Q&A

Café Tacvba lead singer on Mexico violence: 'We live between mafias'

.@cafetacvba singer Ruben Albarran on the band's legacy, rock en Espanol in the U.S., missing Mexican students

There are albums. And then there are seminal albums. The kind that mark a before and after point in music, the sort whose influence is long-running and far-reaching. In the world of Latin American rock, that album is "Re," a 20-song release from 1994 by the Mexico City band Café Tacvba (pronounced "Tacuba").

"Re," with its jangling mix of musical styles and vocals that went from growls to wails, helped define what a distinctly Latin American rock could sound like. The album took a mind-bogglingly number of musical styles — pop, hard-driving punk, testosterone rock guitar, springy ska, synth-infused New Wave and the oompa sounds of Mexican brass — put them in a musical blender, and hit "liquefy."

With smart, biting lyrics that touched on love, loss, hate, politics and even modernism, the album was hailed by the New York Times as "the equivalent of the Beatles' White Album for the Rock en Español movement." In the Los Angeles Times, influential critic Josh Kun dubbed it a "landmark." And Rolling Stone put "Re" at the top of its "Top 10 Greatest Latin Rock Albums of All Time." 

It has been exactly 20 years since Café Tacvba produced "Re," what was then its second album. This year also marks the group's 25th anniversary. And this singular musical group — made up of lead singer Rubén Albarrán, guitarist Joselo Rangel, bassist Enrique "Quique" Rangel and keyboardist Emmanuel del Real — is marking the occasion with a worldwide tour that will include performing "Re" in its entirety.

This weekend, the band plays a blizzard of gigs in the Southland, including shows in Pomona, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. Earlier this week, I spoke with the sprightly Albarrán, the band's shape-shifting frontman, via telephone from Las Vegas. He discussed "Re's" initial tepid reception, why he thinks the U.S. mainstream will never embrace rock en Español, and why the case of 43 missing students in Mexico is so important to him and to Mexico.

Twenty years later, what does it feel like to go back and revisit the work that you did on "Re"?

I think it's an incredible photograph of who we were at that moment as people, a band and a society. The album represents an eclectic society, which is Mexican society. I like it a lot now that we are playing it retrospectively. It's very faithful and honest. I'm grateful for what we managed to do 20 years ago. Even now, we're enjoying the benefits of it, the artistic benefits, the benefits to our souls. We are still generating work out of it. We are still living off of it.

I read that you have never performed the entire album live in its entirety. So this tour represents the first time you'll be doing that?

I don't remember well. There may be songs like "Madrugal," which we didn't play live at the time. It's quite beautiful to go back and play it completely. That's when you really understand the concept, what we wanted to communicate with those 20 songs. Our culture is comprised of so many diverse pieces. Obviously, we grew up with rock. But we were always influenced and bombarded by so much traditional musical, regional music and beyond: boleros, bossa nova, jazz and disco (which our older sisters passed on to us). That was the universe we developed and we wanted to represent that.

It marked a real moment in Latin American rock.

What's funny is that in the beginning it wasn't all that well received. People said, "What did Café Tacvba do? They got lost." It's the classic second album that nobody likes. We had the good fortune that in Chile they started to like the music we were making and for a couple of years we had a lot of work there. Otherwise, we might have just disappeared. That's why we have such a special relationship with Chile.

How has the band managed to continue to collaborate so successfully after 25 years?

The essence of our group has been creation. Any time we've done a new project, we have been satisfied with it and that gives us energy. Secondly, we're very respectful. We give each other space. Every time we end a cycle, we give each other a good amount of time in which we can develop individual alternative projects. That gives us fresh air. We collaborate with other people, learn new methods, travel or read. We nourish ourselves. And so when we return, there's an energy to it.

Café Tacvba's music has never settled on a single sound and you've never settled on a single identity. You've been known by a variety of monikers, including Cosme, Rita Cantalagua and Efegio Buendía. Why all the shifts in persona?

It's part of being open to change, knowing that you can't be the same, even if you try. Each time you're different. It's staying open to the mystery of what's coming. That's very important to me. Without mystery, there isn't beauty.

On your most recent album "El objeto antes llamado disco" ("The Object Previously Known as a Record"), you changed the process a bit, playing songs as you recorded them before a small audience. Why introduce spectators into the recording process?

Having witnesses, that changes the way you execute. For the first album, we didn't know that we'd be making a record or signing with a record company. As we went making the songs, we'd play them live. So by the time we got around to recording them, the songs were very mature. By the time we got around to the second album, it was different. The songs were recorded and then they were presented to the public. So that's what we tried to do with this album, to create something that had been presented to a public, even a small public. In the studio, a musician is alone. The minute he comes before someone, he sings in a different way. That moment, that was the photograph we wanted to make.

You are renowned for harvesting sounds. The latest album includes the song "Olita de Alta Mar," which features Andean sounds. What inspired that?

Our visits to the Andes have been abundant and we've always been surprised by the area. We've always been intrigued by Andean culture and its music. It's precisely part of what we want to express. We're mestizos [of mixed race]. We are the result of many mixes and we've never tried to make something purist.

Every few years, the U.S. media writes a story talking about how rock en Español is set to finally make a crossover into the mainstream U.S. market, yet it never happens. Why do you think that is?

That's all marketing. I think those comments are directed to the Latino public so that they might feel a certain type of pride and so that they consume more. But I don't really know. I think sometimes that the Anglo-Saxon public isn't really interested in Latino culture or anything that isn't presented in their language. There's a myopia. Yes, there's a small group that is interested and open. It happens in Latin America too. We are myopic and we're not interested in foreign cultures. [But I don't think] there's ever going to be a big boom of Latin American culture in the U.S. They won't get past the margaritas and the guacamole.

Throughout the tour, the band has been making statements about the disappearance of 43 student protesters last seen in police hands. With everything going on in Mexico, why is this particular issue so important to you?

This issue is important for the whole world. It's about a crime of the state. We can't permit this anywhere in the world. We need to be against this. We need to raise our voices and not give loose rein to criminality. What happened to those students could have happened to any of us. [It's about] the state of the way we live in Mexico. We live between mafias. We have the political class on one side, the corporate class on another and the narcotraffickers on the other. And we, the civil class, form part of those mafias. We use their systems. If we're not in accordance with those systems, we have to dismantle them. We have to raise our voices.

Do you think this could provide a tipping point for the violence in Mexico? A moment in which people fight back?

I hope that this is the moment. I hope that this sacrifice of these 43 young people means something. I don't even want to say sacrifice because I don't want to think that they're dead. I would like to send my thoughts to my 43 compatriots: I want you to know the support people are sending. I hope that we see them alive and I want them to know [that] their pain, many of us share.

Is there anything you feel you have yet to do as a band? Something you're yearning to try but haven't gotten around to?

Not really. We have fed ourselves well for 25 years. We feel satisfied and grateful. We don't really need to do anything. But we would like to prolong the pleasure of this moment.

Café Tacvba plays tonight at 7 p.m. at the Fox Theater in Pomona (301 S. Garey Ave., Pomona, foxpomona.com), on Saturday at 4 p.m. at the Santa Barbara Bowl (1122 N. Milpas, Santa Barbara, sbbowl.com) and on Sunday at 7 p.m. at The Wiltern in Los Angeles (3790 Wilshire Blvd., Koreatown, Los Angeles, wiltern.com).

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah. Find Café Tacvba at @cafetacvba.

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