Doctor Nativo Brings Irresistible Cumbia Grooves and Potent Global Relevance to Lincoln Center

by delarue

It took Doctor Nativo about fifteen seconds this past evening to fill up the dancefloor at the album release show for his new one, Guatemaya, at Lincoln Center. That’s what a catchy cumbia like Ay Morena can do. But Doctor Nativo’s music is about more than just a good dance groove. Lincoln Center impresario Jordana Leigh spoke of how her programming seeks to reflect the multicultural beauty of New York communities, and that Doctor Nativo’s music and message dovetail with that.

Doctor Nativo, otherwise known as Juan Martinez, is the son of a Guatemalan restaurateur and freedom fighter murdered by an anti-democracy death squad. The defiance in the group’s lyrics reflects a corrosive cynicism toward political corruption, but also an equally defiant sense of hope. Their guiro player opened the show solo with a Quecha-language rap. Behind the band, video of native Guatemalan village life – weaving, cooking, protesting, playing indigenous instruments, parading in costumes that seemed straight out of Chinese New Year, and visiting the graveyard – panned on a screen above the stage.

Andrae Murchison’s incisive trombone licks lent a dubwise edge to the spicy, slinky Sabrosura: the sound engineer’s decision to crank the bass paid off, filling out the music’s otherwise relatively sparse arrangements. The next number on the bill had a clever anti-globalist reggaeton rap over a bouncy, vampy backdrop that was part roots reggae and part psychedelic cumbia. They kept the reggae-inspired party for the right to fight going with Zion, another insistent track from the new album, then added a touch of mariachi with the mythically-inspired El Mero Mero.

Doctor Nativo dedicated the number after that, La Voz Popular, to Guatemala’s only radio station that dared play “rebel music,” as he put it, during the genocidal thirty-year civil war there. Once again, the guiro player took centerstage, this time with a jubilant on-air tag to kick off more of the unstoppable cumbia pulse that they’d keep going for the rest of the set. There were also slight detours toward roots reggae (the album’s title track) and hip-hop (a grateful salute to a youthful breakdancer who spent his formative years in the band).

The bandleader took time to explain the Mayan mysticism behind El 20, the night’s most epic cumbia: it’s a matter of energy. The symbolism of Kandela turned out to be more reggae-inspired: bun down Babylon! 

The next event at Lincoln Center’s wildly popular atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is next Thurs, Sept 20, a panel discussion on the devastating effects of gentrification and real estate bubble madness featuring Jeremiah Moss of the indispensable blog Vanishing New York, plus Ensemble Connect playing avant garde and indie classical chamber works by Julius Eastman and others. Admission is free; if you want a seat, get there early.

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