Album review: Lagartijeando – El Gran Poder

As among the stars, so on Earth.

Genre: Electronic with Andean folk and cumbia influences
Country: Argentina
Release date: March 31, 2017
Label: Wonderwheel Recordings
Format: 12” vinyl
Catalog number: WONDERLP-23

Mati Zundel – producer, charango
(other roles uncredited)


El Nogal de las Pampas



Camino en Llamas



La Memoria del Viento



Antofagasta de la Sierra



Lunita (feat. Barrio Lindo)






Gran Poder






Chukisaka Sublow



Sueño de planta


Total running time:


Last month we examined Klaus Schulze and Pete Namlook’s icy The Dark Side of the Moog, Vol. 6, a work of monumental scale and forbidding coldness, which seemed to strive for some sort of spiritual reflection in that stark, bleak objectivity—a perspective less inhuman than ahuman, or even abiotic, beyond and outside of life itself. I also hinted at another, earthier, more grounded and eclectic approach to this sort of spirituality, and just so happen to have a similarly eclectic, complex, and beautiful-sounding electronic album that embraces it just as strongly as The Dark Side of the Moog does its aesthetic. But unlike The Dark Side of the Moog, which will remain a cult favorite even among Berlin School electronic fans, this musical-spiritual odyssey made by a producer on a computer (only one, this time), El Gran Poder (“The Great Power”) is a small part of a vanguard of a massive musical renaissance in Latin America that most English-speaking people don’t even know exists. Lagartijeando (“lizarding” or “walking like a lizard” in Spanish) and the cumbia scene that it traces its roots to might seem strange indeed to Americans, despite being ubiquitous in the Spanish-speaking parts of the world. You’ve probably heard cumbia yourself—in a bodega, in a Mexican restaurant, from a passing car, and not even noticed it (unless you’re Latin@ yourself, in which case you likely already know more about it than I could learn in a thousand years).

Cumbia music was first documented in Bolivia around the year 1820, but likely originated long before that, in the mestizaje—the open mixing of European, First Nations, and African cultures in a way that was taboo in the British Empire. Simultaneously indigenous, African, and European, cumbia , to Western ears, la cumbia sounds like some combination of blues, jazz, reggae samba, and…European march music? Well not quite, the 2/2 two-stepping beat and the often oompah-like bass lines that accent the one-two-one-two might call to mind dirndls and liederhosen, but it’s actually a distillation of African rhythmic traditions, adapted to the needs of slaves brought over to Bolivia, who, according to legend, had to dance encumbered by leg irons. Like rock music, cumbia has assimilated nearly every form of music that has come in contact with it, and, after being brought over to Mexico, soon spread throughout Latin America in a vast array of sounds and styles from Mexican big bands with blaring massed horns to folkloric cumbia played on the original hand percussion and gaita flutes to Andean psychedelic cumbia from the ‘70s that sounds like a altiplano interpretation of Pet Sounds to the modern scene of artists like Lagartijeando, King Coya, La Yegros, Nickodemus, and many others that transcend cumbia—and genre—itself with eclectic, digital sounds.

Another major influence is Latin folk music, especially from producer Mati Zundel’s native Argentina, but also from all corners of Latinidad, inspired by Zundel’s travels through South America and immersion in the various musical cultures—to a degree of internationalism and equality that would never fly in mainstream American music. The integration of the acoustic folk and indigenous elements is shockingly seamless, and with the extensive and obsessively detailed studio manipulation applied, it is difficult to tell where the instrument ends and the computer begins. Also woven into the production are a massive array of samples and ambient sounds, often manipulated with auto-tune to fit into the chords of the songs. What even is played and what is sequenced? What is organic and what is synthetic? Lagartijeando’s music makes a strong case that this distinction is no longer possible to make, or even useful. Artificiality is natural and the past haunts the future, human technology and refuse embeds itself into the very geology of the planet, Silicon Valley theoreticians conceive of machines that can think and reproduce like living beings, ‘60s revival rock bands use conference apps to play teleconcerts from their individual bedrooms to a live audience of YouTube users, while Central Asian peasants maintain an informal economy around prepaid phone minutes and indigenous tribes threatened with genocide do more to fight global warming in a single day, every day, than the combined forces of all the UN member countries’ bureaucracies have managed in thirty years, coordinating direct action across the world through advanced information technologies produced by their enemies.

Mati Zundel, the lizard behind Lagartijeando himself. Kids these days will never appreciate how much of a technological miracle modern digital photography is. I remember—admittedly barely—when only elites and celebrities could afford to pay a photographer, whose camera cost more than your car, for pictures this good. Now you can do it yourself with an iPhone.

