Music

Rita Indiana Breaks Down Every Track on Her Apocalyptic New Album, ‘Mandinga Times’

Lead Photo: Photo courtesy of Artist
Photo courtesy of Artist

It’s been 10 years since Dominican multi-disciplinary artist Rita Indiana Hernández Sánchez released her first album, El Juidero–a cultural milestone that singlehandedly ushered a Latin American indie revolution. Profoundly personal, yet transcendent, colloquial, yet universal; El Juidero unraveled tales of womanhood, history, and migration all through the lens of Dominican identity, sometimes hilariously and others deeply affecting. Ending a decade-long self-imposed exile from the music industry, Rita Indiana has returned for good with an equally immense new album titled Mandinga Times, as well as a multitude of new television and theater projects currently in development.

Previously accompanied by her band Los Misterios, El Juidero broke ground for its nuanced examinations of Dominican idiosyncrasy, while Mandinga Times shifts its focus outward in an attempt to grapple with a brave new world increasingly defined by strife and injustice. The album metabolizes tragedy, resilience, despair, and gratitude, also showcasing an artist still fascinated by historical accounts and literary flourishes. But even though much has changed, La Montra’s voice remains as true and pure as ever. “I’m Dominican, a woman, a queer woman and a storyteller, whether musical or novelized,” she tells Remezcla, defining herself as the sum of roles and experiences gained in a lifetime. “I’m a mother and a wife as well.”

Speaking from her home in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Rita Indiana joined us for a track-by-track breakdown of Mandinga Times, as well as a conversation on spirituality, building the album’s musical canvas with producer Eduardo Cabra (f.k.a. Visitante), and her future in showbiz.

Rita Indiana will be debuting a pre-recorded ‘AFTER SCHOOL‘ live performance today, Tuesday (Sept. 8) at 6PM EST.

"Como Un Dragón"

This is a bold re-introduction! When you say “regresó la montra pa’ comérselos de cena” it’s cocky and swaggy, made even more striking by the use of dembow, which we’ve never heard from you before. Why was it important to make this kind of statement right out of the gate?

Como Un Dragón” was meant to be a bit of a leap. I wanted to come back with something that didn’t sound like Los Misterios; with a more current sound, so this was the first song I worked on with Eduardo [Cabra]. It was a meeting of the minds where we collided doom metal and dembow, creating a really obscene mix that I had to rap over. I wanted it to be wild and fun, but also an introduction to this new era. It’s an embodiment of the nickname I got from my fans in Santo Domingo: La Montra. So, you could say the one singing on that track is La Montra, awaking and emerging from her cave ready to eat up anyone that crosses her path.

"Mandinga Times" (feat. Kiko El Crazy)

El Juidero delved into so many Dominican-specific themes, it’s interesting how the focus of this new album is much broader and international, particularly on the title-track. Tell us about this thematic shift and how the amazing collaboration with Kiko el Crazy came about.

They’re definitely two very different records released at two very different times. El Juidero was introspective, but the search in Mandinga Times is more global in terms of themes. My wife calls this song an apocalyptic newscast, because it’s kind of an overview of so many different conflicts we’re experiencing right now. But the record came about in a much more intimate way than when I worked with Los Misterios. This was Eduardo and I locked in a studio, where El Juidero was a record born hanging out with musicians and shaped by playing live.

“Como Un Dragón” is my re-introduction, but “Mandinga Times” really kicks off the album. We wanted to keep the ‘urbano’ vibe without necessarily echoing mainstream radio sounds. The beat is ‘alibaba,’ which is a traditional carnival rhythm from the barrios of Villa Francisca and Villa Juana. It’s called ‘alibaba’ because people used to dress up like Arabs, kind of like Aladdin–no offense to anyone, that’s just what it is–and they would play this super loud and aggressive music. To me it’s like punk rock, which is why we added shredding guitars and heavy bass lines in the part where Kiko sings. I’ve been obsessed with Kiko El Crazy since the first time I saw him perform. I love his energy, his look, his style of rapping, and he doesn’t quite fit anyone’s mold. For this song, he left his comfort zone and embraced the punk rock vibe, delivering something sort of like Death Grips and capturing a really dope skate punk feeling.

"El Flaco de La Mancha"

Musically, this is one of my favorite songs on the album and the first time you can really hear Eduardo Cabra’s eclectic production. I’m curious about the song’s clear literary influences, but also the experience of making this album with an iconic producer like Visitante.

