This past weekend, Café Tacuba played a scintillating set at Tropicália, a music festival held in Long Beach that saw the rock en español icons play on the same lineup as Los Tigres del Norte, La Sonora Dinamita, Chicano Batman and Latino music stars. But to me, their best concert this year wasn’t there but in a seemingly unlikely place: Raleigh, North Carolina.
Friends there say it was the first time they had ever scheduled the Oak City in their tours, and that’s awesome. I’ve seen los tacubos play at least 15 times, and they’re always among the best live acts in either English or Spanish. And them going into el Sur shows both the staying power of Mexico’s most important rockeros—and how they refuse to rest on their laurels when they can easily become an oldies show like the Beach Boys or Elvis Crespo.
Café Tacuba’s set artfully goes through old hits and new, solo efforts and collaborations with others. This quartet’s story is the history of modern-day rock en español, from a bunch of rockeros heavily influenced by Violent Femmes on their self-titled first album, to the glorious mestizo masterpiece that is Re to the pop sheen of Cuatro Caminos, electronica of Sino and so much more. Their latest album, Jei Beibi, a return to the more eclectic form of the past, although I still wish they embraced anew the rhythms and instruments of Latin America. Then again, I’m a burnt-out rockero so what do I know?
This list could consist solely of tracks from their first three albums, and no one would complain. But that’s a disservice to Café Tacuba, and there are some songs that fans tend to overlook as they clamor for the poppier hits. So música, maestro!
Their cover of Juan Luis Guerra’s “Ojalá Que Llueva Café” introduced the world to son huasteco, the fiddle-heavy music of Mexico’s La Huasteca region that’s bluegrass’ brother from another madre. The fiddler on that track, Alejandro Flores, is considered the fifth tacubo, and he’s invited to many of their concerts to not only play that song but also add a coda to their crowd hit “Las Flores” with this take on “La Huasteca.” Watch how his high, lonesome sound turns into a call-and-response between Flores’ high-pitched yelps and Tacuba lead singer Rubén Albarrán’s soulful cant.
Café Tacuba played this mock-norteña for decades without incident, and the cheery sound made most people forget it was a canto di morti—a song of death in which the heartbroken protagonist vows to kill the woman who broke his heart. But earlier this year, the group announced they were taking the song off their playlists in protest of the femicides that continue to plague Mexico. Fans have begged the group to play it at concerts, but they have not budged.
In 2002, Café Tacuba recorded a four-song EP of songs by pioneering Chilean group Los Tres. Fans have forgotten most of the covers save for this one, because it’s turned into the group’s grand finale at all their shows—not so much for its organ whirl or ceaseless bass, but because of the silly line dance that they do. Ultimately little more than mindless pop—but los tacubos were always good at reminding us that that’s sometimes what the activist heart needs.
“La Chica Banda”
In a culture that loves its paeans to beautiful women, Mexican music had never heard of a muse like this: a punkette with streaked hair, Doc Martens and who “dances like Xipe-Totec rituals” with her “Chichimeca brown skin” Plus, it was the highlight of one the best concerts I’ve seen, period: at the Hollywood Bowl in 2003. After telling the crowd, “The people in the front are enjoying their nice dinner and show. But you rockeros in the back can dance!” Albarrán pranced halfway up massive Bowl to get mobbed by his fans, before returning to the stage. Wonderful use of the melodica, too!
Their bouncy cover of Leo Dan’s “Como te Extraño” is the most beloved song on Avalancha de Éxitos, but the best is this remake of Jaime Lopez’s spoken-word original, a masterpiece of dialect and desmadre. Mexico City Spanish is an idioma unto itself, and the lyrics make heavy use of its ch sound—check “Mejor yo me hecho una chela/y chance enchufo una chava” (“Better I drink a beer/and hopefully hook up with a girl”) in chilango speak. Ruben doesn’t trip up once on this tongue-twister, and offers it with the right bemused tone.
Emmanuel del Real is the keyboardist and melodica player for the group, but he’s also the lead singer for “Eres,” a moody love song that signified their move to the mainstream. Far better is this bossa nova track from Side 2 of the legendary Amores Perros soundtrack. Who’d ever think this tender voice is also the lead for Tacuba’s death metal homage, “El Borrego”?
“1, 2, 3”
Off their new album, Jei Beibi,’ this airy track is a callback to their earliest New Wave songs—but then there’s the shoutout to los cuarenta y tres, the 43 teachers of Ayotzinapa that remain missing all these years later. Café Tacuba has never been the most explicitly political of bands like their fellow chilangos Maldita Vecindad or even Maná, but it’s always been subtly revolutionary on its own, and this song is proof. Then again, I remember a concert at the late, great JC Fandango in Anaheim where they appeared on stage with T-shirts that read “F**k Schwarzenegger”…HA!
“El Baile y El Salón”
A dreamy, Beach Boys-esque paean to love on the dance floor, with a big reveal: it’s male-to-male amor. Fans of the Mexican soccer team should adopt this song instead of that damn “Eh…” chant, ¿qué no?
Tacuba always gets rightful credit for its sonic experiments and jams, but not nearly enough praise for their love songs. “Maria” from their first album, is a ghostly masterpiece, but this one from their double album Revés/Yo Soy remembers a teenage love that ends when, well, the two grew up. What begins as soft, drum-heavy meditation literally crashes into ominous pianos and discordant strings as the relationship ends and the realization that once “the door opens/to liberty/Visions change/in the immensity.”
“Trópico de Cancer”
I think this is one of the most extraordinary songs in Latin American history, period: a bossa nova ditty that’s literally a conversation at a petrochemical company between Salvador and his bosses. They question why he wants to leave them, since he’s “a bridge between savagery and modernism,” the indigenous Mexican responds, “I think it’s time/That we humans/Don’t need more hydrocarbons” in a manner so beautiful you’d think he was decamping to the Sea of Cortez. Why this song hasn’t become the anthem of the anti-global warming movement just shows that white environmentalists are anti-Mexican.