Javier Estrada - Tribal Prehispánico
In 2014, the classical dialectical progression of thesis, antithesis, synthesis found its true manifestation as social media article proliferation: idea (form), fetishization, and infinite rebuttal. Content is immediately swallowed by the hungry culture-consumer; then, mountains of response articles are slapped up onto newsfeeds to assert and establish firm-footed, relevant digital opinions. Many of these articles are aimed at immediately questioning, rejecting, and picking apart our most lauded cultural content, as if self-consciousness deems our initial excitements grotesque, our original inclinations politically incorrect. Although this does allow for a vigilant, critical, quasi-democratic community, it definitely makes consensus more difficult. One of 2014’s primary arguments took place in the ragged battleground of cultural appropriation. As countless artists found digitally-enfranchised avenues for “freedom,” cultures, bodies, and genders became colonized: musical styles became quickly fetishized, once-acolytes began to quickly reject those styles, and things got much more complicated. The past six months have seen everything from the Iggy Azalea Twitter Wars to the appropriation auteur himself go third (or fourth?)-wave reflexive with the release of Black Metal. Likewise, even as the world just began to get comfortable with the subversive tactics of PC Music, The FADER published an article aimed at questioning their intention all along, criticizing how some of their anonymous male artists colonized gender. The pan-geographic “club,” then, has an ethics. One can’t just flex freedoms in the “global marketplace (dance floor) of ideas” like some aesthetic robber-baron. Just as the American corporation uses the “free market” to get cheaper labor from subjugated countries, the free-market beat-smith uses their digital anonymity to rip cultural narratives from the hearts of peoples. Similar to “go local” economics, perhaps the solution is a new musical hyperlocalism, a place where the artist can begin to speak from their own non-virtual experience and history interestingly, adequately, and honestly.
A fantastic place to begin discovering what this might look like would be Mexico City’s N.A.A.F.I (run by Fausto Bahía, Paul Marmonta, Lao, and Mexican Jihad) and the work of DJ Javier Estrada. As a label, “band,” and event, N.A.A.F.I curates an aesthetic identity based on the union between global internet trends in radical dance music and the lived experience of a geographically situated party, an intersectional phenomena I’ve previously spoke on as it related to Berlin’s Janus collective, Lotic, and NYC’s GHE20G0TH1K. In the aforementioned cases, the union of community and a virtual aesthetic mentality fuse into meaningful rituals “that demonstrate how the ethics of a localized event can translate beautifully into distinct composition.” N.A.A.F.I, as an institution, then, asserts an ethics of difference that compositionally represents Mexican heritage and rhythms within the greater global dance community. Despite the narratives of perpetual aesthetic “newness” and “progressiveness” that global dance music often represents, N.A.A.F.I’s fantastic Tribal compilation shows how participating in “aesthetic globalization” does not mean compromising cultural identity. In fact, the three artists featured on the three-disc compilation — Estrada, Alan Rosales, and DJ Tetris — explore the three primary forms of “Tribal” Mexican music: Prehispanic, Guarachero, and Costeño, respectively. By combining these sounds with strands of aggressive EDM, sound-collage, and ballroom, the artists are interfacing with globalism and representing their lineage in a way that complicates the cultural anonymity of global dance, goes beyond the one-dimensional identity of the stock, white-male “club producer,” and enriches the practice to re-include aspects of personhood.
Despite being a part of a series compilation, Javier Estrada’s Tribal Prehispánico epitomizes N.A.A.F.I’s created culture while simultaneously standing apart as a work of singular vision. The record is a purposeful reconstitution of pre-colonial Aztec culture, a setting that serves to reclaim the Prehispánico genre and to access mythological fantasy. Within its 18 tracks, the album contains two relatively distinct movements: the first begins with “Huitzilopochitil” and traverses quickly through “Prehispánic Future.” Here, the 12 tracks are relatively short pieces that flow into each other like a mix; each explore a variation on the central “Prehispánico” rhythm, a propulsive driving polyrhythm that’s built up and stripped down for physiological effect. Estrada layers watery drop vocals, shakers, swelling blasts of ocarinas and caracols, club uplifters, and the ever-present Huehuetl drum to experiment within the form, demonstrating that the tribal idea of rhythmic “utility” is central to dance music as a whole. After all, we’re meant to dance to the focused, unrelenting rhythm explored throughout. Standout tracks such as “Guerrero Azteca” or “Ritmos Prehispánicos” re-centralize the momentum to focus explicitly on the rhythm’s relationship to both modern and ancestral energy and image. The effect is fantastic; the album even hints at science-fiction atmospheres on “Noche Eterna,” where reverberating synths patter out a skeleton-y phrase over Bladerunner-esque horns and a norteño bassline.