“El Flaco de la Mancha” is about the madness of creation–of all artists–of our imagination and how every single human being has it. It’s a really sweet song that samples Puerto Rican poet Francisco Matos Paoli and a piece called “Canto a la Locura.” He was a fierce pro-independence nationalist jailed in the 1950s because of his beliefs and for leading an uprising on the island. And we have him singing with us! There’s also a little homage to Juan Luis Guerra in there, which if you’re a Dominican musician there is always an undeniable influence, no matter how small.

Working with Eduardo was like entering the studio with Willie Wonka because he has all these amazing toys! It’s a small, intimate home studio he doesn’t open to everyone, which was extremely flattering and fortunate for me. Eduardo is like NASA; whatever you want to concoct he can make it happen, and in this very playful song you can hear all of his creative capabilities, which we tried to feature across the whole album. We were very open to each other’s ideas and suggestions and rarely had any kind of power struggle. It wasn’t about ego; it was about creating the best possible work.

"Toy En La Calle"

This song also has a literary quality about it. Lines like “voy a mil por hora” and “estoy aquí pero no hay quien me jaye” made me think of a wild, adventures life. What were you thinking when you wrote this song and how does your literary work influence your songwriting?

I am first and foremost a storyteller, and every song on this album is meant to be its own story. We embody many people throughout our lifetimes and “Toy En La Calle” I wrote for myself at age 13 or 14, when I was rolling around on my skateboard with my crew. It’s about the relationship I had with those kids; all boys, straight and cisgender, and how I looked just like one of them. They took care of me, and the street always felt like a space of safety and freedom. It’s an ode to running wild in the city and transforming public spaces into something new, which is what skateboarding does. I haven’t skated in 20 years, but it’s an art form, a philosophy and way of life I find fascinating.

"Miedo"

You dedicated “Miedo” to the LGBTQIA+ community and it talks about the fear of loving too intensely, but it could also be about the fear queer people have of loving openly. Tell us about your experience writing from the perspective of a queer woman in conservative Caribbean society and the creative partnership with your wife Noelia Quintero.

“Miedo” is a romantic reggaeton filled with string arrangements that give it an epic quality. Violins belong to Oshun, the orisha of love and everything beautiful in life. My wife is a daughter of Oshun so she had asked me to include violins in a song some day, so that’s how it all came about. The other side of this song is how it’s not just about fear of passion, but the fear queer people experience when trying to be ourselves and express our love. That tension never goes away and it shaped how I engage with the world because I grew up unable to express my love. I am glad to see young people breaking these chains all over the world, but I also keep in mind all the people that are still killed and tortured for daring to love openly.

Noelia Quintero is my great collaborator. She does all my visuals, and we’re also releasing a live session called After School, which she conceptualized and shot in a classroom of La Goyco, a public school shut down by the Puerto Rican government about three years ago. We’re working on many new projects, most of them for television, which we’re still in the process of writing.

"El Zahir" (feat. Sakari Jantti)

This song combines Middle Eastern and metal influences, which reminded me of back when “El Blue del Ping Pong” was first released and how people described it as mambo-metal. Are you a metalhead? Can you break down the sonic palette of this song and working with Sakari Jantti?

Once a metalhead, always a metalhead! I used to be super militant at about 12 years old and only listened to merengue when my friends weren’t around. I loved classic metal and thrash, and later got into death metal and black metal. Slayer was my favorite band then, but I also got into new British metal like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. Little by little, I started listening to Brazilian music, ’60s rock, even merengue, but that was a wild time. So “El Zahir” has a mixture of post-punk, some hardcore and gagá, which is an Afro-Dominican rhythm popular at religious ceremonies in batey communities.

Sakari Jantti is a Norweggian friend; a Viking wizard! He’s a genius of analog instruments. He makes drum machines and has an instrument repair shop full of artifacts dating back to the 1940s. He’s like a mad scientist and one of my best friends, so we’ve always wanted to collaborate on something and this song was that opportunity. In fact, we have another project coming down the line so stay tuned.

"The Heist" (feat. MIMA)

This song unfolds like a spaghetti western. It’s exciting and cinematic, and once again takes you into historical narratives. What attracts you to this type of songwriting?

