Rita Indiana’s Songs for the Apocalypse

On her new album, the Dominican musician and novelist transforms this miserable moment into something defiant and danceable.

A review by Daniel Alarcón for The New Yorker.

If I close my eyes and concentrate, I can recall what it felt like to go days at a time without considering the end of the world. Now these thoughts are constant, the thrumming background noise of ordinary life, a vast and terrifyingly specific catalogue of horrors. Smoke billows across the West, submerging our cities in a murky orange twilight; more than two hundred thousand Americans die of a virus whose dangers half the country seems intent on ignoring. The world’s most powerful democracy teeters, and children sleep in cages at its southern border. We’ve submitted willingly to mass surveillance and filled the oceans with microscopic plastics; the climate refugees, it turns out, are us. It all happened so fast, or at least it feels that way, speed being an essential feature of this bewildering era we’re staggering through—the relentless, furious acceleration of it all. Surely this is part of the reason that, for the past several weeks, I’ve been listening to the Dominican novelist and musician Rita Indiana’s masterly new album, “Mandinga Times,” on repeat. The title song, which races along at a hundred and ninety beats per minute, is a frenetic, danceable soundtrack for this miserable moment, a song that transforms pain and worry into something plaintive, angry, and defiant. Not every cut maintains this rhythm, but even the quiet ones have a certain urgency. It’s no accident that Indiana calls “Mandinga Times” “a songbook for the apocalypse.”

The album, the forty-three-year-old Indiana’s first in a decade, was produced by Eduardo Cabra, of the legendary Puerto Rican band Calle 13. When Cabra first approached Indiana about a possible collaboration, several years ago, she demurred. She had left Santo Domingo and settled in San Juan, a self-imposed exile from the music industry and from a kind of fame that had drained her. She’d achieved international recognition, but her notoriety at home made daily life intolerable: she couldn’t go anywhere in Santo Domingo without being asked for autographs or selfies. In Puerto Rico, she rediscovered quiet and returned to writing, publishing three novels, including “Tentacle” (2015), a gender-bending sci-fi story set in a near-future Dominican Republic in the aftermath of an environmental catastrophe, and, most recently, “Made in Saturn” (2018), an acerbic comic novel about a flailing, drug-addled Dominican artist who is sent to dry out in Havana, so as not to embarrass his corrupt father in the middle of a political campaign.

Last year, Indiana felt ready to come back to music. Much of the recording was done in the fall, just months after Puerto Rico’s most tumultuous time in recent memory, when two weeks of raucous street protests forced the resignation of the governor. The political energy of last summer is evident on the album; its songs, sung in the voice of Mandinga, Indiana’s gender-neutral alter ego, feel like anthems of discontent. The finishing touches were applied after the world had shut down, making the album feel less like a warning about a dark but still avoidable future and more like musical stenography documenting our current predicament. But, like Indiana’s earlier music, and like her work more broadly, “Mandinga Times” is also an immersion in hybridity: it’s merengue with a heavy-metal heart; it’s gagá mixed with thrash, reggaetón and punk, dembow, trap, and Middle Eastern melodies; it’s love songs and battle raps and protest music. When I asked Cabra to describe the album to me, he struggled. To say that it was eclectic was only half true, he said. In fact, each song was eclectic, diverse moods and styles alternating in a single track. “I find it hard to place Rita’s project within a genre,” he said. “If I describe how her music sounds, I think that takes away its power.”

In the Dominican Republic, Rita Indiana is known as the Monster, or La Montra, in the local Spanish dialect, where “s”es are purely voluntary. The nickname emerged from deep in the comments section of YouTube, when the video for her 2009 single “El Blue del Ping Pong” went unexpectedly viral and made her a star. While the name alludes to her outsized talent, Indiana has embraced every connotation of the word. “When people started calling me that,” she told me last month, “I was like, coño, I couldn’t have thought of a better nickname.” At six feet three, Indiana is not the sort of person who can go unnoticed. She’s lanky, androgynous, sharply angled, an unapologetically queer woman in a country with few openly gay celebrities. Her personality, she told me, was shaped by her inability to fit in: even when she was a child, no one quite knew what to make of her. She was beaten and bullied for her size, for her ambiguous gender.

