The Return of Rita Indiana, A Singular Icon of Dominican Music

A report by Isabelia Herrera for Pitchfork.

Rita Indiana has a love for the monstrous. The celebrated Dominican writer and performer, appropriately known back home as “La Montra” (literally, “The Monster”), collides horror, science fiction, queer aesthetics, thrash metal, and merengue without batting an eye. She has spent her life engaging questions of Caribbean subjectivity through her novels and music, rich and clever meditations that set fire to any predetermined sense of convention. Her striking physicality is not unlike the outsized role she plays in a new generation of Dominican culture-makers: Rita is 6 feet tall, with long, lanky limbs, and sports a massive neck tattoo that reads “Mario.” “I always liked horror movies, because they told me something about myself,” she tells me over Zoom.

A decade ago, Indiana hinted at that lifelong obsession with darkness on El Juidero, a raucous album that collided Afro-Caribbean rhythms like gagá and merengue with doomsday guitar riffs and krautrock synths. It introduced her as a key figure of Dominican roots music, a movement that reimagines the island’s folkloric sounds. The album was a spectacular exploration of Dominicanness, weaving incisive critiques of historical injustice and stories of diasporic joy and loss with razor-sharp slang, swagger, and humor in a way only Rita could. El Juiderotransformed her into a local celebrity; in 2010, she was nominated for the Dominican equivalent of a Grammy and caused a stir among conservative and homophobic press outlets when she appeared on the red carpet for the awards ceremony holding hands with her now-wife Noelia Quintero.

Frustrated with the pressures of fame, Indiana quit music in 2011 and returned to her first love of writing. She spent the second half of the decade releasing a series of award-winning novels, becoming a fervent social critic and one of the foremost figures of contemporary Caribbean literature. Still, fans waited desperately for some kind of musical comeback. It wasn’t until this week that they would get a full record: the explosive and ineffable Mandinga Times.

Produced by former Calle 13 member Eduardo Cabra, the album arrives judiciously, in the midst of global uncertainty and political unrest. For the release, she’s crafted a duplicitous, sharp-witted alter ego, a demonic and prophetic creature in black-and-white face paint that she says falls somewhere between a dembowsero and a Black Sabbath acolyte. (Mandinga, originally the name of a West African ethnic group that arrived in the Caribbean through the slave trade, has a tangled and racist history, which Rita says has evolved to mean everything from a gay man to someone with a big penis.) Indiana sees the project as a kind of songbook for the apocalypse. “When I first said that [about the record], I said it in a frivolous way, perhaps,” she notes. “But then the environment and all these energies that have nothing to do with you bring other meanings. The album means something completely different now.”

In spite of the darkness of this time, Rita has managed to carve out spaces of survival. She speaks to me over Zoom from her home in Puerto Rico, where she’s lived for over 10 years with her wife, kids, and two dogs, Piña and Mona. Here, she recounts her days growing up in the Santo Domingo metal scene, her hopes for the Dominican Republic, and her decision to make music again.

Rita Indiana: Something happened in these last 10 years, and it’s that I wrote [my 2015 novel] La mucama de Omicunlé, which for me, is the best thing that I’ve made as an artist so far. I see it as the most profound reflection about the Caribbean and being from there that I’ve made–about the consequences of colonialism, slavery, and above all, about gender and identity. There’s a weight that came after that novel that’s on the album in some way. Not a darkness, but maybe the audacity to confront difficult things head on and to be able to analyze and deal with them. I knew that something was coming [after the novel]; I didn’t know it was an album. When [producer] Eduardo [Cabra] started begging and begging me, I thought it was time.The album speaks to this idea of apocalypse and to all of the injustices we’re experiencing in the world. But you started working on it before the pandemic, before the protests, before this year.

We started to give it shape in October, but we were really in it when we started hearing about coronavirus. In January, the earthquakes [in Puerto Rico] started. But remember, we still haven’t recovered from [Hurricane] María. So there’s this accumulation of traumatic events that the island of Puerto Rico has lived through, and Eduardo and I are part of that.

I want to think of everything that’s happening as a lesson that we need to learn. To change this shit. Uno aprende a coñazos, as they say. I’ve learned a lot in this lockdown. I understand that I’m a woman who’s more privileged than she thought–I can feed my children. I have a home that hasn’t collapsed because of an earthquake. I’ve been able to live off of my art for the last few years.I wanted to talk about your collaboration with dembow artist Kiko El Crazy, because people really didn’t expect it.

He’s an extremely sweet, extremely humble, and very respectful guy. And a dope artist. I wanted there to be that element of Dominican urbano on the album, because I’ve also been inspired by Dominican urbano. I’m not just going to make something with an indie person, or people in the fusion [movement], which is what everyone was expecting. I come from a middle-class background and I’m a writer, so it’s like, “With Kiko!?” Well, it’s with Kiko that I want to collaborate [laughs].

I was raised in my grandmother’s house until the age of 7. My great grandmother and my grandfather lived there too and we listened to a lot of boleros at night. When the power would go out, everyone would go out on the balcony or the veranda to cool off and they’d put on a show called “100 Songs and a Million Memories” on a little battery-powered radio. As a little girl, the voice of the host was super creepy, but the boleros stayed with me.

