Album Review: Malportado Kids, ‘Total Cultura’
If you visit Malportado Kids' Facebook and Bandcamp pages, you'll be greeted in all-caps by "THE ARTIST MUST ELECT TO FIGHT FOR FREEDOM OR SLAVERY," a statement that African American actor/singer/activist Paul Robeson made in 1949 to a Peekskill, N.Y. crowd that had gathered to see him sing. That audience, it turns out, was attacked by a violent mob of anti-communist protesters while crosses were burned and an effigy of Robeson was lynched. By referencing that incident, the Malportado Kids throw down the gauntlet with a firm declaration that artists are either part of the solution or part of the problem, and that the artist must choose to be on the right or the wrong side of social justice. Using that particular quote also positions the Malportado Kids as a group with its back to the wall, its defenses ready against the hostile forces closing in against it.
Given all of that, you would expect the Providence, R.I. duo's music to come off as a rigid, militant war cry. On the contrary: the struggle against patriarchy and post-colonial imperialism has never sounded like such a good time as it does here on Malportado Kids' debut full-length. By inciting audiences to dance against the machine, frontwoman Victoria Ruiz and programmer-percussionist Joey La Neve DeFrancesco (both members of bilingual punk outfit Downtown Boys) make a surprisingly effective form of protest music. Don't believe Ruiz and DeFrancesco when they describe their music simply as "cumbia punk," because their sound actually encompasses a much broader range. Sure, the Latin elements are there, but DeFrancesco also has an ear for absurdist sound effects and polka-like rhythms that recall eastern European and Middle Eastern harmonic scales.
Indeed, the music's zany demeanor fosters a sense of joyful release and the Malportado ("badly behaved") conduct themselves with an inexhaustible, in-your-face kind of exuberance. As much as she shouts, Ruiz doesn't content herself to just hurl invectives at the system. Instead (singing almost entirely in Spanish) she infuses her polemical screeds with no small measure of wit and charm. Somehow, though, the Malportado Kids' sense of humor never threatens to eclipse their message. Even though they place their Latin heritage front and center, they immediately rise above the superficial "Vote for Pedro"-level lampooning that still prevails in the American pop culture mindset.
We can probably count on one hand the number of pointedly politicized albums that also double as party records. This one takes the cake. (Fittingly enough, the digital version closes with a semi-ironic and simultaneously ultra-serious cover of Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA-era hit "I'm on Fire.")