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A few weeks ago, I crossed the tense city of Caracas, Venezuela, to meet with La Vida Boheme singer Henry D'Arthenay. The country's presidential elections were a few days away, pitting Hugo Chavez's handpicked successor, socialist candidate Nicolas Maduro — who has since won — against conservative Henrique Capriles. Political violence was already bubbling, but in this heavily armed city, violence has long boiled over. Which is why I was caught off guard, while talking politics with D'Arthenay over coffee, when he said, "Latin America is the future."
"I have seen the future, and it works," he shouts in the frenetic "El Futuro Funciona," from La Vida Boheme's second album, Sera. When I first heard the line, the possibility of sarcasm crossed my mind. But the more I listen to Sera, the more I think of Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, a book that functions as a metaphor for Latin American history. Sera masterfully portrays Venezuela's current volatility, but also captures the uncertainty, hope, brutality and incredible possibilities in Latin America today.
La Vida Boheme has done well in establishing itself — not as a rock band, not as an alternative band, not as a punk band, but as a band that does whatever it pleases. While the poor, beautiful genre of cumbia gets beaten to death by hipsters with a Manu Chao complex around the world, and while other less adventurous groups insist on sounding like English-language rock 'n' roll cover bands, La Vida Boheme has followed in the footsteps of the legendary Mexican group Café Tacvba: It's taken Latin rock and made it Latin again. Musically, lyrically and thematically.
In "El Futuro," the band does a fantastic job blending elements of jazz, dance, rock and traditional Latin percussion. Every piece of every song is carefully thought out: "Antes Era Mejor" (It Was Better Before) starts out with vintage tape and quickly escalates into industrial beats. "The party is over," D'Arthenay sings, "and now the racket is just elevator music." It's one of the most accurate portrayals of the frenetic chaos that has become the norm in Caracas — and across Latin America — today.
La Vida Boheme's members have described themselves as political without representing any one party. But in Venezuela, a country that has succeeded in many ways and failed in others, it's hard not to read into the frantic chants of, "We no longer believe in you." The cinematic, breathtakingly vast and desolate "La Bestia" (The Beast) conjures images of Venezuelan oil dependency: "A beast looks closely at my heart / and knows that I hide in it a seed of great ambition / He leaves the gate open / to watch my weak attempts / He knows that even if I want to, I can't leave him / Ever. Ever. Ever." But maybe it's not; maybe it's just about a particularly difficult personal affair. That's the beauty of this record: Like any great novel, it might be about everyday individuals or something much bigger. It's telling that this album is called Sera — the future-tense verb "it will be."
The record closes off a frantic ride with the comparatively mellow "Ariadna," which again conveys multiple meanings: It could be about a lost love or something larger: "I do not know if I will die waiting for you ... I will not move, may they bury me in asphalt / I will be here, the day this song is more than just faith ... How could I not wait? How could I not wait for you? I wait for you, hope."