Los Pirañas, El Shirota, and Mujeres Podridas are three bold bands making music that is evolving the Spanish language into “a luminous heat that could burn, smelt or even vaporize,” as Octavio Paz noted about poetesse maudite Alejandra Pizarnik’s poetry.
Latin’s vernacular, Spanish has traditionally existed as Latin did; to profit a few. Antonio de Nebrija wrote the first Spanish grammar and dictionary. According to him “language is the companion of empire.” Early Spanish literature, such as the tales of Amadis de Gaula, was about dreams of conquest and adventure. Thus, the great commentary on conquest and adventure in a fundamentalist Catholic society by the Jewish writer Cervantes, Don Quixote, about a sleepless landowner’s deliriums, with his servant being obliged to go along for a hell of a ride.
Contemporary Spanish language came about with the unity of Castile and Aragon. 13th-century Spain was dominated by three languages: Galician to the west, Castilian in the center, and Catalan to the east. With the unity of Castile, the center, and Aragon, the west, Castilian came to dominate and became the Spanish language. When he accidently “discovered the new world” for the Spanish crown, Christopher Columbus traveled with translators who knew Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic, but nothing about Native American language. Communication between native peoples and conquistadors was at first difficult, until the Spanish crown recommended that conquistadors marry indigenous women to found a “new race” of bilingual mestizos, able to communicate, and dominate, native peoples. These mestizos spoke the Nahuatl, Quechua, Cuzco and other native languages that predominated, and understood the cultures and imaginations that were being articulated in these languages. With these mestizos, the church, the crown, and the criollo (Spaniards born in the Americas) extracted enough wealth to build elitist and oppressive baroque cities and civilizations on indigenous land.
El Shirota's amplified, distorted, guitars, thumping drumming, and disciplined harmonies obviously oppose the clean-cut mega-egos of the contemporary mega-city that is today’s Mexico City, with a population of around 21.9 million, and a dominant business elite that mostly descends from the criollo. Their drumming and guitar playing lead the charge. Mexico City is where the first “grammars of indigenous language” were published in the “Americas.” The understanding of another’s language was used as a tool of oppression, as it can be the case in mass consumer culture that enriches these mega-egos. El Shirota allows us to both think and feel an alternative to this.
The lyrics of Tiempos Raros’s “La Ciudad” are critical and direct. “It’s weird to walk / under the city light / it’s weird to walk / where I want to be / it’s rare to hide / when one’s not at peace / sometimes I’m afraid / not easy to forget,” they sing in short and concise lines, as if from a poem by John Trudell or Paul Éluard. The word choice is simple but critical.
David Graeber writes in Debt, that philosophy as we know it—Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, and other spiritual and religious rebellions against the ego—emerged to counter soulless markets created by newly invented systems of coinage to pay soldiers. With these coins, soldiers were able to purchase goods that once had been sold on credit, to be paid after the purchaser’s harvest. This same rebellion is the amplified and electric blues of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe that would become the dominant guitar style of punk.
The instrumental playing that Mujeres Podrida achieves at the tempos they choose takes our minds off their lyrics. The lyrics are in general very hard to hear in detail. Based in Austin, Texas, the band’s Muerte En Paraíso album brings horror into the Spanish language in the tradition Black Sabbath began in English. The album is full of simple song titles which translate into “Why,” “Morning,” and others. Here, like for El Shirota, there is a project of defining simple and popular concepts. Expressing “Morning” through heavy riffs is an act of language, of restless, expressive language. So is describing “sons of the border” through punk: it is an insurgency against corporate—and harmful—language.
“Sex, Night” is the title of a poem by Alejandra Pizarnik. Sex, Night is also an apt title for Spanish-language punk, or any music rooted in punk, today. Sex, Night being a marquis neon sign, both advertising and hiding the social and political thoughts, convictions, hypocrisies, fashions, and visuals of the music and the audience. “We’re aware the mirror sounds like a watch,” Pizarnik writes in her poem, which explains how and why we play and dance the music of sex, and night.
On Historia Natural, Los Pirañas’s drums and timbales are crystalline, while the guitar and organ playing are wild and distorted as enrapturing psychedelia. Los Pirañas are a band from Colombia that play mind altering music. Cumbia, heard in “Puerta del Sol” (“Door of the Sun”), was, and still somewhat is, meant to alter one’s state and consciousness. Drumming, intense concentration, rhythmic dancing, and fatigue are all traditional neuropsychological ways of altering one’s consciousness, like ingesting psilocybin mushrooms. Their music is not punk, but also proposes language. The door of the sun here is not the modernism heard in the language of a telenovela or a politician. It—joy, fulfillment, enlightenment—is transcendental, as music and language.
How does the “unthinkable emerge,” as Pizarnik asks? In other words, how does this music and its language emerge? Is it a generational prerogative to speak in a language true to self? Is it thus inspired by those who surround the musicians above, the women, the men, the two-spirited, the non-gendered, the spirits and other sentient beings? Does it come in a dream? It’s a mystery that exists with the musicians. Thinking of punk, the pre-Raphaelite beauty of William Eggleston’s photos of his punk cousin Lesa Aldridge, as well as photos of HR from Bad Brains backflipping on stage, come to mind. What can we actually see about those who, when “bombs were falling over Mexico City / but no one even noticed” (Roberto Bolaño), decided to speak in language close to their hearts? Thoughts to contemplate while listening to the music of Los Pirañas, El Shirota, and Mujeres Podridas.