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[whitespace] Collage of Sound: Mexico's Plastilina Mosh uses styles from around the world in its complex, but danceable sound.


Planet Pop

Mexico's cut-and-paste wizards Plastilina Mosh ransack global culture for riffs and hooks on 'Juan Manuel' album

By Michelle Goldberg

FOR YEARS, fusion-pop meant American or British musicians harvesting sounds from other parts of the world and using them like curry powder to spice up their own work. The Beatles employed a sitar to lend a mystic Indian vibe to "Norwegian Wood," Paul Simon revitalized his career with African and Brazilian syncopation, and Transglobal Underground gave its trance anthems a primal infusion with ethnic chanting and Eastern instrumentation.

Such work involves a predictable exchange: The pop star provides the third-world musician with money and exposure, and the musician reciprocates by lending authenticity and exoticism.

There's a whiff of colonialism about this process, but the real problem with old-school fusion music isn't really ideological, since PC identity politics have little place in pop's mongrel universe. Instead, the problem with that kind of ethnic sampling is that it sounds tired and outdated, reflecting a world that doesn't exist anymore, if it ever did--one in which adventurous Westerners journey into primitive lands and are rejuvenated by the purity of the uncorrupted natives.

This Paul Gauguin strategy has little place on a planet as hybridized and borderless as ours, where a new urban world culture dominates cities as diverse as New York, Tokyo, Istanbul and Mexico City. Middle-class kids the world over are dancing to the same beats, eating the same hamburgers, ramen and kebabs, watching the same action films and coveting the same jeans.

The extent to which pop has gone global was brought home to me earlier this year, when, on a trip to Havana, I found myself debating the merits of French rapper MC Solaar with a young Cuban drummer. At least for the educated elite, culture is now about what you like far more than where you live.

As a result, our era of interconnectedness has given birth to artists like the Japanese group Calm, which makes drum 'n' bass with Brazilian accents, Finnish soul singer Jimi Tenor and the wildly eclectic Mexican hip-hop/dance/ indie-pop duo Plastilina Mosh, a band that, perhaps more than any other, exemplifies the new world beat.

With lyrics in English and Spanish and sounds spanning decades and continents, Plastilina Mosh's new album, Juan Manuel, could be from anywhere. But that doesn't mean it's generic. A dazzling improvement over the band's rough but intriguing 1998 debut, Aquamosh, the new album offers a giddy mélange of unctuous funk, delicious disco-house, stomping rawk and hip-hop bass seasoned with south-of-the-border kitsch.

The smooth, loungey groove and impassioned crooning of "Shampoo" are obviously inspired by Barry White, the heavily vocodered vocals on "Baretta '89" evoke the French House of Daft Punk or Cassius, while "Graceland," with its smoking jazz piano, nostalgic accordion and high-drama noir horns seems to emanate from some velvet-walled Chicago speakeasy brewing with blood feuds.

Musicians Alejandro Rosso and Jonáz draw on archetypes gleaned from Hollywood, glossy magazines and pop-music history, but they're hardly slavish imitators of American acts. In these media-drunk days, our pop culture is also theirs.

NOT THAT Plastilina Mosh ignores its Mexican foundation entirely. It's just that, like fellow Mexican funk collagists Titan, their sensibility is wholly cosmopolitan. When they do refer to Mexico, it's often to mock romanticized, patronizing sombrero stereotypes.

The photograph on the back of their debut slyly debunks North American fantasies of their country--it shows two shaggy-haired hipsters sitting in mod pink chairs before an old TV broadcasting an idyllic, Cancun-style beach scene.

"Tiki Fiesta" carries this theme further. Tiki music was invented by Americans like '50s cheesy-listening maestro Martin Denny, who imagined impossible paradises in the South Seas. "Tiki Fiesta," with its anodyne cocktail jazz punctuated with cries of "Ariba!" parodies similar attitudes toward Mexico. It's a playful poke at America's dreamy solipsism by Mexican musicians who've seen their country through international eyes.

The tension of such dual perspectives enlivens "Bassass," which is a kind of battle between third-world anger and jet-set glamour. It begins as a glossy house anthem with the word "international" repeated over and over; it then suddenly lurches into an angry Spanish rap backed by slicing electric guitars. It's as if, failing to reconcile two identities, the band has decided to simply juxtapose them.

Similarly, "Supercombo Electronico" is a Rage Against the Machine-style Spanish rap punctuated by a smug vocal sample saying, "You've got the whole world in your hands."

None of this comes across like a diatribe, mind you--Juan Manuel is largely party music, packed with delirious booty beats, pop references and blissful melodies. Nevertheless, the album is animated by a sense of rootlessness, like the one travel writer Pico Iyer described in his book The Global Soul. The world citizen's "sense of home, if it existed at all, would lie in the ties and talismans he carried round with him," Iyer wrote. "Insofar as he felt a kinship with anyone, it would, most likely, be with other members of the Deracination-state."

Plastilina Mosh isn't entirely alone among Mexican artists--Titan, whose recent album Elevator is all luscious leisure-suit grind and electro effects, certainly works in the same vein. Still, the band's peers are largely an international crew.

THEY'RE CUT-AND-PASTE artists like the Japanese outfit Pizzicato Five, the English/ French band Stereolab and the English/Indian act Cornershop. Juan Manuel was produced by former Beastie Boys collaborator Money Mark and the Beta Band's Chris Allison, situating the band within the international hipster pantheon.

Which means that while Rosso and Jonáz are part of Mexican culture, they're just as much a part of a culture held together not by a rich national tradition but by an accumulation of mass-produced pop detritus. Plastilina Mosh celebrates such stuff--Juan Manuel is dizzy with the prospects inherent in a shrunken world.

Yet there's an undercurrent of alienation in tracks like "Boombox Baby," in which a bored, affectless voice deadpans unconvincingly, "My days are getting better." The chorus revolves around the phrase "disco solitaire," suggesting isolation in the midst of all this glorious computer-aided convergence.

Such discombobulation is highlighted in a promotional animation for Juan Manuel on the Astralwerks website. City names--Paris, Moscow, Mexico City, Lisbon, Tokyo--flash beneath a picture of a nondescript hotel hallway. It captures, somehow, the stifling homogeneity of that strata of global culture populated by privileged, jet-lagged itinerants.

Yet world culture, however bland, isn't just something imposed from the top down by global corporations. Like Cornershop, a band that straddles India and England, Plastilina Mosh audaciously ransacks the planet for inspiration, refusing to be locked in some quaint world-music ghetto.

In the process, the band further blurs the artistic landscape. For decades, North American and English artists have mined other cultures. Many continue to do so--not long ago, we were presented with Madonna, icon of decadent Western consumerism, singing from a traditional Hindu text on "Shanti/Ashtangi."

Now, finally, the rest of the world is joining the conversation--and finding hidden treasures and secret meanings in our collective history. Perhaps some of the world's variety does disappear as more and more artists start working with the same raw material. But pop musicians aren't curators, and Juan Manuel is a reflection of the world so many of us live in now, where dissolving boundaries create new anxieties but endless possibilities.

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From the November 30-December 6, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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