The ambassadors of Mexico

Cafe Tacvba brings hope stateside

Cafe Tacvba
Courtesy of Cafe Tacuba

At around 11 a.m. local time on Sept. 19, residents of Mexico City methodically filed out of office buildings, homes and restaurants — wherever they happened to be. But it wasn’t just happening in the capitol; orderly evacuations took place around the country, in nearly all 31 states. The simulacrum is part memorial, part training.

For 13 years, Mexico’s held this national earthquake drill on Sept. 19, the day 32 years ago when an 8.1 magnitude quake pitched Mexico City into one of the country’s greatest natural disasters, leaving nearly 10,000 people dead (other estimates skew much higher), 30,000 injured and thousands more homeless.

What no one knew as they  filed out into the sunlight was that in just two hours, history would repeat itself.

In the United States, Cafe Tacvba bassist Enrique “Quique” Rangel and his three bandmates were in Marfa, Texas, preparing for a show in Dallas the next day. The beloved Mexican rock band had recently embarked on their longest tour of the U.S. in the band’s 27-year history.

The news of the earthquake came immediately. Guitarist Emmanuel del Real was on the phone with his wife when she told him the floor of their home was shaking.

After the earth settled, the band was relieved to find their loved ones unharmed, but they knew many Mexicans were just starting a journey of grief.

“I know that Mexico City will be another city than the one I left,” Rangel says over the phone from Boston on Oct. 3. “It’s one of the strangest feelings.”

Rangel muses for a moment on the universality of this feeling which exists for Mexicans living in the U.S., no matter where they’re from in Mexico; they’re removed from their native land, far away from their families, from their roots, from the soothing saturation of familiar culture. The realities of life have pushed them here — widespread violence from cartels, deep-seated governmental corruption, extreme poverty.

Like they say: You can’t go home again.

“It’s a difficult time for Mexicans living in the States,” Rangel says. “The life that they have decided to grow here — working — some of them are not very safe in the future they have envisioned, but they are still here. Our music is linked to their past and their roots and it gives them hope and happiness.

“These things that you cannot be prepared for, like an earthquake, and the way some of the causalities that have happened in Mexico City, in Morales and Puebla, have empowered the vision of being Mexican and having a link to that culture. Maybe you can only enjoy music if you want, but music is also a way to embrace our culture and to give hope.”

Cafe Tacvba (tah-coo-ba, named after a famous coffeehouse in the band’s old stomping grounds in Mexico City, the ‘u’ turned into a ‘v’ to avoid legal problems) has almost always been emblematic of the past, drawing heavily from Mexico’s rich folklore. They reshaped the landscape of Mexican music — of Latin American music in general — in the early ’90s with a reimagined approach to rock en español.

Since the late 1950s, the genre had done little more than dress Western rock sounds with Spanish vocals.

But Cafe turned to Mexico’s ancient history for inspiration, both melodically and lyrically. They shunned the notion that rock music had a formula, or that a band should adhere to a standard sound. Their only standard was a devotion to Mexico, and, while it may be a less tangible piece of their success, their accessible personalities have endeared them to Spanish-speakers the world over.

For Cafe, rock ‘n’ roll demands movement against the grain, a clear defiance of preconceived notions and expectations.

They built an empire on a catalog so eclectic it truly defies categorization. For Americans, the best comparisons might be indie darlings with cult-like followings like Beck, Ween or The Aquabats (though without the parody).

Their breakthrough album, 1994’s Re, was an exercise in unmitigated experimentation. The lead track, “El Aparato” (“The Apparatus”), tells a story of an alien abduction. The song switches effortlessly from playful melodicism using an ocarina (a clay flute used by Mayans) to somber bridges. Traditional sounds blend with a contemporary story of a man burned, blinded, hospitalized and unable to recount what happened, and it feels like a nod to Mexico’s ancient history with the otherworldly, from the Mayan civilization’s storied connection to the extraterrestrial to the first-ever reported alien abduction that supposedly happened to a Mexican cab driver in 1953.

From there, Re dives deep into punk rock and cumbia, mariachi and ranchera, traversing subject matter as disparate as gay love on the dance floor, Mexico City’s subway culture and the neverending journey a lover makes to be with his beloved. It is consistently named one of the best Latin American albums of all time.

Their eighth studio album and newest release, Jei Beibi (“Hey Baby,” a linguistic way Cafe found to yet again break the rules), is a testament to the band’s dedication to reinvention. No two songs sound alike.

A prime example is the first single, “Futuro,” a song Rangel penned.

“This is a philosophical cumbia, the questioning of life by a single person,” he says.

“Yo dije que sí/Ella dijo no/Al final no importa, es algo que dios ya decidió (I said yes/She said no/In the end it doesn’t matter, it’s something God already decided).”

Hope, Rangel says, exists only “in the here and now.”

“El futuro es hoy” — the future is today.

The video is playful, featuring creepy yet sexy versions of Pope Francis, Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto and Donald Trump wearing a miniskirt.

“These are very obscure times,” Rangel says. “Sometimes the best way to question the big themes in life is playing around them.”

While the album isn’t inherently political, it’s not without an index finger pointed at the widespread corruption of the Mexican government. In fact, that’s just how the album kicks off with the sugar-pop of “1-2-3.”

“1-2-3, cuéntalos bien y si sigues tal vez llegues a 43 (Count them well, and if you do you might reach 43),” an allusion to the 2014 kidnapping of 43 students of the Ayotzinapa Rural Teacher’s College in Iguala, Guerrero. The students — all activists hoping to reach a demonstration the following day — were intercepted by local police and never seen again. It’s believed they were turned over to a local gang who burned their bodies and dumped the remains in a river. Only two bodies have been found to date.

Many believe the cover-up reaches the highest echelons of the Mexican government, and the tragedy remains a dark stain on the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto.

“I think this is a good time to reconsider something: We don’t trust the government with our lives,” Rangel says. “I don’t see why we can trust them in the institutions they have built, in the political parties that they have.

“It’s easy to forget our government has a stain on their administration; they can trust that time is going to erase what they did. And suddenly, something they did wrong is going to be covered with dust and lies. Our intention with making a statement in a pop song is to try to sneak that [reminder] into the popular culture. If we can sneak that idea into pop culture, then we are going to preserve that humiliation and that wound won’t be closed and there’s something more to fight back against. I don’t know if we are able to achieve that, but at least we think that people have to keep that in mind, somewhere in their minds, in the collective unconscious.”

In the face of all this pain, this loss, is there hope?

“I change from day to day,” Rangel says. “These are hard times for me. I’m dialectic; I have hope. I hope my music can help to change the things I don’t want my daughter to live through.”


On the Bill: Cafe Tacvba — with Flor De Toloache. 8 p.m. Monday, Oct. 9, Ogden Theatre, 935 E. Colfax Ave., Denver. Tickets are $39.95, $45 at the door.