Reggaeton’s Contempo Indexical Lexica

As I’ve argued before — and will be arguing next week in Mexico City — one can hear reggaeton’s embrace of tecno synths and “Latin” loops as an audible shift from (explicitly, sonically marking itself as) “música negra” to “reggaeton latino.” Such a change, I contend, corresponds to an attendant shift in the cultural politics reflected and informed by the music, responding to major changes in context (from under to commersh, PR to US) and drawing the lines of community in a significantly different way (boricua, morena…). New vistas, new pistas, no?

Perhaps no recent track demonstrates this better than “Noche de Entierro,” produced by Luny Tunes and Tainy and featuring Daddy Yankee, Hector El Father, Tony Tun-Tun, Zion, and the ubiquitous (just wait) Wisin y Yandel. As my co-editor (and co-presenter next week), Deborah Pacini-Hernandez notes w/r/t the song (in response to a question from our other co-editor, Raquel Z. Rivera),

the song is invoking cumbia and vallenato — 2 genres whose connections are historically close, tho they don’t sound so much alike anymore esp as cumbia has been reinvented in Mexico. The flute-like sounds are definitely invoking classic cumbia; the accordion invokes the accordion-based vallenato as well as cumbias played with accordions. The sound of this piece sounds inspired by Carlos Vives’ pop rock interpretations of vallenatos and cumbias.

Hear for yerself —

At the same time that we note such a strong (surfacy?) shift, it’s important to note that plenty of listeners will still register in the genre’s slickest contemporary commercial confections a great number of sonic signifiers tied to the sticky stuff of melaza. I’m not just talking about those enduring kicks&snares from the Dem Bow and Bam Bam riddims; several recent hits have contained other, nicely submerged allusions to the dancehall reggae sources that animated so many underground/melaza/dembo mixtapes back in the mid-90s.

Sometimes this is fairly subtle, though still audible, as in Wisin y Yandel’s “Pam Pam,” a song which had been gaining serious airplay on La Kalle back when I was still commuting around Chicago (no La Kalle in Boston, tho; que pasa with that?). Not only does the bassline trace out a classic 3+3+2 pattern (beneath the boom-ch-boom-chick), those of you familiar with the Bam Bam / Murder She Wrote lineage may notice that the underlying synthesizer melody plays a phrase that recalls a certain unforgettable line from Red Fox & Screechy Dan’s “Pose Off,” a song that would have been well-known in the PR “reggae” scene, which took to the Drum Song riddim as much as to the Bam Bam and Dem Bow

Another good, recent example of how contempo reggaeton references its sample-heavy, reggae-infused roots is “My Space” (inevitable, wasn’t it) by Wisin y Yandel w/ Don Omar. We hear a number of signposts of the new reggaeton — state-of-the-art synths, emotive harmonic progression, dembow loops — but we also hear a nostalgia for “old school” stylee in a few retro interludes (e.g., around 1:10, 2:10), complete with throw-back, flip-tongue rapping by Don Omar over a crunchy, skanking, digi-reggae loop (though I can’t quite place it) —

You’ll have to decide for yourself, por supuesto, whether these examples draw the lines differently, or still connect dots in a way that permits for all sorts of social articulations. It’s clear that people make all kinds of meanings from (and claims on) reggaeton, as I’ll be exploring in the next post. What interests me is how the music itself — which is to say, the choices that producers and vocalists makes — serves to structure, reshape, reaffirm, or undercut such meanings and claims.

As always, I’m curious to hear what you think.