As the ethnic make-up of America changes, so does its music. And with a passel of influences under his belt, Rana Santacruz makes music for that new America.
Santacruz’s solo debut Chicavasco – to be released March 9, 2010 -- is the product of a vibrant musical vision that was shaped by growing up in Mexico City and coming of age in a musical world informed by MTV, where all styles of music are accessible like never before.
Santacruz writes and sings the songs, as well as playing accordion and a variety of stringed instruments. To flesh out his tunes, he enlisted a cast of a dozen versatile musicians who add a folk and neo-classical flare with violin, cello, sax and jaw harp as well as traditional Mexican mariachi instruments like guitarrón, vihuela, trumpet and tuba.
The instrumentation, richness of the sound, and delicate touch are reminiscent of Tucson’s Calexico but with a softer edge and sharper focus. Often singing in a lilting falsetto, the melodies soar, inbued with the kind of passion found in Cuban son and Portuguese fado, while the music takes you not only north and south of the border, but across the Atlantic and back.
Born and raised in Mexico City, Santacruz had considerable success with his rock en español band La Catrina. Courted by a number of labels, the group signed with a major label in Mexico in the late ‘90s. His first experience with the music industry was a classic crash-and-burn; after recording in Mexico, Madrid and Miami, the CD failed to deliver a quick radio hit and his demoralized group soon disbanded.
In 2002, setting his sights well beyond the Mexican pop scene, Santacruz made the move from Mexico City to New York City. Living in Brooklyn and drawing on influences including the golden age of Mexican cinema, the magical realism novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, musicians like Tom Waits, the Smiths and the Pogues, and American bluegrass, Santacruz set about recording a collection of songs assimilating those disparate influences.
The resulting CD, Chicavasco -- named for a small town in the state of Hidalgo where La Catrina played a particularly surreal concert -- is beautifully conceived and artfully produced. Not surprising since Alex Venguer, who joined Santacruz in producing the disk, just took home a GRAMMY© for “Best Traditional Folk Album” for his part in Loudon Wainright’s High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project.
In its subtle, understated way, the CD’s opening “Yo Se” (I Know) is quite different than anything you’re likely to have heard: counterpoint between accordion and banjo sets the stage for Santacruz’s vocals; midway through the song a fiddle picks up the banjo line. Although sung in Spanish, the melody brings to mind a Celtic sea shanty. Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of this cross-cultural mélange is how organic and natural it sounds.
“Ojitos de Maguey” (Little Cactus Eyes) mixes lively Mexican jarocho rhythms with the rich textures of 21st Century folk while “Dejala Entrar” (Let Her In) conjures a neo-classical cabaret somewhere between Mexico and Vienna. Then there’s the Tex-Mex, marching band (and tuba-driven) “Guajolote y Pavorreal” (The Turkey and the Peacock) and “El Ranchero Punk” (The Punk Rancher), an uptempo, ranchero-bluegrass-old-time-polka-rap-yodel. Far from a trendy, genre mash-up, it’s a spirited dance tune that, like the rest of the CD, manages to eclipse all its influences.
Like the classic Mexican songs of Chavela Vargas, Agustin Lara and Jose Alfredo Jimenez, Santacruz’s lyrical descriptions of romance are equal parts love and tragedy, and delivered with passion and conviction. “Mexican culture is very complex, but in a lot of traditional art forms like old songs and films, you find very pure, sweet feelings,” he said. “I tried to rescue this simplicity and bring my songs down to earth as much I can.”
But if Santacruz’s lyrical style is admittedly innocent, he approaches life using both sides of his brain. He earned a degree in the Music Business program at New York University, and hired on to work at Sony Music.
