First Listen: Ana Tijoux, 'Vengo'
In the '90s, Chile experienced an artistic wave as the children of political exiles returning after the fall of dictator Augusto Pinochet brought enormous changes. Of course, waves never come alone: They bring in shells and rocks and souvenirs from faraway lands. The returning children of exiles brought new cultural trinkets with them in the form of music, words and ideas they picked up as their parents roamed the earth, waiting to come back. That wave also brought in hip-hop, and Chile became a hot scene for the genre. One of its nascent stars was French-Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux.
Tijoux had been around for a while, but most of the world beyond Chile came to know her for her stellar album 1977. It was a deeply introspective, at times melancholy record. In it, she was untangling herself, and it was a beautiful dance to watch. She talked about growing up in exile; about being a writer. Tijoux does what she pleases with the Spanish language, melting it and rearranging it to her liking. Later on, as a guest DJ on Alt.Latino, she told me and co-host Felix Contreras about her love of jazz, and we weren't surprised. The way she refashions language is the same perfect, logical chaos that made me fall in love with jazz in the first place.
La Bala (The Bullet), her next album, was wildly different. True to its name, it's a take-no-prisoners, precise, powerful piece. Tijoux had spent a good deal of time being introspective in 1977, and that had given her the strength to look outwards. And how could she not? The record came out at a time in which Chile was starting to experience a strong popular protest movement — which was met with government repression. In fact, the title La Bala was interpreted by many fans to address an incident in which a young protester was killed by Chilean police.
Tijoux's musical evolution has been mesmerizing because it's so real: She follows no formulas or marketing equations, and every album feels like it narrates a moment in her life. Vengo, or I Come, is a suitably al dente title: not too hard, not too soft, just right to bite into. Tijoux's self-analysis hasn't devolved into narcissism or neuroticism; her anger hasn't calcified into bitterness or preachiness. In fact, she's always asking and searching: "I come in search of answers," she says at one point. "Anxious to learn the untold history of our ancestors." A strong, mature woman, she can calmly love, fight, ask and be happy — and make amazing music in the process.
As relaxed as her approach is, Tijoux is clearly a perfectionist, because the music of Vengo is virtually flawless. The album opens with a stunning track by the same name, an explosion of energy which sets the tone for the music that follows. Her lyrics are about indigenous pride ("our black hair / our high cheekbones"), and so is the music. Throughout the album, Tijoux mixes Andean sounds with hip-hop beats and blaring trumpets. It's so refreshing to hear Andean music — which is melancholy and sweet and effervescent, but often done a disservice by bland "world music" labels — get this treatment. In the feminist anthem "Antipatriarca," Tijoux displays the music of the Andes in all its feistiness and joy. I would have liked to hear more of the jazz Tijoux loves so much, but there are a few mellow, gorgeous jazz tunes to savor here, as well.
Vengo is simply fantastic, and worth savoring through and through. And, if you're in Austin for SXSW, make sure you stop by to watch our intimate talk with the rapper on Thursday, March 13.