I can’t blame Roco, the singer for Maldita Vecindad, for lying to me.
“Yeah, man… We have material for two or three albums,” he used to tell me for years. “Anytime now.”
Yeah, right. The “anytime” took exactly 12 years from the release of the uneven Mostros.
But it’s better this way — unless your name is the Beatles, it’s hard to continue putting out quality material after a masterpiece like 1991’s El circo, the band’s second album.
That CD, often considered the Sgt. Pepper’s of Mexican rock, sold more than 700,000 copies in Mexico alone and set a new standard for what a Latin-rock album should sound like.
Produced by Gustavo Santaolalla, who would go on to win two back-to-back Oscars and countless Grammy awards, El circo was the crowning achievement of a band that could jump from a fierce ranchera-sampling punk-rocker (“Pachuco,” arguably their biggest hit) to a moving bolero (“Kumbala”) that turns ska when you least expect it.
El circo was so huge that Maldita Vecindad (roughly translated as “Damn Neighborhood”) toured worldwide incessantly for almost three years, but they could never achieve the same level of creative or commercial success with their subsequent Gira pata de perro (a 1994 live album), Baile de Máscaras (1996), and Mostros (1998).
It took another pachuco to bring Maldita back, even though the band never stopped playing to packed houses.
San Francisco’s Dr. Loco — leader of the Rockin’ Jalapeño Band, and considered “the Godfather of pachucos” by the Malditos — invited producer Greg Landau to a San Francisco Maldita show in 2006 and suggested they work together. The band and Landau clicked immediately, and three weeks later, they began working on a new album, a process that took three years to complete.
“The actual recording took three days,” said Landau, “but the problem was to find the right sound. To the band’s credit, they didn’t want to put out anything halfway. We wanted to make it as good as the other records.”
Circular colectivo ain’t no El circo, but it’s solid and refreshing in its own right. It has many firsts for the band (a female vocalist, a corrido, two piano solos by Cuban jazz great Omar Sosa, and two instrumentals) and it was released in Mexico in December to great critical and commercial success, reaching number two on the charts. It will be released in the U.S. by Nacional Records on March 30.
“I always thought they were a rock band, but after playing with them I realized that they don’t really play rock,” said Landau. “They play tropical Latin styles with aggressive energy. That makes it sound like rock, but that’s not really what they do. That was really interesting and inspiring to me. And lyrically they’re telling important stories that few people are telling.”
For example, the “Corrido para Digna Ochoa,” dedicated to the human-rights activist who died in 2001 of what Mexican authorities call a suicide … despite the fact that she was shot in the back of the head, is a fast-driving mix of norteña, ska, and tecnobanda, and “Sur del sur” is the second part of the somber “Mojado” (“Wetback,” one of their early hits), but this time in a celebratory mode:
“Si me preguntas por qué estoy aquí/ es que primero tú estuviste allá/ y abriste las venas de una tierra ancestral/ dictadura criminal/ intervención transnacional (if you ask me why I’m here/ it’s because you first were there/ and opened up the veins of an ancient land/ criminal dictatorship/ transnational intervention)”
“There is a historic debt of the U.S.A. with all of Latin America,” says Roco, “and that is the real reason for all the immigration. South of the border we’ve suffered a lot of dictatorships installed by the U.S., exploitation, theft of our resources, so people must come to this side and earn a living. Tough shit, deal with it.”
The album at times experiments with Nicaragua’s palo de mayo rhythm, and also deals with what Roco calls “the third root,” or the seldom explored black presence in Mexico, especially in the states of Veracruz, Guerrero, and Oaxaca. “Chacahua,” the best song on the album, is an electronic mix of Veracruz’s son jarocho and Afrobeat.
“I’m tired of hearing ‘there are no blacks in Mexico,’” says Roco.
Maldita is free from any contract since 1998, and they’ll continue touring and recording whenever they please, without any pressure from big labels.
“At first `when we were at the BMG stable`, we wanted to enter that circle only reserved for `teen groups` like Timbiriche, Flans, and all that crap,” Roco says. “Then we wanted to tour in Latin America and demonstrate that we did our own thing, without copying the British or the gringos. We did all that, and now our mission is another one.”
That mission is to simply enjoy, having won the battle against those (myself included) who thought Maldita was finished.
“We could’ve recorded before, but we wanted to do it exactly our way,” says Roco. “We took seven years to create our own infrastructure, and three recording the album, and we have a solid history behind us. Things are good now, and they could be much worse. At least now, whenever we say we’re musicians, nobody asks us, ‘Yes, but what is your job?’” •