“The Heist” started out as a plena [a style of Puerto Rican traditional music descendant of bomba]. I have another project called El Comité, where we perform a mixture of plena and rock and with whom I went to Rock al Parque last year. This song was written with folklorist Tito Matos and it tells the story of an expropriation–the theft of $7 million dollars from a Wells Fargo depot in 1983 by clandestine revolutionary organization Los Macheteros, who fight for the independence of Puerto Rico. The robbery was a success, with no deaths and hardly any bloodshed, and the money was used to finance future activities of the group and other revolutionary organizations in Latin America.

I thought this story was really interesting because it unfolds like an action film. It’s like a western, only this time it’s the Indians who emerge victorious over the cowboys. It’s also important for me to share stories of Puerto Rico that people may not know. I’ve been living here for many years and the sentiment of independence has been palpable all along. There’s been an awakening since Hurricane Maria, with protests taking over the island, so I thought it was important to chronicle this story of resistance since often times they’re left out of the history books. I feel art has a certain didactic responsibility, which I owe it to all my teachers to carry on. I was also joined by my sister, my comadre, MIMA, who is a tremendously important artist for this country. I was incredibly honored to have her on the song.

"Ensalmo"

Spirituality is a hallmark of your writing, and this song specifically delves into Santeria and religious syncretism. Is this your religious practice or is it another element of Caribbean folklore that adds depth and realism to your work?

I’ve practiced Afro-Cuban Santeria for upwards of 12 years and it’s a philosophy that nourishes me endlessly. We strive for iwa pele, like Ifá says, good character. We search for a balance of forces. It’s a religion that accepts me for who I am. Homosexuals are blessed because in mythology we protected Orula, lord of the oracle. So we’re all blessed. It’s a religion that honors our ancestors and descendants.

“Ensalmo” starts like a funky, soulful merengue and the lyrics are all about how I’m not going to fall no matter how much people try and shoot me down. In the chorus, I invoke traditions from Pentecostal ceremonies, which have a huge presence in Santo Domingo and a very aggressive way of singing and performing. They’ve brought in instruments like güira, tambora, and congas, and if you really listen, es una vaina so powerful that not even punk or metal can beat it. Unfortunately, we’re at very different ideological places, but I find their music very seductive. I’m a woman of contradictions and love crossing those bridges and subverting them.

"Pa Ayotzinapa" (feat. Rubén Albarrán)

Another historical narrative, only this time instead of cinematic suspense you explore grief and institutional impunity. The inclusion of Ruben Albarrán makes perfect sense for this story, but how did the song come about?

Rubén sent me an email about three years ago and he asked when I’d be coming back to music and if we could work on anything together someday. But I was like, ‘No, I’m really wrapped up in books right now.’ Can you imagine turning down Rubén Albarrán? [Laughs] Oye que fresca!

I have three sons about the age of the kids who were taken in Ayotzinapa, so it broke my heart thinking about them and the grief of their parents. The song came from a gut feeling on the absurdity of this tragedy. It’s the only song on the album that flowed like divine inspiration. One day it came to me and the verses just poured out. By the time I got to the studio I had the whole song written, melody and all. Then I had to write Rubén back, tail between my legs, explaining that I was returning to music and asking if he would accompany me on this song, and he was gracious enough to accept.

"Claroscuro"

This is an epic finale! I don’t know if the song was inspired by a specific event, but I couldn’t help but notice the themes of envy and betrayal, and how they parallel the frustrated feelings of artists screwed by the music industry. Considering your own animosity towards the industry, and this being the last song on the album, do you plan on stepping away for another ten years?

Absolutely not. This was me trying to wrap up the record by appealing to our humanity and talking about the good and evil we all carry inside. The song comes from many experiences in my life and relationships with friends and colleagues that have soured.

Envy is the worst brujería. Sometimes things aren’t even going well and people are envious of you. They think because you work in music you’re a millionaire, but NO! I’m hustling just like everybody else. I don’t have a glamorous life. I’m not Bad Bunny. I live with my family in an apartment, and writing is my work. Because I’m committed to making music that speaks to my soul, I live a modest life. But I sometimes feel that way too; we all do. We all carry these dark emotions, so it was a matter of relating these apocalyptic times to personal scenarios. It’s about planting that little seed of light, and hoping you can one day change the world for the better.

“Claroscuro” represents our internal struggle and hoping the light prevails.