Merengue Mosh

"Coupling a Brooklyn-bred garage rock with a sassy southwestern styling might seem as unfitting a marriage as beer and tequila, but with their latest release, En Este Momento, the culturally-infused quartet Cordero showcase a sound that is anything but desperado." -- The University of Wisconsin Badger-Herald, February 23, 2006

As much as parsing the writing of college kids is like shooting fish in a barrel, in this case it's hard to resist. You mean to tell me that there are actually still parts of the country where college kids see beer and tequila as strange bedfellows?

"I thought they went together really well," says Ani Cordero, the singer, guitarist, percussionist and namesake for the Brooklyn-based, Latin rock Bloodshot Records band. She's right, of course, but then that writer is from Wisconsin, and throwing down a shot or two of Patrn amid the prevalent beer-'n'-brats mix-up there probably would throw the cheesehead earth off its axis.

But come to think of it, beer-'n'-tequila bands like Cordero are way too thin on the ground around here, too. Why don't more bands in Texas and other Latin-heavy parts of America mix Spanish and English lyrics, Latin styles and indie rock, trumpets and guitars, and then make the whole thing danceable as hell and political, too?

"People get into their trends and their emo and their niches and stick to it pretty hard," says Ani, over the phone from her Brooklyn home, where she's nursing a cold. "Especially young kids, there's the 'making sure your friends like whatever you like' factor."

Ani knows whereof she speaks -- she grew up the daughter of Puerto Rican parents in the then-decidedly non-Latino outpost of Atlanta, Georgia. Publicly, she did her best to fit in with her Anglo classmates, but at home she listened to her parents' Caribbean albums. (She cites the vintage Puerto Rican band Cortijo y su Combo and Juan Luis Guerra as special favorites.)

"When I was young I didn't advertise that I was Puerto Rican or that I listened to that music -- not with my friends," she says. "When I was with them I played Fugazi. At home there was a 50-50 chance that I would be playing Latin music or rock, but I didn't try to mix the two when I was a teenager, because I worried that my friends wouldn't think it was cool. It takes a minute for you to be who you are. Especially if your friends would think it was weird, you know?"

Like beer and tequila to a Wisconsinite...At any rate, Ani said both moshing and merengue took her to the same place. "I liked punk rock at the same time as I liked merengue, and I think it's because you have so much energy when you're a teenager -- slam-dancing and merengue have a lot in common. Expend as much energy as possible."

A drum set was another energy outlet during Ani's teenage years -- she first learned to play by banging along to Fugazi's Repeater. Back in Atlanta, she kept time for Man or Astro-man? and toured with Moe Tucker of the Velvet Underground. In 1999 she moved to Tucson, where she fell in with the Calexico crowd. With members of that band and Giant Sand, Cordero formed the first version of her namesake band, which she re-formed the following year in New York with her husband -- drummer and world-famous art photographer Chris Verene -- whose music CV included a stint in Atlanta legends Rock*A*Teens. (I asked Ani what a two-drummer marriage was like. "We drive people crazy with our tapping," she laughed. "He starts tapping at the table and I just completely come in with a counter-rhythm.") Bassist Eric Eble (of the Reid Paley Trio) and jazz-trained trumpeter Omar Little -- the nephew of tragic '50s teen idol Frankie "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" Lymon -- round out the quartet.

Little's horn seems to be one main reason that so many critics label the band -- wrongly, in my view -- as having a "Southwestern" sound. They see the Tucson connection in the bio and hear Spanish vocals and a horn, and they think that equals mariachi or ranchera. To these ears, though, Little's horn licks sound more like Cuban jazz than Mexican folk, and Ani's singing style and accent are not Mexican. Her stay in Arizona lasted only a year.

There's also the sheer, anarchic danceability of this band, which seems a far cry from the more formal types of Mexican music Americans consider Southwestern. In an interview with the Athens, Georgia alt-weekly The Flagpole, Verene likened his role in the band to that of a club DJ. "Cordero is capable of getting an entire room dancing, which is really different for the drummer. It's a big commitment, like when a DJ has the room going and he has to work hard not to drop them."

"It's a challenge for sure, because we have slow songs too, and we have to figure out where to put them in where they won't be a bummer," agrees Ani. "But people do eventually need a break, and hopefully they are receptive to the message of the songs. So for us, the slow songs give us a chance to have lyrics that are more introspective."

Immigration is one of the things that Ani thinks all Americans should be thinking about right now. "I find it completely to be one of the most important issues on the table in this country right now, up there with the war," she says. "I live in New York, which is a city of immigrants, and it has always been important to me. In fact, when I finish being a rock and roller I want to study immigration law and be an immigration attorney. When I'm 50 or 55, that's my plan for a second life."

Ani says she could talk about the Sensenbrenner legislation "for days," and not in favor of it, either. "I can't believe the legislation that passed the House and the little coverage the protests are getting in the national media. Everybody should write their representatives and march if they can. I know there's a rough plan for immigrants to strike on May 1, but I don't know if that's an economically possible thing. If you are an illegal immigrant, you are often in a precarious situation anyway, and to risk your job is very dangerous. But it would be so cool if everybody did, because it is the engine of the economy."

And so En Este Momento,the title of the band's current record, is fortuitous on many levels. "It refers to this moment in history," Ani says. "The message of the song is that politics in this moment in history in this country are so out of line, and we have to take control back -- the direction this country is going in, the legislation that's being passed, the wars we're fighting, the image we're giving. Do anything you can to make sure your voice is heard. It's really close to my heart -- I really think this is the worst government we've had since Hoover, and I don't think enough people realize how bad it is."

Just like there are apparently plenty of people who don't realize how well beer and tequila go together.

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