Being able to look at the absurdity of colonization from underground, like a fungus that only emerges here and there but tells a cohesive story, is something we are all capable of. However, to bring a system’s failures into the blinding light of day and call them what they are, requires guts. Right now, a pandemic rages out of control in the United States due to the failures of a government run almost unchecked by a cruel would-be-autocrat. Meanwhile, the most marginalized among us — the poor, the black and brown — not surprisingly suffer the greatest losses. The most privileged among us have a chance to see the failures in a societal structure that has counted on racism and economic vulnerability to lurch forward with an agenda that has never worked.
It’s a horrid thing to witness. And it should shock no one and everyone in equal measure. OCORARA 2010 tells a version of this story, one referencing West Coast forest fires brought on by climate change but fought in part by prison labor making less than minimum wage. In other words, a small piece of a centuries-old, failing system that connects directly to what we’re watching unfold right now.
Elysia Crampton, an Amerindian artist who has addressed South American indigenous identity and challenged binaries, has found ways to create work that feels organically unpredictable, music that defies boundaries and eschews the veneer of newness. Over the last decade-plus, she’s dropped brief spots at once ugly and hilarious, draped Peruvian huayno music in electronica, and blurred lines between the club and the theater with an epic poem told from the perspective of the severed limbs of Andean abolitionist, Bartolina Sisa, a woman who has since been considered a legend in Bolivian history.
For its 70-minute running time, OCORARA 2010 — an LP dedicated to Paul Sousa, who was an incarcerated firefighter who spent years putting out negligence-induced blazes in California’s Sierra Nevada range — blends deeply meditative drones with “misreadings” of Latinx poets such as Jaime Saenz and Juan Roman Jimenez. From the first bleak, minor-key piano rumblings of lead-off track “Secret Ravine”, this doesn’t sound like anything else Crampton has released. We’re entering a dark cavern, frightened by the torments of a tympani drum, and the echoing shrieks of ghosts.
Elsewhere, on “Crucifixion”, Shannon Funchess’s apocalyptic vocals work in tandem with a carpet of minimal synth and rattling bones before giving way to some truly skittish piano. Other tracks kick and fidget against the record’s often suspended patterns. “Amaru-Otorongo”, named for a mythological Incan serpent, revels in nervous pricks of notes. Meanwhile, “Spring of Wound” pits a wobbly keyboard under unruly percussion, both of which morph over the track’s increasingly joyous five minutes.
Of particular interest are the poems read by guitarist and vocalist Jeremy Rojas. They seem to function as a type of redemption that appears here and there on top of synth and piano drones bursting toward some faint light. On occasion, as on “Sierra Nevada”, his voice scraps with hunks of chopped noise. Yet, recited in an assured monotone, they feel like salvation amidst turbulence. Or perhaps a firm grounding where the music might otherwise float away. And it’s the contradictory human condition that makes many us want that endless levitation while often needing a sense of rootedness.
That’s what this album feels like. It allows itself time to meander, to ponder some sort of unidentifiable essence over piano chords while using spoken poetry or other guest vocalists to keep the listener from drifting away entirely. It’s ultimately a deep, unsettlingly immersive experience, yet it sanctions an almost unbearable intensity to be buoyed by a hard-won acceptance.