Frieze Magazine’s Jace Clayton aptly compared the work to Sesshu Foster’s Atomik Aztex, a text that envisions an alternate history where the Aztecs overcome Spanish conquistadores. The book’s opening words read: “I am Zenzontli, keeper of the House of Darkness of the Aztex and I am getting fucked in the head and I think I like it.” Although Tribal Prehispánico’s loudness and blasts of rhythmic intensity may feel like “getting fucked in the head” at times, it’s Estrada’s effort to reconstitute pre-Colombian instruments within the discourse of internet-located dance music that feels vital. In a sense, Estrada’s engaged in an act of exploring what may feel like a faraway, unreachable part of personal heritage; he’s “appropriating” that lineage to find historical meaning that’s evident, real, and empowering to his localized culture and environment. Foster’s alt-history finds similarity in Estrada’s effort to aggrandize pre-colonial history, in effect creating a work of personal mythological significance to its author, to the N.A.A.F.I events, and finally, to us virtually watching on the sidelines. The persistent colonial tension is communicated through tracks such as “Danza Del Fuego,” a reference less about Spanish composer Manuel de Falla’s ballet movement of the same name, and more about honoring the fire god Xiuhtecuhtli: the piece likens chromatically ascending synths to the high-energy footwork and chatter of ankle rattlers.
The album’s miraculous final five tracks switch over from Aztec or Spanish titles to English, an indication of a distinctly different stretch of sound that’s easily one of the most most hair-raising, compelling sequences of music I’ve recently heard. Around the second half of “Prehispánic Future” the propulsive rhythm drops to a familiar half-time; suddenly, we hear the cry of a hawk and the preemptive squelch of a sickly-sweet bass that can only be described as Americano. It’s this drop in tempo where the visceral rhythmic experimentation that’s explored through the album’s first half takes a turn toward the surreal — surreal in the sense that the initial cinematic fantasy choirs heard in “Civilizations War” begin to mutate into the growling maw of a flamboyant dubstep squall. The rest of album sees the slimiest bits of EDM freely “appropriated” to create visions of a post-colonial future. The “Atomik Aztex[s]” battle Western conquistadores; aliens face the wrath of bass-infused sci-fi gods who are imbued with and enhanced by energy drinks and club-fervor. This can be heard literally in “Aztecs VS Aliens,” a track so extreme in its liberal use of screaming agro-dance synthesizer that you have to just let go and actually feel the apocalyptic mayhem the sounds actually create. The intensity is also locked-in to make bona fide, fiery club bangers; I feel certain that there will not be a drop this year as flat-out horrifying as “Our Earth.” Thus, filthy dubstep — a genre that sometimes feels like the threatening mouth of American capitalism itself, a genre that has oft threatened to swallow culture rather than construct it — is seen being used and infiltrated by Estrada to violently assert his culture and the pre-colonial ideology central to his album.
Estrada’s mastery of the pre-colonial form is seen in N.A.A.F.I’s event tagline “noche de ritmos periféricos” (night of peripheral rhythms). “Peripheral” implies a sense of “outsider-ness” as it relates to the historical, colonial subjugation of peoples, or, as a foil contrasting an implied “dominant” rhythms constructed by white, male American or British producers. With Tribal Prehispánico, Estrada is using the latter to imbue the former with added violence, an act that enhances their dialogue and interplay. While “noche de ritmos periféricos” has political connotation, it’s also a descriptor for dance culture “at large” being inevitably focused on “the new beat.” The “peripheral” is situated within the new, the avant, the club outside the “norm” of dominant culture — perhaps a club in Mexico city dropping the music that Estrada is making. It’s this narrative of “periphery” that has a localized cultural context that stands in stark contrast to the cultural-orphanhood experienced by many globalized artists. N.A.A.F.I and Estrada have access to the richness of an un-abandoned culture and community that informs their work with authentic voice and their own personhood. Estrada’s masterpiece is the creative power that comes from that ownership of history, a history colliding with and defeating the digital wasteland.