Indiana started writing young. She was placing stories in a Santo Domingo literary zine in her late teens, and, at twenty-one, self-published a collection called “Rumiantes,” which was photocopied, stapled, and distributed among friends. She went to art school, but dropped out after a year, got work writing publicity copy and marketing jingles, and in 2000, at the age of twenty-three, self-published her first novel, “La Estrategia de Chochueca” (“Chochueca’s Strategy”), printing five hundred copies with money given to her by her boss. Half the run was passed to family and friends, and the other half was sold. For those who read the novel, a dark, gritty snapshot of the Santo Domingo underground of the nineteen-nineties, it was a jolt of something new in Dominican letters: not a political novel dealing with the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, one of the bloodiest in Latin-American history; not a Caribbean folktale, idealizing a rural past; not an immigration novel, chronicling the alienation and struggle of a new life in the United States. Instead, “Chochueca” was a novel about disenchanted teen-agers and their long nights of drug use and loud music. It became a cult hit, endlessly photocopied and passed from hand to hand among young people who saw themselves in its pages. When a copy of “Chochueca” found its way to the Puerto Rican critic Juan Duchesne-Winter, he was intrigued. “It was another language, another focus,” he told me. He invited Indiana to be a guest lecturer at the University of Puerto Rico and introduced her to the editor who would publish her next book.

That book was “Papi” (2005), Indiana’s breakout novel, a pulsating, thrilling coming-of-age story, told by a preadolescent girl in awe of her wayward, charismatic, and dangerous father. The violent worlds in which the father moves are only hinted at, and barely understood by the narrator, who is too young to be afraid, even when the reader is afraid for her. Like Indiana’s first novel, “Papi” is saturated with pop-culture references, from horror movies to heavy metal to skateboarding—a section of the text is written as though it were video-game instructions—but perhaps the novel’s finest achievement is its language, a virtuosic rendering of the Dominican dialect in the rapid-fire, stream-of-consciousness vernacular of a girl desperate to please her father. It’s also a novel about masculinity and the theatre of it. The performer, in this case, is Indiana’s own father, on whom the title character is based. Indiana’s parents separated when she was seven months old, but he remained a presence in her life: flashy, magnetic, handsome, a womanizer involved in sometimes unsavory schemes. After he moved to Miami, she spent summers with him, and learned English in order to communicate with her half brother, who spoke no Spanish. Indiana’s father returned to Santo Domingo for a time when she was seven, but when he ran out of money he left again, this time for New York. Indiana was twelve when her father was shot and killed at a restaurant in the Bronx, in 1989. His murder was never solved.

Indiana’s life as a musician began in 2005, at the launch of “Papi” in Santo Domingo. The book party was held at a local museum, where she remade the space, arranging the furniture to form a Mercedes-Benz logo (a recurring symbol in the novel, a kind of aspirational totem) and decorating the room with television screens showing videos of the inner workings of stomachs. A hundred people or so were present when, instead of reading from the novel, Indiana performed two songs with an electronic band called Súperchin, singing improvised lyrics inspired by the book.

It may not have felt like a transformative event at the time, but it marked her shift away from writing. Over the next several years, as she moved to New York and worked a series of odd jobs, Indiana began to experiment with the music-editing software Audacity, and then with GarageBand, making beats and playing with loops, crafting strange, dense bits of electronica that she shared with friends. In 2006, she and a collective called Los Niños Envueltos put on a puppet show, “Ready,” a hallucinatory piece whose most important component was music. That year, Indiana also wrote and performed a song called “La Sofi,” which felt as though it could have been sung by the narrator of “Papi”: the lyrics are little more than a list of musicians—ranging from La Lupe to Fania All-Stars to Iron Maiden—that the narrator isn’t allowed to listen to. There’s something mesmerizing in its simplicity. The track was released on MySpace, and, through the inexplicable magic of the Internet, became a hit three years later, when it was covered by Julieta Venegas and Ceci Bastida, of the seminal Mexican punk band Tijuana No! In 2008, with the artist Raina Mast, Indiana formed a duo called Miti Miti, and released the EP “Altar Espandex,” a spare, playful album, whose songs feel less written than discovered, cobbled together from found sounds, bleeps, pops, and other sonic ephemera. In one interview, Indiana said that she made the tracks by sampling an egg timer.

