You might think you know this story: a talented musician leaves home for the musical mecca of Brooklyn, finds a creative community of like-minded artists, and ends up re-inventing Mexican roots music by way of Shane MacGowan, Nick Cave and Balkan brass bands. But the trajectory of Rana Santacruz’s career has been anything but predictable.
Born and raised in Mexico City, Rana first found success there in the late ’90s with his alt-rock band La Catrina. But when the group failed to score a radio hit, Rana turned his back on a major label record deal to release his own music on his own terms, and moved to Brooklyn in 2002. "Living in NYC changed my music a lot," he explains. "The amount of talent that exists is just unbelievable. Amazing musicians just rain from the sky! It’s great for a band leader because regardless of your type of music, you will find incredible resources in New York to develop any ideas you have."
On his 2010 solo debut, Chicavasco, Rana re-invented himself as a sophisticated musical cosmopolitan - drawing on influences as diverse as Mariachi music, classic Mexican cinema, American bluegrass, and post-punk favorites like the The Smiths, The Cure and even The Pogues. A talented multi-instrumentalist, Rana’s accordion-driven songs also revealed a knack for poetic - even cinematic - storytelling, as grounded in the music of Tom Waits and the literary tropes of Magical Realism as in Mexico’s venerable corrido (story-ballad) tradition. Chicavasco put the critics on notice, and won him a coveted Tiny Desk Concert on NPR Music.
Now he’s back with Por Ahí ("Somewhere") a bold new collection of 11 original songs that dig even deeper into this potent musical mix. "I wanted Por Ahí to be more in your face and capture more of the energy of our live shows," says Rana. "I wanted it to be more physical. I think there is music to listen to and music to move to. I wanted this album to have a little more of a foot-stomping factor."
Por Ahí captures the visceral acoustic punch of Rana’s live shows, with an eight-piece band (drums, percussion, contrabass, acoustic guitar, banjo, violin, trumpets and Rana’s own accordion) that’s sometimes rounded out with clarinet. Says Rana: "I have always been fascinated by acoustic instruments. I really like the idea of being able to be at somebody’s kitchen playing loud music with my band. I’ve recently been reading several post-apocalyptic novels. The kind where a war or a disease or a natural disaster wipes out a good chunk of the world’s population, and there’s no electricity, but there are loud acoustic instruments and homemade liquor, and for some reason that makes me quite happy."
That kind of acoustic cross-pollination is most apparent on the Balkan-inflected "Lobo". Says Rana: "Lobo" is a good example of how Brooklyn has influenced my music. More specifically it is an example of how venues like Barbes and the Jalopy Theatre have influenced me. I go out often and I am blown away by the different genres and the quality of music. I’ve seen lots of Balkan bands, 1920’s style jazz bands, some great bluegrass bands, etc. I’ve incorporated a lot of these new sounds into songs like "El Chapulín" (The Grasshopper) or "Lo Único Que Quiero" (The Only Thing I Want).
Meanwhile, the songwriting on Por Ahí confirms Rana’s growing reputation as a literary storyteller who’s not afraid to grab audiences by the heart as well as the head. Tracks like "Deseos de un Hombre Muerto" (A Dead Man’s Wishes) - whose protagonist demands "show your cleavage at my funeral" as he faces down death - and "Marinero de Ley" (Like An Old Sailor Should) - about a sailor who dies "with the sail in his hand, tobacco in his mouth and cognac on his skin" - showcase Rana’s gift for wry, layered storytelling and gallows humor.
"Death has always been kind of present in my music," Rana explains. "But not in a dark way. I think it’s a happy and quirky version of death. One that goes hand in hand with the celebration of life."
If death is one of Por Ahí’s preoccupations, so is love - and lust - with songs like "Cumbia de la Serpiente," (Serpent Cumbia) "Lo Único Que Quiero", and "Noches de Lluvia" (Rainy Nights) veering between all-consuming passion and a sweet tenderness, while "Te Quiero Ver Llorar" (I Want to See You Cry) portrays the dark, obsessive side of love. And "Lobo" (Wolf) is about desire and, naturally, werewolves.
But Rana’s songwriting isn’t afraid to engage the real world, either, and he takes on the corruption of Mexican politics in "El Chapulín," his first foray into political songwriting. "I usually don’t like protest songs," Rana explains. "I can totally agree with the causes but there’s something in the genre that I find fake and makes me want to yawn. But I follow the Mexican news regularly and there are some situations with our politicians that are both quite tragic and comic at the same time. it’s so absurd sometimes that you don’t know if you want to cry or laugh.
"I enjoy these human complexities," he adds. "Like laughing at funerals and playing music at the apocalypse."