It’s a Friday night in Madrid, a city that does sleep, but it is generally during the daytime. They call it siesta. At night, Madrid is a lively as any city – and I say this not because I have been to every other big city in the world, but because it isn’t conceivable that much more can actually happen during day or night.
This specific Friday night, however, Madrid is positively rocking, because it’s the Gay Pride weekend and street parties have been organized in virtually every square of town. Ever the salmon, however, (swimming against the tide – get it?) I decide to ignore every single celebration I come across on the road, on my way to a nostalgic gig in the Sala Heineken, one of the best reputed musical joints in the city.
The reason for this uncharacteristic reticence to mingle with the crowd and loiter on the streets, on the sidewalks, on the squares, lies on the fact that I have belatedly learned that one of the most iconic Venezuelan bands of the ’90s, Desorden Público (Public Disorder, in English) has arranged a one-night-only show in Madrid this summer. Today! So, much to my dismay, I have to bypass the potential of an unpredictable evening of spontaneous revelry and spend, instead, a good hour trying to get a ticket online.
Now, at this stage I feel a clarification needs to be made, because Desorden Público is not just any band, nor will this gig be an affair like any other. Or at least so I hope. Hence, a word of context: back in the mid-eighties a new kind of music emerged in the scene. It was a fusion of Latin rhythms – old, forgotten, passé rhythms: cha cha chá, mambo, guaracha, murga – combined with the terse, lean, violent beat of British punk and the exquisite timing of reggae and Jamaican dub, themselves huge influences in the development of British punk in the first place. The result was called Latin ska, and it was an absolute sensation in Latin America.
Latin ska’s most emblematic band was (and still is) called Los Pericos, a septet from Argentina, founded in 1986 and declared Ambassadors of Reggae by Jamaica some years later. As a matter of fact, Argentina was pretty big on Latin ska, with another band, Los Cafres, coming into the scene shortly after Los Pericos, even if they never attained the status of their predecessors. Brasil’s Os Paralamas do Sucesso were probably the first band to experiment with Latin, rock and Caribbean beats, reaching something similar to Latin ska in the early eighties. Paralamas, however, was always more oriented towards the Latin rock tendency.
Meanwhile, Desorden Público, founded in Caracas in 1985, put their money on the fusion wagon, pushing all they way their belief in the Caribbean roots of Venezuelan society. Over the years, the seven-member band has experimented with every conceivable musical modality, from calypso to hard core. Their songs are predominantly in Spanish, although they have a respectable number of English songs in their repertoire, both original and covers – because if there is one thing they are not, it is shy. Their version of “Rudy, A Message to You,” for instance, is, perhaps not a classic, but it certainly is inspiring, and some of their trademark tunes are singular precisely because of their bold – and highly unlikely – mixture of traditional cha cha chá with hard core, for instance, in “Cha cha ska.”
Indeed, Desorden Público became so popular in Venezuela, and the whole phenomenon was so well received in South America, that by the mid-nineties a new, second generation of Latin ska bands had emerged and made their mark. Among them counted King Changó, an 11-man band with parallel roots in Caracas and New York that combined Afro-Cuban sounds with reggae and ska to reach a similar, but eminently distinctive, beat of their own.
The movement lasted roughly another ten years, but by the mid-naughties most of the bands had slowed down or disappeared altogether. Only Los Pericos managed to keep a respectable level both musically and in terms of their popularity. Meanwhile, after six successful albums, Desorden Público found it hard to cope with failure in the early days of the new millennium, and, like Los Cafres, King Changó and the rest, their production dwindled.
But times, and tastes, are constantly changing, and with the new decade a new-found liking for this funky rhythm has returned to the scene. After five years of silence, Desoren Publico went back to the recording studio this year, launching their tenth production, Los contrarios. To celebrate it, they have organized an ambitious European tour with more than 20 dates over the course of the summer. Madrid is their third stop, following performances in Switzerland and Germany.
More mature than the last time I saw them, Horacio Blanco, the lead singer, has lost some of his unmistakable voice. But what he lacks on that front he certainly makes up on enthusiasm and energy. Indeed, the band’s joy at performing before a responsive audience who can understand what they are told is evident from the first moment. From the first moment, too, the rapport between the crowd – a respectable few hundred that fills the joint without making it too crammed – and the musicians, all of them, is exceptional. And as the night wears on and the effects of the music, of the drinks, of the reunion grab hold of the place, everyone, the band, the crowd, even the organizers, lets go. It is then, when, for an instant, magic can be sensed.
Horacio Blanco, scraping the bottom of his vocal cords, appeals to the shared heritage of his band and the predominantly Venezuelan audience. He asks everyone to lay low on the floor and, in the most autochthonous gesture I have witnessed in my life, he pulls his wallet out of the back pocket of his jeans, flips it open, produces a stamp of Dr. José Gregorio Hernández, a revered figure in Venezuelan lore, and, almost voiceless, he utters a familiar blessing. The crowd goes mad, the band plays louder, and no one even notices, any more, that Blanco’s voice can’t be heard. No one even cares. We have all been served, and Desorden Público have certainly remembered why they are back on the stages.
By the time I hit the streets of Madrid again I am as voiceless – and breathless – as Horacio Blanco. The Gay Pride parade, as it turns out, is only just beginning. But my night has reached its climax already, and there is no point in trying to better it. I go back home, as usual, before the city’s nightlife is over, but I’m satisfied, I’ve had plenty… and some more.
PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD NEWSPAPER ON SATURDAY, JULY 9, 2011.