To date, Santacruz has won over American audiences of all stripes at showcases like Austin’s South by Southwest, New York’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival, Los Angeles J. Paul Getty Museum and Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center. Santacruz’s music is indeed music for a new America, if not a new world. And regardless of your Spanish language skills, you will understand every nuance of emotion in these grooves. (Translations can be found at: http://www.ranasantacruz.com)
Rana Santacruz - Accordion and Vocals, Jarana
Kari Bethke - Violin
Marek Sapieyevski - Banjo
John Sutton - Upright Bass
Spiro Sinigos - Drums, Cajón
Andy Oom - Trumpet
Alex Berti - Trumpet
Chicavasco - 2009
Several tracks have been aired in stations like KPFK, KDVS, KPSU, KGLT, WFMU, Ibero 90.5 (Mexico)
Cajita De Barro
El Ranchero Punk
El Funeral De Tacho
Guajolote Y Pavorreal
Ojitos De Maguey
No Puedo Mas
Si No Estas
Cancion De Cuna
Ya Me Voy
Mariachi Meets Tom Waits: The Music of Rana Santacruz
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Okay, it's coming on Cinco de Mayo, so it's only logical to do a blog post about something Mexican. ...Okay, it's coming on Cinco de Mayo, so it's only logical to do a blog post about something Mexican. But the truth is, I really like the music of Rana Santacruz on its own terms, which are solidly Pan-American. As you will see and hear, Rana is a man who loves loud acoustic instruments like the banjo and the accordion. His tastes are eclectic and he wants his mostly USA-born band members to contribute their ideas as well as their chops. The result is something that is a hybrid in the best sense, cohesive and all-embracing--a marriage of the USA's and Mexico's musical traditions with healthy injections of contemporary songwriting. The songs are ear candy too. They feel like classics although they have been recently written, and I am a sucker for brass lines that soar like wind currents against a sail. ("Cajita de Barro," featured here, makes me glaze over. In a good way.)
With all the brouhaha stirred up by the recent Arizona immigration law, resentments are flaring on all sides. But when I caught Rana at Joe's Pub a few months ago, where he was joined by two members of a New York-based mariachi band in full regalia, I felt good about people, optimistic about the immigrant values this country was built on and I felt a warm link to Mexico. (Me, a non Spanish-speaking New Yorker!) How many musicians, whether intentionally or not, can make us feel that way? So take a break from the politics, and just enjoy the music. And another thing--when you listen to "Cajita de Barro" invite your sweetheart to join you in a waltz. It may not be "hot" or "edgy" but it's romantic as hell without ever being maudlin.
....If you don't have a sweetheart, this song might just get you one.
Here are the translated lyrics to "Cajita de Barro" (Little Clay Box)
In a little clay box you left a piece of your heart
In a little clay box tied up with cloth and thread
And every now and then I tie it close to my soul and it takes away my pain
And every now and then I grab it and say "I'm sorry"
And when the clouds turn off the lights of the sky
and rain starts falling down
In that little clay box I want to take shelter
And I can't hide it any longer, and I must accept
That without that little clay box I don't know what to do
I don't know what to do
And when my eyes shrink and shrink for crying so much
In that little clay box I start looking for something
And when I miss you and think of you in the middle of the night
In that little clay box I find you again
I find you again
Rana Santacruz: Chicavasco
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by Deanne Sole The illustrations inside the cover are farmyard and rustic, a brown piglet and roo...by Deanne Sole
The illustrations inside the cover are farmyard and rustic, a brown piglet and rooster. I was expecting something—I don’t know what, but land-bound—farmish—Mexican—since Santacruz is Mexican—something not a hornpipe—but the album starts with a hornpipe. Looking at the About section on his website now I see that whoever was hired to write about this is pretty proud of it. “Although sung in Spanish, the melody [of “Yo Se”] brings to mind a Celtic sea shanty.” A shanty dances, that’s what it does, and it’s a good simple thing, it invites play and experimentation, and Santacruz, throughout this album, toys with shanties. Celtic Americana comes into the music too, folk-fiddling and a country bounce.
Santacruz plays a number of instruments—three different guitars, a banjo, but mainly the accordion—so the shanty idea gives him a vivid grounding, a squeezebox base to work from. He strums, he squeezes, he sings. “Guajolote Y Pavorreal” (“Turkey and Peacock”) opens with the shanty accordion circling around the sweet sweep of a Mexican harp. Not only is this surprising, not only does it have a ludic inventiveness that falls between prettiness and beauty, it prepares the listener for the song’s story. The turkey is in love with the peacock.
