The members of Debajo del Agua, an activist-minded Latin American hip-hop collective started in Denver fifteen years ago, are spread around the country. Add the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s difficult for them to get together to play, let alone to record.
They did it anyway — in part to keep their sanity amid the trials and tribulations facing the world. Those sessions resulted in a new record, Mosaico, that pushes and expands the boundaries of the collective's sound.
Bandmember Pavlo Kee says that Debajo del Agua usually records live in the studio, but because of the pandemic, the group had to conduct business a little differently this time around. He and his brother, Dani Cornejo, who both live in northern California, constructed the new songs over the Internet with input from a handful of fellow musicians.
“From a sound perspective, it sounds a lot more hip-hop because of how it was produced,” Pavlo says. “We still use all of our live instruments. … This is the first album that we made completely on our own. In terms of creative control, it sounds like we want it to sound.”
Even with their hip-hop sounds — they used samples from the famed Roland 808 drum machine — the album resists cultural and musical borders. The musicians jump between various Latin American genres, trap beats and even ska, and their lyrics span languages.
“We have everything ranging from Afro-Peruvian festejo style on our first song, ‘Desahogo,’ to ska and Andean music on ‘Skandina!!,” notes Pavlo, adding that they experimented with Mexican banda music on “Mariposa.”
Cornejo, who's currently based in Oakland, says that “Mariposa” marked the first time the Debajo del Agua tackled the banda genre in their music, which has swayed more toward Andean-style playing. (Both brothers sing and rap on the album, and they shared production duties.)
“It’s a very popular genre in Mexico,” Cornejo says. “We’re northern Mexican on our mother’s side. On my mom’s side, we are descendants of the Opata Nation. So that’s kind of a nod to our roots on my mother’s side.”
The record has an upbeat, joyous sound that belies the heavy topics covered in many of the songs.
“Dale Duro,” for example, addresses the cruelty with which the current presidential administration has treated Central and South American immigrants.
“It’s a song that was written in response to the Trump Administration’s immigration policy, and primarily a response to what resembles concentration camps where kids are locked in cages,” Kee says. “It’s a call to solidarity with migrant families that are impacted by human-rights violations.”
Kee teaches at California State University, Chico, and says he’s had numerous students who were allowed to stay in the country under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy passed in 2012 but who are now worried about being deported. His father, who also plays in the band, came to the United States as an exile from Chile, so the hateful policies strike close to home.
“It’s appalling to me that as a nation we are allowing it to happen,” Kee says. “It’s reminiscent of Japanese internment camps back in the day. It’s a continuation of these racist and fascist policies and practices.”
“Mariposa” also tackles immigration, using the metaphor of the monarch butterfly — which migrates between Mexico and the United States on a yearly basis — to make the case that migration in North America is a natural and beautiful thing.
“It also addresses Trump’s immigration policies,” Kee says. “One of the themes in the album is definitely immigrant rights for all people who come to this country, whether legally or illegally.”
The juxtaposition of happy sounds with somber, socially conscious lyrics comes from his embrace of the rude-boy style present in reggae music, Kee says. Salsa music often conveys serious messages over danceable, accessible music.
“Saul Williams said it best,” Cornejo explains. “He said hip-hop rhythms make you nod your head in affirmation, and sometimes you are affirming a toxic message. But then the goal is to have whoever’s listening to the music be affirming, in their body movement, a positive message or a socially relevant message.”
The title of the album, Mosaico, alludes to the mélange of styles present on the album, but the concept sprang from a time when Cornejo and his wife were part of an Aztec dance group that traveled to the Four Corners area several years ago to dance in Hopi lands. During a conversation, one of the other dancers talked about the idea that Indigenous Mexican culture, prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, was complete — a whole clay pot, so to speak. The colonizers shattered the pot into a thousand pieces. The band explores the idea on the song “Olla de Barro.”
“Those of us who are descendants of Native peoples in Mexico and other parts of Latin America, our job in the present is to collect as many of those pieces as we can,” Kee says. The concept is reflected on the album through lyrics sung in several languages and music that reflects different cultures within Latin America.
“We gathered as many pieces as we can,” he says. “Our goal is to gather the pieces — not to re-create the pieces as they were, but to repurpose the pieces into a mosaic that we can use in the present.”
Mosaico is now available on all streaming platforms. Debajo del Agua’s entire discography is available at Bandcamp.
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