The other day I was taking the 73 from La Belle Mont to Harvard Square. When I got on, I couldn’t help noticing the chap flickrd above, what with his makeshift Sailor Moon police outfit, complete with blue fabric glued to shoulders and breast, metal plate thing on head, and badges to boot (not to mention the extra-large Tokyo Kid bag).
As u can also see, dude was rocking a discman, and he seemed rather engrossed by whatever he was listening to. I assumed it was probably some ol’ Sailor Moon J-pop or something, y’know, to go with the outfit and help set the mood. (Whatever the mood is for a Sailor Moon policeman.)
What surprised and delighted me at the time, and which remains bewildering, was what he was singing when he started singing along, aloud, to the song. As he thrashed his arms about (that’s an action shot, yup), he mumbled some intermittent but not totally incoherent Spanish:
blahblah blahblah blah blah sola
blah blahblah blahblah vuelto con el
blahblah blahblah dido borrar
blahblah blahblah en tu piel
blahblah blahblah vas a llorar…
in other words, interestingly enough, dude was clearly ‘singing’ along to this —
Now, I’m afraid I never got a chance to ask the good Sergeant whether he always listens to reggaeton, whether he knows Spanish, how his love for reggaeton dovetails with his devotion to Sailor Moon, etc. — he too engrossed by his discman, and I too in a rush to get elsewhere. But it was definitely another striking example of the genre finding fans beyond where one would expect to find them and cropping up in the darnedest places.
I may not have recognized Hector El Father’s tune had it not been drilled into my head by La Kalle in Chicago last year. Guilty as any other contempo-corporate radio station when it comes to short playlists, La Kalle would without fail play “Sola” for me on my commute to and from Hyde Park each day. At first I found it annoying, treacly, unremarkable — but another dose of dembow bombast. Gradually tho, as tends to happen with repetition, it grew on me. Despite its cheesiness and cookie-cutter qualities, “Sola” does some interesting things, challenging facile dismissals of reggaeton as overly repetitive (“the same beat”) and unoriginal.
For one, the beat structure offers a fair amount of variation, alternating between reggaeton, dancehall reggae, and hip-hop grooves (i.e., boom-ch-boom-chick to bomp-bomp to breakbeat/backbeat accents), and thus propelling the song forward in a fairly dynamic way (see my notes to Another Crunk Genealogy for more elaboration/examples of these rhythmic approaches).
The other thing that strikes me about “Sola” is the way that Hector El Father sings / raps. It seems to me that this song, like many others in the genre, offers a good example of a fairly distinctive style of vocalizing that has emerged in reggaeton. Many observers, myself included, have noted that reggaetoneros tend to mix dancehall and hip-hop vocal styles, but few have gone into further detail about the other influences one can hear in reggaeton vox, especially in the (nasal / strained) timbres (which tend to recall a number of Puerto Rican vocal traditions, from bomba to salsa to various folkloric / religious styles), the use of melisma (or not), the kinds of melodic contours employed, etc.
It seems to me that we can hear in Hector’s vocalizing a wide number of influences being synthesized. In particular, the overwrought, by-the-numbers ’emotive’-ness — dig that octave jump halfway thru the chorus! it’s something of a mini-truck driver’s gear change, innit — seems equally indebted to baladas y salsas romanticas, with perhaps a dash of rock power-balladry to put it over the top. Perhaps this is not terribly original in its own way, but it’s definitely distinct from (as it overlaps and engages with) dancehall or hip-hop approaches, and I think one could make a genealogical argument that extends into the first ‘crooners’ of the underground days (e.g., Baby Rasta) who, influenced as they were by dancehall singjays, also inevitably incorporated the sounds of boybands. (Let’s not kid ourselves: who do you think Hector is making a play for with songs like “Sola”? The thugs?) As the genre turns toward “romantic” recordings in the mid-late 90s, this tendency is exacerbated. & of course with the rise of the “thug ballad” in hip-hop around the turn of the millennium, the approach becomes both popular and profitable. And there we have it, at least to my ears.
Which is the sort of thing I think about on the bus.
But I’m curious: What do you hear?