Reviews

Interview: The Soft Rebellion Of xango/suave

xango 3

By Dylan Healy, Contributing Editor

Heal, heal, frog butt. If you don’t heal today, you’ll heal tomorrow. This is a popular line Latin parents would sing to soothe their children after getting a boo-boo. Mobey Irizarry is no stranger to this line, but now at the age of 20, it stands for much more to them. “¿Y si no sano mañana?”  they ponder, “What if I don’t heal tomorrow?”

On their latest offering of Boricua/Queer experimental pop entitled equis, Irizarry channels their playful yet sensitive moniker xango/suave to craft music about rejecting masculinity, anti-colonial resistance, self love, and belongingness. Charming and genuine, Irizarry’s breathy baritone can be as tender as unapologetically blunt. “I don’t need your guilt / or your pity. / I’m not sorry at all. / Screw you,” they deliver frankly on opening track “Bumblebee”.

A current runs through the album’s lifeline, appearing as a transitory guide between and during songs. To Irizarry, water is a dichotic force of healing and danger, vitality and death. Dichotomies present themselves in multiple forms throughout equis, including a powerful moment in “Cancer/Cancer/Cancer (Suspiro.3)” where they oh so faintly whisper “grito, grito, grito” (yell, yell, yell). Even the name xango/suave — it is derived from Xango, the mighty Yoruba Orisha of Lightning and Rebellion, as well as the Spanish word for “soft.” Soft is the peachy-sweet heart of equis, sheathed by its salty skin, freshly bathed and sun-kissed on Lake Eerie.

Mobey and I recently chatted about equis, Puerto Rican history, stage antics, and how to stay informed.

Xango/Suave - Equis (2017)
Xango/Suave – Equis (2017)

Hi Mobey! Thanks for taking the time to chat. How goes it?

It’s going very well! First day in Oberlin with some actual sun, so I’m feeling pretty good.

Big congrats on the release of equis! I think it’s phenomenal. There’s a ton of depth to the record that I’d like to discuss with you.

Thank you! I’m super happy it’s finally been released.

How long did the tracking/mixing process take? Where was it recorded?

The bulk of it took about two months. One of my majors at Oberlin combines music composition with music technology, so I have access to the Conservatory’s recording studios. This album was a winter term project of mine, so I spent all of January 2017 working on it, with some lighter work from Fall 2016 through March 2017 on it.

Were there many hands on this album? It features pretty full instrumentation: drums, cello, keys, your grandmother, etc.

Yeah! Let’s see… On “Sin Disfraz”, Ko Takasugi-Czernowin played acoustic drums. Fernie Borges recited her poem “Rituals”, which Angelique Montes played cello on. My grandmother, Abuela Lottie, sang on “Soñando”. Aside from that, all the vocals and instrumentals were done by me, as well as the production.

equis features trancelike, atmospheric, multipart songs that evoke as much contemplation as the urge to dance. You’ve paved a wide emotional spectrum — where do some of those emotions come from? And how does that tie into the album title?

The whole album is a negotiation of gender-queerness paralleled to struggles of anti-colonial resistance. Here, I hold my gender and my Puerto Rican identities at the forefront, singing and speaking to fellow queer and trans Latinx people and other people of color. “Equis”, which is the written-out pronunciation of the Spanish letter “X”, harkens to a recent push in Latinx communities in the US to use the “x” as a way to remove binary gendered language from the Latino/a/x identity category.

But that is definitely not the only thing this album is about. For example, “Bumblebee” negotiates with the stress of what I perceive as being the overwhelming whiteness of many spaces I’ve inhabited throughout my life. Specifically, in the first half of the song, I’m lamenting the ways in which people who know each other don’t say hi to each other, something I don’t find as frequent among fellow people of color, but that often happens among white people I know. On the second half, I’m dealing with the ways in which the burden of white guilt is often imposed on people of color to correct.

Regarding the facets of the album dealing with your Puerto Rican identity — the topics you’re vocal about seem more relevant than ever, considering the current relations between the US and Puerto Rico. The US currently has a president whose apathy in “assisting” the disaster-struck country peaked when he threw paper towels at its citizens. It was surreal to watch on television. Like, it looked like a child playing an arcade game. I imagine some of this record was fueled by frustration, too.

Yeah definitely. While I finished this album well before the hurricanes and the following disaster, equis feels more relevant than ever. Note that I separate the hurricanes from the disaster – the disaster lies in the infrastructural consequences of US colonial abuse and its apathy for Black and Brown lives than the hurricane itself. The intention behind the track “Culito de Rana” was to give a sense of Puerto Rico’s history as a US colony, ending on that refrain “promesa mentirosa” or “lying promise,” to highlight how America’s Puerto Rico Oversight Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) is just one of the more recent stages of US colonialism on the Island.

In “Culito de Rana” you also integrate a pan-Latinx song of the same name that parents would sing to their children after they’ve “gotten a boo-boo.” How does that song connect to the history you delve into? Details I’m sure Sufjan Stevens would appreciate.

The adage goes “sana, sana culito de rana, si no sana hoy, sana mañana,” or “heal, heal frog butt, if it doesn’t heal today, it’ll heal tomorrow.” That’s a line that many Latinx kids heard growing up, including myself. Now, in contrast, I query “¿y si no sano mañana?” or “What if I don’t heal tomorrow?” This confronts the false notion that PROMESA is the cure for Puerto Rico’s financial struggles.