What was most attractive about music, Indiana told me, was that it gave her a chance to move beyond the sometimes limited, academic circles of literature and reach as many people as possible. She’d never belonged in traditional literary spaces anyway, and these projects felt like an adventure. Even within the strictures of popular music, she found room for formal experimentation, and, crucially, audiences were willing to accept her in ways that the literary establishment had not done. Listeners will embrace all sorts of hybridity as long as it has a beat. This was something she’d known intuitively since she was a child, sitting under her family’s grand piano while her great-aunt, the soprano Ivonne Haza, gave singing lessons to local bolero and merengue stars, such as Sonia Silvestre and Fernando Villalona. She accompanied the same great-aunt to the opera and the symphony, but also knew all the romantic pop songs of the era by heart. Later, after her father died, she immersed herself in metal and punk, at a time when those subcultures were anathema in the Dominican Republic. (In one of “Papi” ’s most shocking scenes, the narrator is attacked by her own family, held down, stripped of her rock-and-roll T-shirt and jeans, and forced to dress in conventionally feminine clothes.) But, even when she was a metalhead, Indiana still listened in secret to merengue, a genre of Latin dance music which, like metal, has a fascination with speed. Indiana eventually pulled all these strands together with a band called Los Misterios, her first musical collaboration involving real instrumentation, as opposed to pure electronica. Like her novels, Indiana’s lyrics were full of dropped syllables, dense slang, and clever, surprising rhymes, with politics embedded in every danceable track. The chorus of the song “Da pa’ lo Do” sounds like a collection of nonsense, until you realize it’s actually “Da para los dos,” or “There’s enough for both.” The catchy song with the bouncy rhythm and the bright champeta guitar riff is really a meditation on the fraught relationship between the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

In 2010, Indiana and Los Misterios put out the instantly iconic album “El Juidero,” which made her, quite unexpectedly, a celebrity: La Montra was born. The year of the album’s release, Indiana was nominated for a Casandra Award (now known as a Soberano Award), the local equivalent of a Grammy, and at the after-party she kissed her girlfriend (and now wife), the Puerto Rican film director Noelia Quintero. She had never hidden her sexuality, but, still, this gesture of affection made her the first queer person to come out at the Casandras, and, as a result, she was subjected to a barrage of homophobic harassment, particularly online. In this and other ways, fame was an uncomfortable fit for Indiana, but for two years she played the part of a pop star, performing at SummerStage, in New York, filling the National Theatre in Santo Domingo, being mobbed in the streets, her private life discussed on local gossip shows.

Then, in 2012, she quit. She told me that she wanted a normal life, after suffering a kind of creative exhaustion, an inability to concentrate, a creeping suspicion that people around her were treating her differently because she was famous. She longed to do what monsters cannot: disappear. In Puerto Rico, what she had done for merengue—shape it, pound it, graft it, mix it, with no compunctions or doubts or hesitation—she began to do on the page, with the daring novels that have made her one of the most significant Latin-American writers of her generation.

Eduardo Cabra, who produced “Mandinga Times,” told me that what surprised him the most about the project was that it sounded not like a second album but more like a fourth or a fifth. There was a line that could be traced from “El Juidero” through her books to “Mandinga Times,” as though Indiana’s novels represented stepping stones of artistic growth.

If this is true, the album’s closest thematic and spiritual predecessor is “Tentacle,” Indiana’s dystopian sci-fi novel. The book opens with a startling image: Acilde, the maid to a Santería priestess, hears the doorbell ring. She activates the security camera embedded in her eye, and sees a Haitian man “fleeing from the quarantine declared on the other half of the island.” The building’s security system detects an unnamed virus in the man, and, without warning, vaporizes him. An automated voice warns the building’s residents to avoid the main entrance while the mess is cleaned up. Reading that in 2015 was disturbing. In 2020, it takes your breath away.

