Perfect Sound Forever

Café Tacuba

Not Your ordinary Café
by Dr. Grogg
(October 2009)

Many performers out there are find a less-than-warm reception when they hit the over-crowded international market. This consists of being compared by lazy journalist to the likes of their own national heroes (the journalist's, that is) instead of being greeted as something new and fresh. Such a band is Café Tacuba (sometimes Café Tacvba).

They come from Naualcapan, Mexico. Already now, we are quite lost. Even if you've never been to Mexico (like me), once you hear Café Tacuba, you can tell that they seem to be, as some say, from everywhere. Since the beginning, the members have been singer/guitarist Ruben Albarran Joselo Rangel, guitarist Jose Rangel Arroyo, keyboardist/guitarist Emmanuel del Real Diaz and bassist Enrique Rangel Arroyo (Jose's brother), who first met up when they were graphic design students (violinst Alejandro Flores is considered a 'fifth member' and Luis Ledezma plays drums for them live). Add to this a bit of punk and there's Café Tacuba... No, wait, a bit of punk, a bit of funk and there's Café Tacuba... No, no, let's take it from the beginning.

Their eponymous first album was released in 1992. To find a copy of this album is not an easy task. So is it punk? Not the least. The band gives us a mix of faster songs, slower songs and some more danceable songs, with lots and lots of melody. Indeed, Café Tacuba have their hearts in melody and experimentation. They have their more tender and romantic sides too though, and the song "Maria" from this album is possibly the definite ballads of Café Tacuba since it keeps everything very plain.

There's some wonderful clips of the band from YouTube from this time which comes from some sort of Mexican show called Mi Barrio. Judging by the clips, the band has a really nice bundle of energy as Rubén runs around in various suits on stage while the rest of the band accompanies him in these whimsical twists. Also notice that Rubén has a thing for big hats (like his sombrero here), something he'll get more and more theatrical with as Tacuba goes on.

It seems that their first album is as much as a band testing their wings as it is the very core of Café Tacuba's music. It could've been a real international hit, who knows, but it is an album easily to overlook in the shadows of Café Tacubas later works, like Re.

1994's Re has been compared to "The White Album" but the latter did not carry any speed metal, nor influences from Latin-American music or the energy of Re. Itself. It simply is Café Tacuba going through and even blending several genres such as speed metal, ranchero and who knows what. "La Ingrata" shows off Ruben's vocal abilities, the bands energy and an homage to the local music styles of Mexico (in this case Norteño). Another highlight is "El fin de la Infancia," with Ruben spitting out words like a "vocal submachine gun." Unlike on their first album, the ballads here has some sharp turns to them, which you can hear on "Esa Noche", "Madrugal" or "La negrita."

But while it can be seen as a serious effort, there's also humor, seen in several parodies on mostly Latin-American music styles such as norteño, son jarocho, banda and boleros*. Unfortunately, some of that humor might be lost to people who are unfamiliar with the genres being parodied. Despite that, they act as fine songs on their own. Otherwise, the album would be lost to several people.

As an entry into Café Tacuba's music, Re is possibly the best album to start with. There are of course compilations out there to serve as some sort of introduction, but while it might seem that their albums are a bunch of songs it would be quite a shame to miss the point of their work. Even Re has its own mood that shines through the various songs. But if it hadn't been for all the experiments, energy and fun, Re would've just been a mood and nothing else. So Café Tacuba had a great album on their hands (a masterpiece even), but what could they do next to improve themselves and show a different approach to their music? What is known about the time between Re and their next album, 1996's Avalancha de éxitos ('avalanche of hits'), is that they apparently recorded three (or four) albums worth of music. What kind of music that was or where it is now is unknown (some say several songs ended up on the album Revés). With that much material, it would be quite a task to try and decide what would end up on just one single album. This is possibly the reason why their next record was a covers album.

Avalancha de éxitos is Café Tacuba covering several hits, both known and more obscure. Of course, to someone not familiar with Latin-American music, the album is a giant question mark. Not only does the band sound different from Re but they are also interpreting others' songs. Nothing to fear though since Avalancha de éxitos happens to be a very enjoyable album although a bit difficult to get into compared to Re. This was a sign that Café Tacuba had evolved during the time after Re too since the album has something more of a complexity to it. Sure, Avalanchas' precursor was simple yet complex in its own right but here, a young band is paying tribute to older artists, which is not common. Usually young bands sneer at their forefathers, seeing themselves as "free" from older artists' limited eras, all the while though, they might end up accidently copying them because of this. Café Tacuba however shows that they can pay tribute, have fun and do some experimenting within this framework.

Here, it's worth examining in detail who they covered for the album and how they interpreted their songs, which should give you a good sample of their influences and how they put their stamp on songs.

  1. Juan Jaime Lopez: is a blues musician, mostly unknown in the Western world.

    Song they covered: "Chilanga Banda." There seems to be several different versions of this song, or rap, preceding Café Tacuba's cover. One features a lonely Jaime doing the "rap" (because it is a type of rap) while accompanying himself on guitar. Another version features the rap, possibly done by Jaime, with some funky samba-esque music backing it up. Café Tacuba throws it into a grand funky hip-hop groove. At first, it sounds a bit off since it starts with Rubén doing the rap while the beat that gets added later comes in a bit off-center. Compared to the second version of the song, Café Tacuba's version still comes off as quite poppy, with a feel that there are new kids in the hood.

