it “el pan de cada día,” but Rachel was quick to add she was still hopeful. “I was at Parque Duarte the other day and [Dominican folk singer] Carolina Camacho was there. A guy came over and congratulated her on all her success, which made us super happy. You can’t help but step away from your ego and enjoy how refreshing it is seeing other women thriving beside you.”
Mula’s sophomore album Aguas is out now.