Native Tongue

Debajo del Agua’s acoustic hip-hop speaks to the unseen and the unheard

Debajo del Agua’s new album, Mosaico, lives up to its title with a sound that’s a mash-up of hip-hop, with Latin American and Caribbean elements including Música andina, salsa, samba, cumbia, mariachi, reggaeton, ska and various Cuban styles. African drums, Cajon, congas, quijada de burro and other Latin American percussion instruments create the band’s rhythmic foundation.

The lyrics are fiercely political. They address the concerns of immigrants and other marginalized people, with a worldview that gives the music a spiritual edge. “We want to speak to the underrepresented, the unseen and unheard,” said Dani Cornejo, the collective’s spokesperson. “That includes Native people, poor people, women, Black, Latinx and gay folks. We make music in solidarity with those communities. We see a lot of people over 50 at our shows—they relate to the traditional elements of the music. We get young people too; all races, all ages. We create a safe space for everyone.”

The band’s foundation in hip-hop gives the music a relentless, sharp-edged groove, remarkable for the fact that it’s all created on acoustic instruments. “My brother [Pablo, the collective’s other frontperson] and I were raised in the Latin American nueva cancion tradition of acoustic folk music,” Cornejo said. “My father had a band in that tradition. Groups like Quilapayún, Victor Jara’s backing band, would pass through our house when they were in town. When it came to creating our own sound, that’s the foundation we built on.

“Hip-hop is very sample-based, but we didn’t know that when we were starting out. We come from an era before videos and assumed it was all played live. Since we’d been raised playing acoustic instruments, acoustic hip-hop was a natural progression. Our father was born in Chile, a descendent of the Picunche people, and our mother is Mexican, from the Opata Nation of Northern Mexico, so Native traditions come into play as well.”

Cornejo said the band’s spiritual focus comes naturally from his background. “I’m a practitioner of the Mexicayotl tradition from Central Mexico,” he said. “I know that the most deceptive aspect of discrimination in the U.S. is invisibility and erasure, even within the broader Latinx community. A lot of what we attempt to do in our music is bring visibility to that population, using indigenous instruments, languages and rhythms.”

“Dale Duro (Go Hard)” rides a pumped-up reggaeton groove, with rhumba and salsa rhythms adding complexity to the flow. The lyrics celebrate the dreams of working class immigrants for a better future and call out Trump for his racist words and deeds. The hip-hop rhumba of “Madrugada” supports Spanish and English lyrics celebrating the determination to make music in the face of the pandemic and the politics of indifference. “Olla de Barro” salutes the contributions Native cultures have made to the worlds of music and art, with a track that includes Andean folk, Cumbia, Masonica—a indigenous rhythm from the Amazon—some rocking electric bass and hip-hop. Banda, a genre of Mexican pop that includes a wide variety of tempos and rhythms, joins the heavily synthesized sounds of trap to provide the backbone of “Mariposa.” The lyrics describe people living on the boundary between national borders and musical genres.

“In ‘Mariposa’ there are some Nahuatl words, the language of the Aztecs,” Cornejo said. “In the song ‘Wayñumi Aswan Allin’ we include the phrase, ‘I’d rather die standing.’ It’s a translation of a quote from the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, who was also of indigenous descent. ‘When the villages unite, we are stronger.’ In small ways, we try to bring forth that vocabulary in a manner that’s accessible to the broader community.

“Music is a good medium to do that; it’s the universal language. Bob Marley talked about the rude boy esthetic—music that makes you move and dance and nod your head to lyrics with an empowering message. Even if you don’t understand it, you can still feel it. When we’re playing in the U.S., people come up to us and tell us ‘I didn’t understand what you were saying, but I enjoyed myself and danced my ass off.’ It’s the same feeling I get when I listen to West African music and indigenous music. I can appreciate it, without understanding everything the people are singing about.”

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