  2. Axis is An obscure band from the north of Mexico who play a type of prog rock.

    Song they covered: "Metamorfosis." The original starts off with acoustic guitars and synthesizer, sounding as something that is both a bit '70's and '80's, but the chorus kicks into an anthem that could belong to classic rock of the '70's along with a bit of late '80's music. With this song, that goes from a quiet verse to a loud chorus, Café Tacuba takes it and turns it into a slower type of electronic rock with treated guitars, background vocals in harmony and even some string arrangements. It is more of a "build-up" type of a song with one part going somewhat, only to lash out into a super-anthem.

  3. Nacho Cano: a former member of a group called Mecano, Nacho Cano is the alias of White Ignacio Andres. At the moment, he works as a producer and songwriter for other artists.

    Song they covered: "No Controles." This song must've been composed for Flans, a three-piece woman group in the late '80's that was popular in Mexico with their sugary Latin pop. It therefore carries many trademarks from '80's music production, such as reverb here and there, particularly on the voice and the synthesizer but also a staccato synth bassline that drops in and out and early drum machines. But it is all 80's music with a Latin twist. In return, Café Tacuba makes it a sort of Latin-acoustic-metal-rocker. Rubén treats his voice with some distortion and if it wasn't for the guitars being acoustic instead of electric one would definitely feel a metal vibe in this cover.

  4. Bola di nieve was a Cuban pianist who is considered to be one of the best pianists in Latin-American history. His stage name meant "snow ball" but the origins of the name is in dispute though. Some say that the definite story of the nickname came from a poster for Cuban singer Rita Montaner, written as such: "Rita montaner and Bola di Nieve."

    Song they covered: "No Me Comprendes." Bola's style can almost be described as Latino cabaret: music played at restaurants or bars on a piano. Café Tacuba makes the song into a sort of a jazz tune with a bossa nova feel to it, letting the piano do most of the talk together with Rubén.

  5. Botellita de jerez played an important part in the Mexican rock movement. They had a humorous approach to their lyrics and combined rock with cumbia and blues to name a few. Although disbanded in 1997, they reunited in 2005.

    Song they covered: "Alarmala de tos." The band seemed to be some sort of rock pranksters. Perhaps they where, as the song Alarmala de tos" has a quirky touch to it, not to forget that it is a good solid rock number. It doesn't sound like the Western contemporary rock of their time (the '80's) but instead like their own punky and simple Latino rock music. Café Tacuba again add some electronic beats but also whispering vocals, thrashy guitars and even a cello, varying a quiet verse with a louder chorus.

  6. Alberto Domínguez: there's minimal info on this composer, who wrote "Perfidia" for Glenn Miller.

    Song they covered: "Perfidia." This is jazz as we might think of it in the early 20th century, but with a small Latino twist: the multiple harmony vocals. It is jazz, simply. Café Tacuba makes it an instrumental with its calm and effect treated guitars playing the melody and adding some electronic beats again.

  7. Juan Luis Guerra: Perhaps the biggest and most well-known of the artists that Café Tacuba covered. Guerra has made albums that have sold over 20 million copies around the world. Besides pop music, he also happens to write musicals. Song they covered: "Ojala que llueva Café" Luis is a meringue icon in Latin-America. Instead of making yet another electronic rock version of a song, Café Tacuba treats it in their "local Mexican style" way. The only instruments to accompany Rubén are two guitars and one violin that makes it sound like music made by street performers of Mexico.

  8. Leo Dan made music on his own at a very young age. He quickly became famous internationally. He is still active to this day, residing in Miami with his family. He also continue to perform live for both American and European audiences.

    Song they covered: "Como te extraño mi amor." Ah, '50's music of Latin America! The only thing that gives this the 50's touch are the electric guitars which, with the rock of the West at that time, tried to evoke some sort of Hawaiian, steel guitar or surf sound. But the rhythm section is still essential Latino. Café Tacuba gives this song a sort of jangle-pop, ska treatment with nice piano notes filling the picture and no horn section.

Their third album is actually no surprise if you consider the fact that Café Tacuba has ever since the start blended both local and global sensibilities within their music. Therefore, a tribute album fits the groups canon perfect.

Their next album it was possibly more confusing. As a double album, Revés/Yo Soy is possibly the most puzzling efforts by Café Tacuba, at least after a single glance.

Revés consists of instrumentals, musical experiments executed by the band either with the Kronos Quartet or while rotating their own instruments within the group. This might made the compositions interesting but at times a bit cold. Since we are without the vocal range of Rubén, it sounds like an entirely different band, more like post-rock than the funny genre-jumps of Re. But even in this forest of experiments, both simple and more complex, there is a lot to gain from it. Not only is it brave of Café Tacuba to show that they have other ambitions than just their usual melodical adventures, but the fact that they alienate (some of) their listeners on this album raise the question: Is it on purpose?

