Imagine if Theodor Adorno wrote Disney princess songs -- only, you know, with a salsa band.
Tucked neatly into the middle of Sergent Garcia’s Una y Otra Vez, like hand drums hidden inside a ragamuffin’s backpack, are two fine little songs. Handily enough, they showcase opposite ends of the multilingual Paris band’s skill set. At the maximal end of the spectrum is “El Baile del Diablo” (“Dance of the Devil” -- MWA-hahaha!), a polyrhythmic funk rap, with flutes tooting off horns, and the voices of bandleader Bruno Garcia and Colombian guest rapper Rocca bouncing off everything else. They attack politicians who perpetuate ignorance and poverty; at one point Garcia and some chipmunk voice shriek, “Váyanse demonios, yo no bailo mas!” (“Get out of here, devils, I’m not dancing anymore!”) Exciting stuff.
Next song “En Mi Mochila” (“In My Backback”) is a study in minimalism, as stripped down as “Diablo” is overstuffed, but just as vibrant. In his liner notes Garcia calls it a guaguancó -- just a few percussion instruments playing a Cuban rumba, while Garcia’s suave honk of a voice calls and responds with a co-ed chorus. In this song Garcia plays a wandering drummer, bestowing perfume on the women, caramels on the children, and the Gift of Dance upon all humanity. As the voices crescendo and invoke the miraculous Virgin of Charity, it’s easy to get carried away in the vision of this itinerant rumbadour. Kind of a hackneyed vision, true, but when the music’s this good I don’t complain.
The rest of the songs, though, are basically well-executed genre exercises with exactly zero surprises. The exceptionally detailed CD booklet lists 12 regular members of the band, all of whom sound like they’ve planned their music to within an inch of its life. Whether playing reggae, salsa, bolero, rap, or one of their invented offshoot genres, they are chivalrous, polite, and well-heeled. Solos and fills fall neatly between cracks in the melodies, most of which sound like uninspired first drafts. Even the rhythms, which you’d figure would kick, tend to simply pick one thing and do it over and over.
This is disappointing, because Garcia the lyricist obviously sees himself as anything but polite. He’s an outsider, a rebel. In fact, he is... salsamuffin. This is helpfully explained in the song “Yo Soy Salsamuffin”, where Spanish toaster Supa Bassie sums up the salsamuffin genre: “CUMbia, RAGga, DANCEHALL con SON!” And since he is salsamuffin, Garcia continues, he lives on the corner, he is Tomorrow, and he is Culture. In the French rock song “Chacun Son Combat” (“Everybody Has Their Battles”), he’s a freedom-fighter, hunting “Nazis nostalgiques” and railing against the multinationales that confuse art and money. In other songs he dreams of better tomorrows, where everyone loves and sees beyond the horizon and dances like it’s their last dance. Imagine if Theodor Adorno wrote Disney princess songs.
The trouble with salsamuffin and cumbiamuffin, Garcia’s other invention, is that they’re way better in theory than they are coming out your boomin’ system. The cumbiamuffin tune, “Mi Son Mi Friend”, is a marginally pleasant electro-cumbia that has Colombian singer Li Saumet bragging about how heavy and mind-blowing the song’s rhythm is. No, no, no -- it’s a thin little beat that pales in comparison to the fat cumbias of A.B. Quintanilla or Diana Reyes, both of whom happen to record for a multinationale and therefore confuse art with money. In fact, they work for Sergent Garcia’s old label! (It rhymes with “unlimited supply”.)
For all the “-muffin” talk, Garcia’s band rarely cuts loose. Both Garcia and his closest globetrotting compatriot, Manu Chao, have released loose and shaggy music in the past, with songs of wildly different lengths sweeping you along in their fevered flow. For everything it’s got going on, Una y Otra Vez sounds awfully samey. Its 13 songs of exceedingly polite grooviness and hybrid “muffin” genres would not be unduly noticed playing overhead at your local Starbucks.