In “Tentacle,” Indiana quickly dispenses with any romantic notions of the Dominican Republic as a Caribbean paradise. On the contrary, the novel’s primary concern is environmental catastrophe: the country’s strongman leader agreed to store Venezuelan chemical weapons on the island, an arrangement that ended badly, when a tsunami spilled the poisonous cache into the sea. When the novel begins, the Caribbean is lifeless and inert. The priestess owns a live sea anemone, an increasingly rare creature of immense value, and soon Acilde decides to steal it in order to pay for a dose of a magical elixir that will transform her into a man. The new Acilde emerges as the island’s last hope, tasked with travelling back in time to avert the ecological disaster. There is no nostalgia in Indiana’s novels, but there is tremendous humor in their cacophonous narratives, as we watch familiar types in barely recognizable contexts, their foibles and flaws made even more absurd by the stakes of this dark future. It’s Alejo Carpentier with the style of Philip K. Dick and the humor of Mark Twain. Even a partial list of “Tentacle” ’s concerns reads like a remix of contemporary nightmares: dictatorship and machismo, environmental collapse, biological weapons, drug abuse. Add a discussion of gender fluidity, a rumination on the meaning of art, and time travel and you begin to understand the scope of the novel’s ambition and its heart. “Tentacle” is a capacious and bracing read.

Indiana told me that she couldn’t have made her new album without having written “Tentacle.” “The album is the present tense of what ‘Tentacle’ prophesied five years ago,” she said. “I thought it might take longer, but we’re already in this dystopic future where immigrants are disposed of by machines.” It is possible to get lost in “Mandinga Times,” in its rhythms and peculiar musical mashups, without ever considering her literary work. You might miss the Borges references in “El Zahir,” or not know that the buccaneers in that song have their counterparts in “Tentacle”; you might rap along to her line about writing five novels in the time it takes others to write a decent chorus without thinking about the odd shape of that boast, or make nothing of the presence of Don Quixote looming over a track like “El Flaco de La Mancha.” But knowing her writing does make the experience of listening to the album richer.

Mandinga, Indiana told me, is a character as developed as any in her novels, a fictional creation for whom she is simply a mouthpiece. Inspired by black metal, “Beetlejuice,” Marcel Marceau, Kiss, lucha libre, and Marvel Comics, Mandinga has no gender, and might be a monster, or a fallen angel, or a visitor from the future; the details aren’t clear. Indiana chose the name for its multiplicity of meanings. The Mandinga, or Mandinka, are an ethnic group in West Africa, many of whom were, historically, enslaved and brought to the Caribbean. As slang, it’s a term that connotes sex, violence, and chaos, with different shadings in different countries, but it is almost always used to demonize the other—racial, sexual, or religious minorities. The monstrous. Naturally, Indiana identifies.

Of course, the characters in a novel are created in the mind and rendered on the page; generating an imaginary character for performance is another matter altogether. For the new album, Indiana has produced two videos and one long-form performance film, “After School,” shot in one of the many schools in Puerto Rico that were shuttered after draconian budget cuts. (The videos were directed by Quintero, her wife, who is also her longtime visual collaborator and whose film adaptation of “Papi” comes out next month.) In the videos, Indiana embodies Mandinga by adorning her face with slashes of black paint, two across the eyes, two more across her jawline, like a mournful, angry Ziggy Stardust. Mandinga, with the painted face, dark concerns, and spitfire lyrics, can be interpreted in many ways; a final verdict may not come until the pandemic is over and Indiana can return to the stage. Still, one vision of the character stays with me, one that feels both ominous and wry. Mandinga has seen something awful, something horrifying, something that has exploded unexpectedly, spewing soot. Whatever Mandinga saw, I feel these days as if I’d seen it, too. 

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