On the other hand Yo Soy contains songs within the more familiar area of Café Tacuba's range. Not in a bad way though. It works as a polar opposite to Revés. However, some of the songs of Yo Soy are a bit gloomier, perhaps a bit darker, than those on their previous efforts. With this more traditional (but not that traditional) music territory, the unification of Revés and Yo Soy makes much more sense. It is the band doing what they've done before, albeit in a different form and yet with some progress. But if the two albums wouldn't have been joined together as a whole, it would've been quite difficult to understand either of them. As they are now, in the shape of a double album, they make the perfect couple.

But even with four different-sounding and interesting efforts, Café Tacuba was still not heard of much outside of Mexico. It was during that time, after Revés/Yo Soy that they started to work on an album that would really change that, but also make most of the music journalists out there stumbling on their words, trying to describe them and their music.

2003's Cuatro Caminos, their fifth album, is the first proof to many out there that Café Tacuba consisted of four genius design students from Mexico. Many fans have said (maybe not so objectively) that from this point on that they were the best band in the world solely because of this album. Yet, what is troublesome is how people tend to compare Café Tacuba to some sort of Western counterpart, be it Radiohead, The Beatles, The Clash, Pavement or whatever a reviewer might think of. All of those comparisons have something in common: They've made their own albums that changed the world of music. Still, why couldn't Cuatro Caminos be just the sole manifestation of Café Tacuba's total talent? Here we have it all, previously spread out on the other four albums. It is their experimental side, their fun side, the local and the global all gathered in a compact little album that possibly (and hopefully) has shaken the musical realm of the West.

How come it should've shaken the ground of the West? Well, it is both rock and world music, accessible yet experimental. When most Western people think of Latin-America, they think of Bossa Nova, Samba and perhaps reggaeton, which has entered the dance floor of the West more or less recently. But with Café Tacuba, it is different. They are 'rock,' yet not really 'rock' in the sense that we know it. Yet, that rock part of their work makes it unlikely that even if their music won't become world famous while changing the entire globe's outlook on both standard music and Latin-America in particular overnight.

Perhaps it was no coincidence that in 2005, their 15th anniversary would happen around two years later. This resulted in the more or less typical anniversary releases of a live album Un Viaje. There was even an Unplugged release the very same year. Let us assume that is more fun to go to a real Café Tacuba concert. Not that I know if they happen to play in or around my area (Scandinavia) but judging by the clips from some of their live concerts, it seems like it would be great fun.

It is easy to assume that the Tacubans toured heavily after Cuatro Caminos was released. It took them five years to return with yet another album. This time around it is a surprise to hear what it sounds like, but not in the way of their previous efforts. Sino (from 2007) is, compared to Cuatro Caminos, the band's music stripped to its underwear. It therefore sounds unlike anything before it in Café Tacuba's canon, except their first album. This shouldn't be taken as something bad because their melodic skills and songcraft is well presented on this album, just like any other previous effort. To imagine that it took four of their absent five years to make this album shows how much they seem to enjoy crafting good music. It still leaves the question of what Café Tacuba wanted to say with this album.

Previously, every album before Sino acted like a statement. Café Tacuba had previously looked ahead, with a blend of vision and playfulness which sometimes would be quite puzzling. Take the example of Avalancha de éxitos, an album filled with covers, or Revés/Yo Soy with its ying and yang structured double discs. In this way, Sino makes much more sense. Café Tacuba had been compared to Western counterparts with Cuatro Caminos and on their latest, they sound even closer to the West than before. Yet, they are quite far away in their own way since the amount of airplay they get in the West is possibly close to nil.

It could be that Café Tacuba knew that fans had put expectations on them, especially after Cuatro Caminos, and they might have known for a long time that they were being compared to Western counterparts back and forth. It could be that with Sino, they wanted to explain what they've been saying all along: They are what they are for no one else out there. They are Café Tacuba and that's it.

* Lexicon of musical styles:

Son Jarocho: Ever heard "La Bamba"? That is the best-known type of Son Jarocho song, which is a style native to Vera Cruz , Mexico. The name takes its origins from the Cuban musical style called Son obvious, however there are many styles of a wider tradition from the more rural areas of Latin-America that get the name 'son' attached to them, such as 'Son huasteco,' 'Son Chiapaneco' and 'Son jaliscience.' What characterize Son Jarocho is often the humour of the lyrics and the inclusion of the guitar-shaped Jaranas.

Bolero: the music that is most associated with Latin-America in most European or North American citizens' heads must be bolero. It is romantic and very emotionally in its performance. Examples of artists, because this genre needs some good examples, are Trio los Panchos and Augustin Lara.

Norteño: Its birthplace was, well, Norteño. Often associated with the working class, it is recognized by the use of accordion and Bajo sexton (which is a baritone type of twelve string guitar) but it is also a blend of European traditional music, like Polka, and the music of Mexicans back in the late 19th century.

Banda Music: a brassy and percussive style of music which can almost be said to be a kind of big band style. The numbers of members in Banda groups can range from 10 to 20. However, they are not strictly instrumental and the inclusion of a singer or several singers is common.

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