At my house, there wasn’t rock, pop, or any of that. We’d listen to Mexican pop, like Juan Gabriel, or romantic ballads from Spain, like Raphael, Rocío Jurado. We’d listen to merengue by Wilfrido Vargas, Johnny Ventura—the stars of the golden age of merengue.

Soon I started listening to different things. I became super addicted to MTV, like all Gen-Xers. MTV was my babysitter, my best friend, and my favorite teacher. I consumed everything that came out of MTV, but I always liked the aesthetic of metal. I also liked rockabilly a lot. I remember when I saw the movie The Outsiders, that sort of greaser vibe—I really liked that vibe of rock and roll of the ’50s, because I always liked the masculine aesthetic of rock. It always caught my attention, like I could look like that one day.What was the punk and metal scene in Santo Domingo like in the ’80s and ’90s?

When I was 12 or 13, my father died in a tragic way. I never went to therapy after that violent death. My therapy was thrash metal. [With it], I managed to articulate a little bit of what was happening to me, in terms of understanding and dealing with his death. I turned it into something where I felt more or less comfortable—a space of reflection about life, death, and everything that was going through my head at that early age. I started making friends with the few metalheads who were in Santo Domingo at that time, we’re talking ’89 or ’90. I started finding these kids that, turns out, were also skaters. They were like my first chosen community. They protected me a lot; sometimes I was the only girl in a group of 10 or 20 guys.

Then I started to open up my horizons a bit, because I was getting sick of listening to only metal. I started listening to merengue again. Pochy y Su Cocoband was popular in the ’90s, and I started listening to them behind my friends’ back, because that shit was almost like a cult. You couldn’t listen to merengue and be a metalhead. So I was like a closeted merenguera [laughs].That sense of darkness comes out in your music and in your visuals.

It definitely has to do with that crucial event in my life, which was my father’s murder when I was 12. It didn’t make me sad, because I’ve always been someone who is quite optimistic, even though my wife says I’m not [laughs]. But that gave me perspective on life—how short it is, how fast [snaps] it can disappear, no?

It also has to do with [my spirituality]. In Afro-Cuban santería, my tutelary orisha [guardian deity] is Oya. Oya is the orisha of the hurricane, the winds of change—the air that allows us to live. It’s a deity that’s quite dark—a deity that lives at the gate of a cemetery, so it’s on the border between life and death. I think that’s an interest that I was born with—that curiosity for the monstrous, for death, for the unknown, for the occult.

Also, remember that we come from a country where there have been multiple dictatorships. Not one, many. They say that Santo Domingo is a house of terror, that they’ve killed so many innocent people in a violent way. During [Rafael] Trujillo’s dictatorship, there were 50,000 murders or disappearances, and with [his successor Joaquín] Balaguer, several thousand more. And the [Parsley] Massacre that happened in 1937. Call it what you want—energy, dead spirits—but it stays in a place where terrible things happen. One has a certain sensitivity as an artist and can feel these worlds that existed.What would your hopes for the new Dominican government be? Or for the country in general?

[Sighs deeply, laughs] Oh my god. Let’s see. I have faith in community organizing. I have faith in the LGBT community—or all LGBT communities, because it’s not just one. I have faith in the communities in which people organize themselves. I don’t believe in the government much.

Unfortunately, as we all know, the Dominican political system is extremely corrupt. I want to feel hopeful and say, “Coño, they’re electing more women, people who have impeccable resumes”—you know, people who aren’t thieves. But sadly, the problem is that power is like a horror movie. It’s like a house that people enter, where there are dead bodies, and the dead possess them. And they transform into the shit that was there before.

rita indiana

How did you come up with the idea of creating a character for the album?

I’ve always loved Bowie’s work. Like I said, I also come from metal, where there’s a whole culture of theatrical makeup to perform this demonic, lethal, aggressive, or violent [aesthetic]. It’s also an homage to [Beetlejuice] and all of Tim Burton’s work, which I love. I wanted to perform a character, because it was more comfortable to make the transition to music again that way, through the comfort of a character who’s taking your place. But I am Mandinga; Mandinga is La Montra.

It’s a hybrid character that takes a lot of forms. It could be an alien, a sea creature. It’s definitely queer. It’s more like a nonbinary monster.What impact has living in Puerto Rico had on your music?

I say it’s not my second home, it’s my first home. My kids live here, and I have great friends and collaborators here. I found a space here as a creator, as a performance artist, as everything. Here is where I found a space for my strange gender identity, my sexuality, my way of seeing life. I found a space of freedom and it continues being a space of freedom.

Puerto Rico is a place that has radicalized me a bit, in terms of the colonial question. And because it’s a colony, it’s a place of contradictions too. I have my green card, but I’m always thinking about the question of independence for Puerto Rico. This is a colony of abuse, of slavery. Maybe it’s a form of domination that’s more passive aggressive, but maybe for that reason it’s even more perverse.

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