BY Julyssa Lopez in Music , Opinion | 18 AUG 20

Rita Indiana’s Songbook for the End of the World

The writer and musician’s latest album, Mandinga Times, is a bracing ode to apocalyptic collapse

BY Julyssa Lopez in Music , Opinion | 18 AUG 20

Rita Indiana was never going to quietly ease her way back into music, but ‘Como Un Dragón’ (Like a Dragon, 2020) is a volatile, quaking eruption of a song, even by the brash standards she’s set for herself. The single opens Mandinga Times, her first album in ten years – what Indiana has called ‘a songbook for the end of the world’ – and melds a propulsive dembow beat with screeching doomsday guitars. The sound is manic, eerie and seductive. Indiana spits her verses with swaggering delight, transmogrifying her artistic alter ego, La Montra, into a taunting prophet called Mandinga, who revels as everything burns to the ground. 

Mandinga Times – due for release on 8 September – is an album about a ravaged world but, at its core, it’s as interested in reconstruction as it is in the forces that have led to collapse. Such themes pervade the work of Indiana, a queer, Puerto Rico-based artist from the Dominican Republic, who has straddled music and literature scenes in Latin America and the Caribbean for two decades. She began publishing short stories at 18, eventually releasing her debut novel, La Estrategia de Chochueca (Chochueca’s Strategy), five years later in 2000. This was followed by five more publications, including the feverish, pseudo-coming-of-age story Papi (2004) and the science-fiction experiment La Mucama de Omicunlé (Tentacle, 2015), which also plays with the post-apocalyptic imagination. When Indiana began experimenting with music in the early 2000s, her output was as protean and unclassifiable as her writing, soldering together DIY beats and traditional rhythms from across the Caribbean. 

Rita Indiana, Made In Saturn, 2020. Courtesy:
Rita Indiana, Made in Saturn, 2020, book cover. Courtesy: And Other Stories

Her focus on dismantling mythologies and rebuilding from the rubble appears in her most recent novel, Made in Saturn (2020). The book follows Argenis Luna, a young artist sent to a heroin detox programme in Cuba by his father, the decorated revolutionary hero and Dominican politician José Alfredo. As he recovers from his illness, Luna tries to make sense of his father’s legacy – at one point staring at a photo negative of his father throwing Molotovs at police as though it could hold hidden answers. For characters like Luna, family lore, failed revolutions, past traumas and the histories of the Caribbean are both an open wound and a badge of honour. Towards the end of the novel, Luna describes how ‘the love his old man felt for him came to him unblemished, like the homemade bomb at the feet of police’. What he’s inherited from his father is both a beacon, lighting a path for him, and a destructive weapon, forcing him to forge his own way into the unknown. 

Mandinga Times is also about imagining new realities and finding new paths forward, particularly among communities whose heirlooms include the violence of colonialism, capitalist exploitation and racial inequality. The project mixes the darkness of our current era with an ecstatic, riotous spirit, becoming an ode to tearing old systems down. On the album’s title track, Indiana and the Dominican dembow star Kiko El Crazy examine the absurdity of wealth at a time when ecological disaster seems seconds away, capturing a sense of impending doom with upbeat chants of ‘Tick, tock!’ Indiana’s producer, Eduardo Cabra, a former member of the Puerto Rican band Calle 13, tinkers with retro synths on ‘Ensalmo’ (Spell) and works in strains of Puerto Rican plena on ‘Toy En Calle’ (I’m on the Street). The music is so densely packed with eclectic references that it sounds as though it’s been composed from the wreckage of demolished worlds. 

Rita Indiana, 2020. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Daniel Cassady
Rita Indiana. Courtesy and photograph: Daniel Cassady

Grimes’s recent album, Miss Anthropocene (2020), could be seen as a close analogue to Mandinga Times on the surface. But, while Grimes sings about climate change and the degradation of the human condition with nihilistic glee, Indiana summons the strength we will need to survive social and environmental ruin – Latin America and the Caribbean, after all, have already lived through their own historic apocalypses. Closing the album with ‘Claroscuro’, Indiana hints at the shifts that have to occur, both externally and internally, to disrupt the status quo. In one verse, she draws on nature’s lessons and reminds us to embrace ever-changing conditions: ‘The wind changes, the voice changes, the names change,’ she sings. ‘Love changes, the one who dreams and what they dream changes. If the wind changes, I do, too.’

Main image: Rita Indiana. Courtesy and photograph: Noelia Quintero Herencia

Julyssa Lopez is based in Brooklyn. She is a contributing writer at The Nation, where she covers music, arts, and entertainment. She also writes for the New Yorker's Goings On About Town section. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, GQ, the Guardian, and The Fader, among others.