No matter what language it adopts, hip-hop is based on the premise of making something out of nothing. In the States, that meant early pioneers using soul, funk, disco, jazz, rock, and Latin music as the foundation on which to build a new sound that reinterpreted those elements in a contemporary context.
Chilean rapper-singer Ana Tijoux clearly has an appreciation for hip-hop’s history; anyone who has heard her 2010 breakthrough album, “1977,” a collection steeped in the sample-based boom-bap tradition of the genre’s golden age, would surely agree. Yet in its own way, “Vengo,” released in March, adheres even more strongly to the idea of breathing new life into existing musical ideas, despite being completely sample-free. Just like her predecessors in the Bronx during the ’80s, Tijoux is reaching into the past to find something new.
“I think its got something to do with the velocity of the world,” Tijoux says of her approach on “Vengo,” speaking on the phone from New York ahead of her performance on Sunday at Brighton Music Hall. “I don’t know if it’s me becoming more old, but everything to me goes too fast: technology, kids, the way we communicate. With hip-hop, it’s the same. I think hip-hop arrived to a point where everyone wants to do something so fresh and new and young, and what about what is old? The old records and old sounds, even the sounds of our country, what about that? It’s deeper than just the music.”
For Tijoux, 36, that meant experimenting with ways in which to place hip-hop in the context of the broad spectrum of Latin American sounds — cumbia, rhumba, folk, even pop — that she grew up with, and following the often emotional paths that presented themselves.
“I was taking a class of harmony in Chile with someone, and I remember he was taking the acoustic guitar. And then he started playing charango [a small Andean lute], and I became super-overemotional,” Tijoux recalls. “And he said, ‘That is normal, Ana. This is the music of your grandmother’s grandmother. It’s the DNA of your family.’ That’s why it was natural after that point to say, What about if we put a mixture of hip-hop and charango and cuatro [a Puerto Rican lute], and see what happens? Even if we are wrong, I don’t think we lose anything.”
Working with producer Andres Celis and a large band, Tijoux describes the recording process as a “laboratory,” but the results are far from unpolished. Andean pan flutes color the title track — “a manifesto,” she calls it — with a mystical, earthy vibe, providing the platform for Tijoux to revive the spirit of her Mapuche Indian ancestor in her lyrics. “Rio Abajo,” which she deemed the most challenging song to write on “Vengo,” finds her rapping from the perspective of water (“I am the water, I am the life, I’m the mother of the crystal fountain”). Apart from a few tracks, particularly her collaboration with Palestinian female MC Shadia Mansour on “Somos Sur,” the album feels like a slight departure from the sharp political and social commentary of her prior releases. If so, it’s not by design.
“It’s funny, because in my vision, I wanted this to be even more political than [my previous albums],” says Tijoux. But what she sees as the album’s “radical push” is delivered with seductive sounds. “The music is so beautiful that sometimes you don’t go [for the lyrics],” she says. “I don’t want to convince people that are already convinced, and I don’t want to talk to musicians; I want to talk with people who aren’t convinced at all. That’s why the music is much more soft, more kind.”
Elaborating, she says she wants to talk to kids and mothers, since she’s a mother herself. “How can I explain to my kid that a cellphone is not good for him? He’s too young,” Tijoux says. “All the other kids have one, so now I’m the enemy. I was trying to make an album to explain to him there is other ways to communicate with kids, other ways to play. I’m not saying that everything is the enemy, but it’s going too fast. Don’t try to go too fast with your velocity of life. But if I say it like that, he will never listen to me. So that’s why I feel like making songs, the message goes through much better.”
Regardless of the language barrier, her approach seems to be working. Tijoux’s current touring setup includes a guitarist, a bassist, a drummer, and a DJ, meaning her sonic “laboratory” continues its experimentation during each performance. In its own way, that’s as hip-hop as it gets.
“I call it a laboratory because I was more familiar with beats and DJs and whatever,” says Tijoux, “so this interest comes from the music we listened to as kids, that is part of our history. Even if it was new, it wasn’t very far away from what we know, because we are very familiar in this history called music.”Martín Caballero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_el_caballero.