The one sonic throughline through these lavish productions is Mati Zundel’s charango, a sort of mandolin-guitar hybrid sometimes made with an armadillo shell for a body. It does not ring like a guitar but has a very delicate sound like a West African ngoni, a similarly small instrument, though the charango uses a Western scale, has more strings, and sympathetic strings to give the sound a harmonic shimmer like a twelve-string guitar. The charango is sometimes played raw, sometimes subject to electronic amplification and manipulation. The charango usually plays a rhythm role, both because this is highly rhythm- and sound-focused music that has no place for bombastic leads, and because the charango is not very well suited to delivering such leads, having a rather shy sound that wants to melt into the layers of synth and samples rather than tower above it. However, these rhythm lines are fiendishly complex and meticulously ornamented, and when listened to carefully, display remarkable dexterity and fluid phrasing, integrated melody lines directly into the rhythm. “Antofagasta de la Sierra” showcases Zundel’s charango chops to the greatest extent, with rippling streams of notes that sound almost more like a harp than an instrument with a fingerboard.

However, the real virtuosity is at the mixing console, and Zundel displays an uncanny ability to mix many layers of sound in almost perfect proportion. The raw clarity and detail of this record shames most “audiophile” records of previous eras; the delicate scraping of guiros on “Camino en Llamas” (“Path in Flames”) coexists with pulsating deep beats without either being compromised in the slightest. The arrangements sound as vast as a Mahler symphony but far more nimble, and never fall into the rigid, metronomic onslaught of so much electronic dance music. However, I must wonder how much of this work is not Zundel’s, because there are no credits in the album insert except for the collaboration with fellow Latin electronic producer Barrio Lindo on “Lunita” (“Little Moon”), and it is frankly preposterous that all these diverse instruments and sounds on the rest of the album were produced without the help of any other musicians. People who contribute to the creation of a work of art deserve recognition for their labor.

While El Gran Poder shares with Dark Side of the Moog a sense of transcendent, cosmic grandeur (just the title—The Great Power in English, suggests as much, to say nothing of the truly wild cover art), it is a much more concise album, clocking in at less than forty minutes with songs that are all fairly short, concise, and tightly structured with beginnings that feel like beginnings, endings that feel like endings, and a steady sense of development and exploration through each number with none of the dark side of The Dark Side of the Moog, that feeling of stagnation when the same loop has been going on for seven or eight or eleven minutes, repeating endlessly. It is a spiritual album, but contains an extroverted, public, spirituality more rooted in ritual and celebration than meditation and contemplation, a sense of God or gods experienced communally by a people rather than privately by a person. Western analysts often make a big deal out of the so-called “collective voice” of reggae lyrics, but that sort of attitude, looking at actual history and sociology of cultures ancient and modern, seems like the human norm while it’s our fixation on the object, as in Schulze and Namlook’s work, or the individual human subject, as in almost the entire canon of American guitar music, that is strange. The inherent sociality of human beings, their need to be with and be reflected in others, was common sense in most of the world for thousands of years before Hegel and his dialectic existed, so obvious it didn’t even bear writing, when the people even had or needed writing. Not Sartre’s hell but the meaning of life itself is found in other people, for most of the world, and the music of El Gran Poder reflects that.

If Dark Side of the Moog didn’t know where it was going, El Gran Poder avoids the issue of musical journeys altogether by writing short pieces all of a kind, four-minute bites of Lagartijeando’s pan-Latin folk-futurism schtick unfolding at stately moderate tempos. It is all lush and detailed, but once you “get” Lagartijeando there are not really any more surprises. But perhaps that is just another adaptation to the exigencies of the music market; if a fan of South American electronic music hears a playlist on Spotify (because face it, only eccentrics like you and me buy albums anymore) there will be no doubt which songs in the shuffle are “Lagartijeando music”, because Lagartijeando music will always sound like itself while still neatly filling its slot in a computer-generated list of four-minute songs of broadly similar aesthetic and musical vocabulary. And all the screeds about such-and-such runing modern music ultimately amount to nothing against selling music in 2019 without a “legacy brand” that everyone already recognizes.

Indeed, that digital “containerization” of music—a song being not a composition built around a vocal melody but one unit of music-product—is why one can even speak of “songs” on this album to begin with, because many of them are “instrumental” (a word that also gets divorced from its original meaning and given a new one by the digital way of making and selling music), and of those that are not, most only use the vocal line as one element in the bigger play of themes and rhythms, but also apply heavy processing and distortion to the vocals to obscure the lyrics and the individuality of the singer. The singing is also quite plain and sticks to a midrange that seldom draws attention from the foreground elements. One of only two exceptions is “La Memoria del Viento” (“The Memory of Wind”), which features an exposed lead singer with a foreground part (probably Zundel himself, though there’s no telling with the lack of credits) and clearly enunciated lyrics (unfortunately the only lyrics I found were in untranslated, colloquial Spanish with poetry that is definitely not Google Translate-friendly). Even then, the rhythm section is much more interesting, with a reggae-style skank on the charango contrasting against very, very oompah-like bass line that even sounds like something a a tuba might play and a bass drum synth that keeps changing its approach to prevent the groove from getting stale. There are also some sampled indigenous percussion and sound effects, including an endearing sort of synthetic “whoop” used as an anciliary rhythm instrument on the off-beat that reminds me of something from a mid-’90s computer game. Nor surprisingly, the song here that most resembles a song in the classical sense was their choice for lead single and music video.

