A review by Stephanie Fernández for Pitchfork.
On her first album in a decade, the Dominican iconoclast delivers an explosive comeback full of horror scenes, metal sounds, and post-colonial politics.
In her decade away from music, Rita Indiana returned to writing novels. Her prose, when dealing in speculative and science fiction, often operates at the end of worlds large and small in the wake of personal and political destruction. Her latest album, Mandinga Times, follows suit. Produced by Eduardo Cabra (formerly of the Puerto Rican band Calle 13), Mandinga Times hangs heavier than the flash of 2010’s El Juidero, this time with inflections of the metal scenes and horror movies that gave her a language for queer identity.
And every horror movie has its monster. The dembow-meets-metal friction of “Como un Dragón” introduces the album’s protagonist, Mandinga, the soothsayer of an apocalypse atrocious and banal unfolding in real time. (As Pitchfork editor Isabelia Herrera also noted, the word “mandinga” is derived from the name of the Mandinka ethnic group of West Africa, a word whose Caribbean history began in the transatlantic slave trade and still carries racist overtones.) With a face painted in black and white, Mandinga shapeshifts in subterfuge against colonial frameworks of power, spirituality, and storytelling with traditional Afro-Caribbean genres woven in with Indiana’s metal instincts.
But it’s on “Mandinga Times” that Mandinga looks outward with apocalyptic clarity: impending climate disaster, the progression of consumerism and late capitalism, violence, persecution, and children in cages. “Tick-tock,” she counts down over a rapid alí-babá beat used in regional Dominican carnavales. She’s joined by an unlikely collaborator, the incredibly popular Dominican dembow artist Kiko El Crazy, whose echoes of the axiom “no te dejes” and “la pámpara” float over the track like a Vincent Price narration in a haunted house.
“Power is like a horror movie,” Indiana recently told Pitchfork. It corrupts the body, it feeds on fear. Throughout the record, Mandinga observes this tension from a precarious ledge. “Miedo” is a reggaeton romántico about the intimacy of intense passion and the inseparable threat of violence that targets queer love around the world. On “El Zahir,” named after the 1947 Jorge Luis Borges short story and its titular coin, Indiana illustrates the power on one side of capital and the death on the other. A post-punk riff churns over gagá, an Afro-Dominican rhythm descended from Haiti’s rara, with a deathly interlude from Norwegian musician Sakari Jäntti.
In her writing and music, Indiana has scrutinized the Dominican Republic’s legacies of anti-Black and anti-Haitian violence and government corruption, the ways that these hegemonies exert power across the Caribbean and Latin America, and how marginalized peoples resist violence throughout history. Mandinga witnesses the lasting fallout. On Mandinga Times, she frequently references Puerto Rico—where she’s lived for the last decade—and its legacy of anti-colonial resistance. On “The Heist,” Indiana partners with boricua singer MIMA in a Western tale that recounts the $7 million robbery of a Wells Fargo in Hartford, Connecticut in 1983 by Los Macheteros in the name of the movement for Puerto Rican independence. “El Flaco de la Mancha” subverts the quixotic hero’s delusions of grandeur and chivalry, guided instead by art, beauty, and the watch of the Afro-Cuban orisha Yemayá. And on the penultimate track, “Pa’ Ayotzinapa,” Indiana departs musically and geographically from the Caribbean for a rock-en-español bolero with Café Tacvba’s Rubén Albarrán, a story of a pilgrimage to Ayotzinapa, Mexico to honor the 43 disappeared teaching student activists that went missing in Iguala in 2014.
Mandinga Times closes on an atypical end for monsters with “Claroscuro”; Mandinga isn’t destroyed and doesn’t evolve out of their monstrosity. By contrast, the reality Mandinga observes isgrotesque, a system run by those in power who drape oppression in the myth of normalcy and order. Nothing and no one in Mandinga’s time are free of the responsibility to dismantle systems of oppression. She does not automatically absolve Mandinga either, but she allows them to change, offering something of a final consolation: “Rosas y espinas son parte de una deslumbrante criatura,” or, “Roses and thorns are part of a dazzling creature.”