Stunningly Eclectic Singer Sofia Rei Radically Reinvents Violeta Parra Classics
Conventional wisdom is that if you cover a song, you either want to do it better than the original, or make something completely different out of it. The latter usually makes more sense, considering that if a song is worth covering at all, the original is probably hard to beat. Merle Haggard as shambling free jazz; Gil Scott-Heron as hard bop; Pink Floyd as dub reggae – all of those unlikely reinterpretations ended up validating the outside-the-box creativity that went into them. On the brand-new album El Gavilan (The Hawk), streaming at Bandcamp, pan-latin singer Sofia Rei – who’s never met a style she was afraid to tackle – puts a brave new spin on the songs of Chilean icon Violeta Parra. The Argentine-born songstress is currently on tour; her next New York concert is this coming June 2 at 8 PM at the Neighborhood Church, 269 Bleecker St. at Morton St. in a duo with the incomparable, more atmospheric Sara Serpa, her bandmate in John Zorn’s Mycale a-cappella project. The show is free.
On one hand, artists from across the Americas have covered Parra. On the other, it takes a lot of nerve to reinvent her songs as radically as Rei does. The album’s opening number, Casamiento de Negros begins as a bouncy multitracked a-cappella number, like Laurie Anderson at her most light-footed; guitarist Marc Ribot tosses off a tantalizingly brief, Hawaiian-tinged slide guitar solo. It’s a stark contrast with Parra’s allusive narrative of a lynching.
Parra’s stark peasant’s lament Arriba Quemando El Sol is a march, Ribot opening with an ominous clang, then echoing and eventually scorching the underbrush beneath Rei’s resolute, emphatic delivery. It’s akin to Pink Floyd covering Parra, but with more unhinged guitars and more expressive vocals. She does Una Copla Me Ha Cantado as a starlit lullaby, killing softly with the song over Ribot’s spare deep-space accents.
Her wryly looped birdsong effects open a pulsing take of Maldigo Del Alto Cielo that rises to swoopy heights, spiced with wisps of backward masking, a curse in high-flying disguise. By contrast, the muted, bruised pairing of Rei’s vocals with Ribot’s spare chords gives La Lavandera the feel of a Marianne Dissard/Sergio Mendoza collaboration as it reaches toward a simmering ranchera-rock sway.
Rei makes a return to atmospheric art-rock with the lament Corazón Maldito, Ribot rising from shivery angst to menacing grey-sky grandeur, Rei parsing the lyrics with a dynamic, suspenseful, defiant delivery like Siouxsie Sioux without the microtones.
The album’s epic title track clocks in at a whopping fourteen minutes plus, opening with atmospherics and Ribot taking a rare turn on acoustic, warily and airily. From there he switches to electric for cumulo-nimbus, Gilmouresque atmospherics behind Rei’s frantically clipped, carnatically-influenced delivery, following Parra’s anguished tale of abandonment.
The ambient Enya-like concluding cut is Run Run se Fue pa’l Norte, an apt song for our time if there ever was one, echoing with more Pink Floyd guitar from Los Tres‘ Angel Parra, Violeta Parra’s grandson. Whether you call this art-rock, jazz, or state-of-the-art remake of Chilean folksongs, it will leave you transfixed, especially if you know the originals.
It’s open to debate if the Trump administration would let an artist like Rei into the country these days, considering his commitment to kissing up to the non-Spanish speaking lunatic fringe.