My favorite, however, has to be the track immediately before it, the aforementioned “Camino en Llamas”, which leans the most heavily of any of them on acoustic instruments, with all of the primary voices in the song being acoustic, with synthesizers used to make those acoustic instruments sound transcendently huge without adding too much of their own flavor. The bombastic title that sounds like it would be suited to a power metal band in the Angra mold doesn’t match the music, which instead evokes a calm lucidity, with its 2/2 cumbia beat provided by the bass percussion instrument (a drum? A caja? It doesn’t really matter, especially with the electronics embiggening its tone) overlapped by an almost Celtic 6/8 jig played on the other percussion instruments and reinforced by the indigenous flute, which takes the principal melody. The secondary rhythm, at least to my ears has a noticeable swing to it while the bass backbone feels as rigid and insistent as Kraftwerk’s motorik, and their coincidence on this track evokes in my mind a horse-drawn wagon in some sort of pre-industrial countryside, its wooden wheels creaking along with the almost-but-not-quite-perfectly-steady rhythm of the horses’ hooves—a strange image indeed considering that the Andes were notoriously unfriendly terrain for horses and wagons back when such transportation was still relevant. The flute rings out with electronically heightened power, sounding like it could carry for miles through some vast mountain valley, the pensive and slightly somber flavor of its melody working with the meditative trance-like rhythm and earthy musical textures to create a sense of nature served by technology and given a special, spiritual importance, rather than carelessly used to create technology for its own sake. The journal Remezcla suggested that this song might be a response to climate change, but to me it is too abstract to address an environmental idea so explicitly.

My second favorite is the other real song-song on here besides “La Memoria del Viento”, “Otoño” (“Autumn”), with a ballad-like structure that starts with no percussion and the cumbia rhythm being merely implied by the contours of the melodies until the beat kicks in and gradually builds in complexity halfway through. Even with a clear vocal melody, it is still not truly central to the piece, as it sits among layers and layers of additional instrumentation (including multiple charango tracks playing independent lines) and soaked in reverb so it blends into the tapestry of sound rather than cutting through it to ram the words into your earholes. Indeed, moreso than “La Memoria del Viento”, this one gets its message across regardless of whether you understand a word of it, conjuring the feeling of a calm autumn evening largely through its cozy, gauzy sound and soothing melodies. The album is at its best when it most leans into its musical scene-setting over sticking to traditional dance and pop forms.

One thing, however, is always conspicuous by being missing from El Gran Poder, and that’s recognition of the role of the African diaspora in the musics that make up its source material. The cumbia rhythms that run through every track were, after all, inventions of African slaves, and folkloric cumbia in Bolivia is saturated with African scales, techniques, and musical concepts, most of which have been almost literally bleached away in this interpretation, even as the indigenous American roots are recognized—notwithstanding that those indigenous groups that survived with some semblance of those cultures often did so alongside and in solidarity with Africans who escaped captivity to freedom, fought, and in many cases remain in solidarity to this day. Without them not just cumbia but most the vast musical vocabulary of worldwide popular and electronic music, from primitive 19th century blues to high-tech house music, that gives rise to albums like El Gran Poder would not exist. The absence of the African diaspora floats on the verge of being palpable throughout this album, like a shadow with nothing to cast it, a version of a story with some of the most important characters left out.

That said, El Gran Poder is a rich, beautiful, and powerful musical tableau drawing from musical traditions and cultures long devalued by the Anglophone culture machine as inferior or irrelevant, while peoples in these disavowed musical fields continue to advance music-making, their own personal artistic trajectories, and the cultural enrichment of human beings more than all the vacuous pop celebrities lionized the American gossip press. Maybe in a few years one of those celebrity pop musicians will play with cumbia or another of these musical styles for a hit single and spawn a wave of faddish Latin-flavored experiments on pop radio like has happened several times in the past, but it will come and go while the ancient but still vital styles they caricature and misrepresent will continue to produce the real thing, fueled by their unwavering belief in their people’s right to exist. And in a world where life is now so often seen as a zero-sum struggle where the “losers” must be eradicated to make breathing room for the “successful”, we owe it to ourselves to listen to people standing outside this poisonous dynamic more and mainstream pop culture’s social media spectacles less.

Rating: 85%

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