They say that you’re like a star that never stops shining and that I’m as disgusting as a rat
sings the turkey in Spanish, and
They say you are champagne and I’m draft beer.
I don’t care what people say, you’ll end up falling for me anyway.
The lyrics of “Guajolote Y Pavorreal” are built around oppositions: draft beer and champagne, a scorpion and a princess, a sea lion and a mermaid. And the introduction has wordlessly supported the turkey, I’m an accordion, you’re a harp, and don’t you hear how well we work together?
Santacruz, with his near-falsetto singing voice and the accordion grinding between his hands, is that contradiction in one. He draws out his words with upwards inflections at the ends, a little questioning, as if to say: Here I am, what do you think? But the shanty gives him a strut—he’s presenting himself upfront, not making a sad appeal. Chicavasco is a mixture of the sweet and the sharp. You’re aware of a sneaking smartness, a possible sting being kept back. When will arrive? The banjo in “Ya Me Voy” is runny, buttery, but you can’t have a banjo-note without the awareness of something being plucked and forced, against its will, to make a noise. A plucked note is an imposition.
The frills at the edge of the accordion float off delicately but the sawing that feeds into the shanty keeps the album from becoming a mere lilt. The lyrics are often funny. That’s something you lose in the English version, although there are musical hints to let us know that something humourous is going on—the goofy yahoo! of “El Ranchero Punk”. This ranchero is so punk that everybody hates him. He sings a list of the haters, incorporating hipsters, accountants, Buddha, his mother, “perverts who sleep with fish”, and the Ecologist Party of Mexico.
Not even my own solitude loves me
Santacruz the lyricist is smart enough to know that the quality of a ridiculous impossibility rises with the specificality of its detail, a thing Gabriel Garcia Marquez once pointed out in an interview with the Paris Review.
That’s a journalistic trick that you can also apply to literature. For example, if you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants flying in the sky, people will probably believe you.
When a popular seducer dies in “El Funeral de Tacho”, the number of women who cry at his burial is a very exact three hundred and ninety two. Like Alice, they weep so voluminously that their tears become a flood. The town is drowned. The military is summoned. Pig and rooster float over the deluge using a door as a raft. Chicavasco is a witty album, not only in the lyrics, but in the way it gently keeps you off balance, nudging you with its harp, its banjo, its unexpected ideas, the dexterity of its combinations: its turkey-elements winking at its peacock. The farmyard pictures were there for a reason after all.
Rana Santacruz: Tiny Desk Concert
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by Jasmine Garsd Rana Santacruz came to us on a sunny fall day, and it was a sight to be seen: It...by Jasmine Garsd
Rana Santacruz came to us on a sunny fall day, and it was a sight to be seen: It's not every day that a handsome young man dons traditional mariachi garb at our Tiny Desk Concerts, accompanied by a bass the size of a whale and a band of scruffy musicians.
Santacruz's music is as magical as his persona — it seems like it belongs on the soundtrack to the film Amelie, not only for its intense melancholy, but for the singer's fantastic storytelling abilities. As an avid reader of magical-realist literature, I find Santacruz's stories of men who make a thousand women fall in love with them and are killed out of jealousy — and whose funerals cause a biblical flood of tears from scorned women across the land — read like a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Mexican author Juan Rulfo.
There's also something to be said for the genre of Mexican ranchera: Most people have heard it, and for non-Mexicans, it can be a difficult style to comprehend, much less embrace. Santacruz embodies ranchera, while making it easily accessible for listeners unaccustomed to this type of music.
So, in honor of the Day of the Dead, sit back with a hot cup of tea, relax and let Rana Santacruz tell you amazing stories. Even if you don't understand the words, it's easy to become engrossed in the language of the man's music.
Cuando Sale La Luna
Ya Me Voy
Si No Estas
Cajita De Barro
Ojitos De Maguey
Cancion De Cuna
Tacho El Gacho
Guajolote y Pavorreal
Se Me Olvido Otra Vez
No Puedo Mas
De Que Manera
Noche De Perros
El Funeral De Tacho
La Plaza De La Flor
We can play from 45 minutes to 1:30 hr. We include a few covers of traditional Mexican Music but with a twist.