Rita Indiana’s “El Zahir” Joins Gagá with Viking Myths, Paper Mache & Anti-Capitalism

Lead Photo: Photo courtesy of the artist
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The first single from Rita Indiana’s forthcoming album—her first in a decade—was only a teaser. Released in April, “Como el Dragón,” the queer Dominican artist says, was a foghorn signaling her return—a re-introduction of sorts. Mighty as the dembow-metal blast stands, in the context of the rest of the work’s narrative, it’s only the prologue.

Today, with the video debut of “El Zahir,” we get our first reveal of the apocalyptic story that is Mandinga Times.

“The theme of money—I think it’s a very important issue if you’re going to talk about apocalyptic times. It’s one of the most important issues, if we’re going to talk about why the world is jodido, and why the world is ending,” says Indiana.

Named for the 1949 Jorge Luis Borges short story in which a man’s obsession with a coin leads to mental oblivion, “El Zahir” brings timely commentary on capitalism, and the subsequent human effort to chase wealth, often even at their own peril.

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“We picked it as the second single because of that,” she says. “Everybody’s struggling right now. It’s how the economy is… in the states you get a little bit of money, but in the Dominican Republic, for example, there’s a lot of people that are hungry and struggling. And they [were going hungry and struggling] before—it’s just now, things are worse.”

The Covid-19 pandemic and necessary shutdown has exacerbated the problems of the capitalist system. As more of the world reopens, many people are grappling with the life-or-death conundrum of risking their lives to go back to work or possibly going broke and hungry. Some folks don’t have a choice in the matter. And the most marginalized groups, be it indigenous people in Brazil or black people in the U.S., continue to die as a result of the virus at disproportionate rates.

“So many things that get dilated because of the situation we’re in. People who have to deal with mental illness, people who… lost their jobs,” she says. “My mom just lost her job like a week ago in the Dominican Republic.”

Despite the video’s colorful, cartoonish start, bit by bit, darker themes creep into view. This includes how a cameo from Norwegian collaborator Sakari Jantii is illustrated. It’s like an incantation, Rita notes, but he’s actually retelling a Vikings-era myth about slaves who volunteered to be buried with their masters, hoping to share in their wealth in the afterlife.

The video’s main character is a dog, Gogui, who’s “a little bit of me, a little bit of people I know,” Rita says. Creating primarily with papier-mâché in the San Juan, Puerto Rico apartment she, her three kids, her partner Noelia Quintero, and her two dogs have been quarantined inside throughout the pandemic felt like a return to her DIY art school days; it was therapeutic.

“We’ve been worried about some friends that have been sick, and people that have died—we actually know people that died in the DR because they had conditions and the Covid thing complicated things,” she says. “It’s been intense. But thank god we’re healthy, and we’re creative, and we’re working.”

Aside from help from an animator friend, Quintero and Rita shot the entire video themselves—plus the kids, who stood in as actors.

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Rhythmically rooted in Haitian-Dominican gagá, “El Zahir” feels like a globe of death circus attraction—and you’re the one on the motorcycle. You’re whizzing through the electronic soundscape, past ominous verses, then a chorus hits like a strong gale, thick with instrumentation, guitar included and overscored by hypnotic vocals. This sphere is disarming, and it’s dizzying—but it’s empowering, too.

The circular feel of the song seems purposeful, considering its many connections between past and present. The myth shared by Jantii, Rita says, reminds her of the U.S. Republican party and its many working-class devotees who, paradoxically, are some of the people most negatively affected by the party’s policies. And thinking back to the Borges work, Rita reflects that with little modernization required, the story could be written today, and its message would still resonate. Someone who interviewed her recently, Rita adds, pointed out that the date on Borges’ coin is 1929; the beginning of the Great Depression.

Unlike 2010’s El Juidero, which was mostly written alongside her band Los Misterios, working one-on-one with producer Eduardo Cabra (Visitante of Calle 13) on Mandinga Times allowed Rita to thoroughly flesh out themes and characters. It’s more like the process of writing novels—remember, she’s an award-winning writer, toothan not.“I’m assuming an alter ego for the album, who’s called Mandinga, a demon creature, a sea monster, whatever you want to call her,” she explains. “As the videos come out you’re going to start connecting dots of who she is and where she comes from.”

Rita says more content besides videos will be rolled out in due time. She didn’t explain what kind of content; we’ll have to wait and see. Additionally, she tells Remezcla, Mandinga Times is no longer slated for June release as originally announced, but will drop in July instead. She says we will get another single—another key to unlocking the narrative—in short time, though.

Watch the video here: