BY Jace Clayton in Profiles | 01 SEP 12
Featured in
Issue 149


The Aztec imagery and digital soundworld of Mexican producer Javier Estrada

BY Jace Clayton in Profiles | 01 SEP 12

Graphic of Javier Estrada and Aztec moons, 2012. Courtesy Reuben Torres

To think that they want to foist that vision of Reality on the rest of us. That’s the insult. Barbarik, cheap aesthetik based on flimsy Mechanistik notion of the ominverse as a Swiss watch set to ticking by some sort of Trinity [...] Luckily we Aztex believe in circular concepts of time, cyklikal konceptions of the universe. 
Sesshu Foster, Atomik Aztex (2005) 

It is 1979. Workers digging Mexico City’s subway line in Zócalo Square unearth yet another multi-tonne book-sculpture left behind by the Aztecs. This pre-Hispanic hard disc details the god Huitzilopochtli’s premature birth, ‘a kind of reverse caesarean’ as John Ross explains in his book El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City (2009). Huitzilopochtli, ‘The Hummingbird of the Left Hand’ – Aztec god of sun, war and human sacrifice – maintained an agonistic relationship with narrative sequence even then, cutting his way out of his mother’s womb to prevent being murdered before he was born. He told the Mexica people to stop travelling and to build a city when they saw an eagle eating a snake on top of a nopal cactus. The illustration on the Mexican flag depicts this prophecy.

Now it is 1519. Aliens have reached Tenochtitlán with their microbes and decivilizing technology. They speak Spanish. These aliens eventually destroy the temple where human hearts were given to Huitzilopochtli and erect a cathedral in its place. The structure begins sinking before it is fully built. Today a flag of Freudian proportions towers over Zócalo Square in Tenochtitlán – now Mexico City – waving Huitzilopochtli’s fever dream from the heart of a nation-state the hummingbird god foretold and will outlast. The god’s wings move so fast that they exit the category of speed to appear in a cloudlike blur, hovering in place, defying linear history. It’s as though our world darts through Huitzilopochtli rather than the reverse.

Nowadays, indigenous Mexicans dressed as Indians busk in Zócalo Square. Their flute-and-drum music has the timeless feel of folklore, music as repetition rather than innovation or ritual. Musician Javier Estrada works with the same pre-Colombian instruments, but instead of reproducing tourist schmaltz, he embeds their ancient sound into Internet-native dance music genres, drawing on indig­enous iconography while adapting Aztec-inspired notions of cyclical time.

The 25-year old DJ/producer from Monterrey, Mexico, got his start as a heavy metal drummer. Since going solo, Estrada has written more than 700 tracks, roughly 430 songs in the past three years. His work recognizes that most of the social, geographical and historical forces that shaped ideas of genre last century cannot be transferred across the narrow bandwidth of cloud-stored musical conversations in the 21st century – where clicking a slightly different snare drum pattern on a screen is sufficient to transform a song from one style to another. Estrada uses a wealth of regional Mexican genres (his beloved pre-Hispanic, norteño, banda, cumbia, danzón, tribal guarachero, bolero, mariachi …) to frame explorations of international club sounds (primarily moombahton, dubstep, pop hits and, as of late, dance-rap). Although his work circulates in digital networks, it foregoes standard approaches to musical contemporaneity to inhabit a version of Huitzilopochtli’s non-linear float.

One of DJ culture’s most common maxims states that the act of remixing old or ethnic music operates as a bridge connecting folkloric sounds to ecumenical dancefloors around the world. When done correctly, the story goes, reverence and renewal unite in a single gesture that makes the old new. Estrada’s music suggests otherwise. His Norteño Step EP (2012) pits classic norteño ballads against dubstep. Estrada wrote Norteño Step for his father – inverting the expectation that remixes are for the kids. Instead of viewing regional sounds as something to be updated into this season’s beat patterns via the remix process, Norteño Step uses norteño as the main attraction, catalyst for an intergenerational dialogue, and possibly the only way to get his father to come near aggressive dubstep.

Estrada’s 2012 remix of the classic ‘No Hay Novedad’ by Los Cadetes de Linares alternates their bright accordion stabs with gnarly electronic bass riffs – equally loud, equally jarring. Weepy cowboy music and distorted rave sonics tussle without relief or subordination. As is often the case with Estrada, the song name reminds us what’s happening: their original title translates as ‘Nothing New Here’. Remixing a famous song about stalled-out time becomes less about refurbishing old sounds for the young and more about putting different temporalities in dialogue.

Poster for event in Monterrey, Mexico, 2012. Courtesy Reuben Torres

Estrada’s soundworld resonates with Sesshu Foster’s 2005 novel Atomik Aztex. Its protagonist slips between two parallel realities: the cyclical time of the ‘Aztex’ (in which the Aztecs defeated the Spanish and went on to become a global superpower) and the flimsy European notion of linear time (in which the protagonist is a poor dude working at an east Los Angeles slaughterhouse). One of the main effects of Foster’s novel is how its shattered worldview encourages alternative readings of everything from undocumented worker realities to the Aztec imagery embraced by Estrada.

Take ‘Aztecs vs Aliens’, from his 2012 album Ritmos del Mundo vol. 6. This is tribal guarachero (a synthesis of Mexican roots music and electro-house, popularized by his former production partner Erick Rincon) at its most dissonant. Atonal blasts offset by rhythmic subtleties dramatize the title’s tension. A dark cinematic feel suggests that this song soundtracks legendary warriors fighting sci-fi baddies – the Aztec pyramid in the film Alien vs Predator (2004) comes to mind. But problems with aliens are real, starting with who’s considered to be one. With a nod to Foster, once we dispense with ideas of linear time, then whether or not an indigenous person on their ancestral lands of Texas/Aztlán is an Aztec citizen or an illegal alien is very much open to debate. Both Atomik Aztex and ‘Aztecs vs Aliens’ dramatize this debate; they amplify the friction of incompatible yet overlapping worldviews.

Huitzilopochtli has been a key figure of a neo-Aztec Weltanschauung since Oscar Zeta Acosta’s The Revolt of the Cockroach People (1973). The brilliant, riotous book draws upon autobiography, politics and fiction to chronicle Acosta’s real-life work defending Chicano militants in LA. The book opens with the line: ‘It is Christmas Eve in the year of Huitzilopochtli, 1969.’ The hummingbird god flits throughout the book – landing on business cards, entering into courtroom rhetoric and inspiring the activists, whose broadsheet is named La Voz de Huitzilopochtli (The Voice of Huitzilopochtli).

Flutes trill, as a portentous voice speaks in Nahuatl during the breakdown of Estrada’s ‘Pre-Hispanic Moombahton Gods’ (2012). One word pops into legibility before the beat crashes back: ‘Huitzilopochtli’. Indigenous gods have been around a while; the surprising claim here is that they haven’t yet left. They get contrasted with moombahton, a young genre whose primary location is the Internet. In Estrada’s hands ‘Pre-Hispanic Moombahton Gods’ becomes neither anachronism nor pun but statement of intent, sounding out what happens when linear narratives fade and the loops take over.

Estrada composes with music software called FL Studio (a.k.a. FruityLoops). The programme is widely used among young producers in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. fl Studio promotes cyclical time: engaging the world not as a start-to-finish symphony but as a proliferation of loops. The DJ’s 700+ songs exist only as digital files – copies without originals. Roughly one percent of these songs are available for purchase. The rest can be downloaded, for free, until the ephemeral file-hosting links expire. MP3s are timeless insofar as they abstract songs from physical indicators of age. Further vexing chronological order, Estrada maintains no discography.

Estrada’s music complicates the narratives of newness or progress that propel global dance music. If there is no newness and everything has already happened then we can jettison related concepts like ‘original’ or ‘old’, and start listening to music in its promiscuous, iterative glory. Which is how Estrada and countless young musicians make it.

Jace Clayton is a musician and writer. His book Uproot: Travels in 21st Century Music and Digital Culture was recently published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.