At the same time, that beginning section also has a lot to do with self care, and is directed at my friends and communities who take care of me as I take care of them. So in that sense, I’m also wondering what happens if things don’t soon get better, despite the fact that we’re doing what we do in order to heal ourselves.

You voice concerns much more conscientious than typically found on an indie record by a 20 year-old. You’ve adopted an investigative, contemplative, and advocative voice for the communities you participate in. Straight up, I think it’s super impactful.

Thank you! I really appreciate that.

Totally. I’m also really impressed with the record’s expansive sound palette — melding the organic and electronic. I’m talking water and cello, field recordings, glitchy atonal trances. Water, specifically, is a prominent element in your music; different recordings of dripping, draining, and ebbing open or close almost every track. Your music video for “Sin Disfraz” features you playing in a stream. I sense a motif!

Yes! I love water! Bodies of water are so dynamic; they can be places of healing and vitality, but they can also be places of danger, fear and death. I’m filled with joy whenever I enter the ocean -— I feel like I become five again. The ocean fills me with awe and gratitude, and I have so many beautiful memories of partners, friends and family on sunny afternoons at the beach.

I love that. Those feelings of healing and joy are heard on “Rituals”, which features a gorgeous poem read by Fernie Borges, depicting the beauty of bathing the naked body — specifically the naked trans body. How did this track come about? I’ve never heard anything like it before.

I’m so glad you asked that. Fernie is one of best friends, and I’ve always admired her work and art so much. When she showed me this poem I was like “I need to score that!!” In terms of the water motifs, she mentions Oshun, a Yoruba Orisha (Goddess) – the Orisha of Fresh Water. In Puerto Rican and other Afro-Diasporic communities in the Americas, Yoruba traditions are an important part of religious practices and spiritual rituals.

For me and Fernie, these are traditions that we have grown apart from, that through processes of colonization and diaspora we weren’t able to grow up in, but are clearly part of our ancestral roots that we have sought to reclaim. Because of that Yoruba ancestry, I take the name of Xango, the Orisha of Lightning and Rebellion.

xango 2photo by Yonce Hitt

Since your last release, you’ve tacked on “suave” to your name. How goes that reflect your artistic identity?

So “suave” in Spanish means soft, and several of my dear friends call me “softy” as a nickname. In some senses, it was a way to bring a more personal touch to the name. Also, there are several artists out there that go by Xango, or the alternate spelling Sango, and I didn’t want to have the same name as other artists.

I think my performance style is often very soft and intimate, though I do have a tendency to mix in playful and goofy performance elements, too. In many ways it also acts as a diminutive, as a way to remind myself of an intrinsic, childlike quality I see being equally important to how I carry myself and make my art.

Yeaah, pretty sure I saw a video of you wearing goggles while performing on WOBC 91.5 FM (laughs), so I definitely can see the playfulness mixed in with the sense of intimacy.

Yeah yo… this isn’t really reflected in my social media presence but I regularly do really ridiculous things during my shows (laughs).

I dig it. What might be the most ridiculous thing you’ve done during a show?

Hard to say. I once got some audience members to make a sculpture out of bananas, another time I got some people to perform an entire silent play that I’d scripted beforehand. Once, I made a train of rolling desk chairs with plants on them that I dragged around as I played songs and got audience members to spit in the plants. It’s so much fun to get people to do weird shit!

I love it, now that’s audience participation done right (laughs). You have different roots in Connecticut and Ohio… how has each place shaped you as an artist?

Gotta give my love to the CT DIY scene. I’ve played music basically my whole life, starting with violin when I was three. In high school, I played in a band called Eriston, and we played shows at and frequented spots like Heirlooms, the Space, and different houses and stuff. Those spaces weren’t always the best, so it’s been cool to see how CapitalH and Tiny Box have shifted that a little bit. I’ve been really excited to see groups like Jelani Sei and artists like Xenia Rubinos with connections to Hartford specifically getting attention, because they’re really fantastic and inspiring musicians.

Oberlin, Ohio is a hub for music, so I’m constantly surrounded by really amazing musicians who are constantly pushing themselves and each other to grow. My best friend Aaron AKA Little Bear is always pushing me musically and I’m super grateful to be able to grow and learn with and alongside him. Other great people I’ve been collaborating with are Hypno and Mid Atlantic Rift.

Favorite CT band?

Def Jelani Sei! They’re so good. I have a soft spot for High Pop from when they were CT based. I also already said this, but Xenia Rubinos, who’s originally from Hartford! Oh, and the late Two Humans was an unforgettable band.

Tight! Jelani Sei shred. Recently saw Xenia open for Moses Sumney in Boston — the combo was unreal.

Ahhh!!!

There’s so much good music coming out, it’s hard to keep up sometimes. I legit get overwhelmed. I like taking breaks from listening to what I know and expose myself to music outside my comfort zone. You slip in critical historical moments, samples of popular/traditional Puerto Rican and Paraguayan songs, as well as your abuela singing — elements I’ve personally never heard before. For those who feel uninformed about Boricua news/lifestyle, what would you suggest they do to educate themselves?

The Puerto Rico Syllabus is an incredibly useful tool for people who want to inform themselves about the Debt Crisis, and issues of US colonialism on the Island. I think it’s essential for people, especially more privileged US citizens, to take into full account that they are complicit in a US colonial system, and that it is on them to learn about the consequences of that system in order to begin to undo it.

Listen to equis by xango/suave below: