Dia De Los Muestros At Hollywood Forever Cemetery With Cafe Tacuba, Saturday November 2nd 2019
Forget about Halloween and its parade of tacky costumes digging deep into our pop culture trash bags, forget about the West Hollywood event and its provocateur drag queen march, Dia de Los Muertos is the real event, celebrating the dead with the most colorful, creative and uplifting costumes and altars.
As this is happening inside a cemetery, you can spend the entire day walking around the tombs to admire the altar exhibits, the amazing costumes, the art installations, and photo exhibits while watching Aztec dances and rituals plus musical performances on two different stages. I was there for everything, but especially because the great Mexican band Café Tacuba was headlining the night. Despite not having followed their career very closely since their 1994 album ‘Re’, I have always loved their very original and eclectic music, opened on a myriad of influences and genres.
It’s funny to see how different cultures deal with the remembrance of the dead, back in Europe, the All Saints day has always been associated with grey and rainy days, dreadful trips to the cemetery to drop some ugly flowers. Sad beyond sad memories… Mexican culture embraces this day with a completely different mood, as it celebrates the dead with the most uplifting attitude you can imagine, and an endless display of flowery headdresses, amazing dresses, food-filled tables, decorated skulls, delicately painted faces, and symbols-crowded altars. The landscape inside the cemetery was mind-blowing and this year the theme of the day was the Monarch butterfly, a symbol of migration as the insect makes the incredible journey from the US to Mexico every autumn. As Monarchs return to Mexico on the day of the dead, they have become the symbol of the souls of the departed.
Adding to this festive ambiance, the music never stopped during the entire day, and since all the artists who were performing were Latinos, I got a taste of some of the rising stars of the moment, such as La Doña, a singer and trumpeter from San Francisco, who was performing with her father while blending Latin folk music traditions with contemporary electronic dance genres. She had a great stage presence and talked about gender identity, sexuality, and romantic breakups with the same upbeat tone. Colombian via Canada Lido Pimienta was more difficult to pigeonhole and definitively more sonically strange with her blend of traditional Colombian music and electronica. She had amazing soaring vocals that she was using like a South America’s Bjork.
There were many other artists but I was only familiar with Café Tacuba, a group from Mexico who was the darlings of LA airwaves during the Rock en Español genre explosion in the ‘90s. Maybe I didn’t pay attention enough, but Café Tacuba has been rather discreet since they won two Grammys, one for Best Latin Rock Album in 1999 and Best Rock Song in 2008,… they have nevertheless released new material in 2012 and 2017.
I didn’t know the first songs they played, a few keyboard ballads (‘Seguir Siendo’, ‘Tengo todo’) with the raucous and inimitable voice of Rubén Albarrán Ortega, and I didn’t connect right away, but, fortunately, I later recognized many familiar tunes.
The band has managed to blend an impressive range of styles from rock to electronica, punk, ska, hip-hop, and of course Mexican boléro and ranchers, brass band music and even Brazilian samba or Jamaican ska.
Sometimes, they even managed to shift the mood during a track, and since they barely stopped between the songs, it was at times a puzzling experience, filled by unexpected rhythms and Rubén Albarrán’s strong voice and crazy joyful dance. He was wearing a Kimono and the highest straw hat I have ever seen, for the most effective fashion effect. Combined with his high energy on stage, the result was a buoyant and tropical atmosphere, sometimes rocking, sometimes wandering through a dense mix of funky bass lines, synth and electronics, and traditional influences.
I immediately recognized ‘Ixtepec’, a cut of their 1994 critically acclaimed ‘Re’ album with its strange booming tempo superposed to Mexican guitars while the following song (‘Volver a Comenzar’) was all ‘80s synth soundscapes and the next one had sweet lullaby Beach-Boys-Pets-Sounds harmonies and post-punk synth explosions. Their songs always had these amazing shifts, which made them interesting, as they effortlessly switched from tender croon to layered adventures.
There was also an undeniable catchiness in the songs, which went from the Mexican beauty of ‘Ojala Que Llueva café’, a song by Juan Luis Guerra that they recorded for their album ‘Avalancha de Exitos’, followed by their own ‘Las Flores’, incorporating these same elements plus a hooky chorus.
‘Chilanga Banda’, a roar of pride for the inhabitants of Mexico City written by Jaime Lopez, did especially resonate among the crowd – as the complex musical arrangement they did add to the song have made some critics compare the cover to the Beatles’ ‘A Day in the Life’.
I don’t really understand Spanish (he didn’t say a word in English) but I understood that frontman Rubén Albarrán Ortega talked about universal and cosmical love for the entire planet while raging about the political class, and the most noise was obviously heard when he mentioned Trump…Before their set, a mini theatrical scene had depicted the struggle of illegals chased at the border by helicopters and ICE. Even during a festive day like Dia De Los Muertos, the president’s hostility toward the country’s Latino population had to be addressed, but with Cafe Tacuba, the message looked like a message of love and hope.
If they broke the cultural barrier in the ‘90s, Café Tacuba members have always resisted singing in English, despite a career almost covering three decades. I couldn’t really understand everything that was said and I may have lost a few things in translation, but the mood was stuck on happy, thanks to the band’s cheerful and upbeat anthems while they ended their set with a Tropical ‘El Baile y el Salón’.