For years, I volunteered at a radio station, where my job was sorting the massive pile of albums mailed to us every week. We'd pick songs we liked, making sure they were scrubbed of non-FCC-approved words like "goddamn motherfucker," then lump them under labels such as "rock" or "jazz" for the computer's limited catalog. We also had a "world music" category, a catch-all for any music that wasn't from the United States or Europe. "World music" is a label that makes me squirm.
In "I Hate World Music," an aptly titled New York Times op-ed, David Byrne broke down the burdensome expression: "It's a marketing as well as a pseudomusical term — and a name for a bin in the record store signifying stuff that doesn't belong anywhere else in the store . . . Use of the term world music is a way of dismissing artists or their music as irrelevant to one's own life. It's a way of relegating this 'thing' into the realm of something exotic and therefore cute — weird but safe — because exotica is beautiful but irrelevant; they are, by definition, not like us. Maybe that's why I hate the term."
One of the albums we got at the radio station was the 2008 hit album Río by Aterciopelados. As the band is native to Bogotá, Colombia, its music was ostensibly filed away (by someone that was not me) as "world music." But such a term does not even begin to describe the band.
The name Aterciopelados, which translates to "velvety ones," comes from a line — "aterciopelada flor de la pasión" (velvety flower of passion) — from French author Simone de Beauvoir. Described by Time as 'Colombia's hottest rock band," Aterciopelados, a duo of bassist/producer Héctor Buitrago and singer/guitarist Andrea Echeverri, does pay homage to its roots with a blend of Latin and Caribbean styles, including flamenco, bolero, and reggae.
But every lick from Andean pan flutes is balanced by a backbone of punk and contemporary rock, even adding elements of electronica. Buitrago and Echeverri identify with tradition and their homeland with fervent warmth but are just as comfortable with textures all over the place.
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Perhaps more importantly, Aterciopelados' music, especially Echeverri's sharp lyrics, have drawn focus to topics like feminism, environmentalism, and violence in Colombia. The titular lead track from Río was a call to action declaring that clean water access is a fundamental right for all by addressing the extreme pollution of the Bogotá River. On "Aguaita," Echeverri sings that "the water belongs to everyone / Not to the highest bidder." The release of the album coincided with a proposed Colombian constitutional referendum, which attracted more than two million signatures. Now, Echeverri tells us via e-mail, the Bogotá River is recovering, thanks to the removal of sediment and garbage, as well as reforestation on the riverbanks.
"There are also new means in place intended for the recovery of the river, and it is expected that in the next 20 years it will be much better and in the process of total decontamination," Echeverri says. "But upon reaching the Congress of the Republic for approval, [the referendum] sank because it was not discussed by Congress in the time that it should have been. However, many continued to advance its purposes in different ways. The country has more awareness of the water at this time."
Looking forward, Aterciopelados is working on a DVD to be called Reluciente Rechinante y Aterciopelado, which will feature many unreleased tracks. The band says it also is working on a new album. The first single, "Luz Azul," is a collaboration with Spanish artist Macaco.
Steff Koeppen translated the interview.