Javier Ruiz*

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C. Tangana: Reshaping the Path of Music in Spanish

C. Tangana talks about the creation process, the influences and the world that make up 'El Madrileño' , his most recent studio album

November 19th, 2020, C. Tangana is in Madrid. At midnight he receives an invitation from Jorge Drexler to go into the studio and finish a pending session. The meeting that coincided with the Latin Grammys – in which Drexler was competing for Song Of The Year – ended up being the foundation of “Nominao’;” a set of hard rhymes to the beat of three chords and a bass drum. That’s their first collaboration and the seventh cut of El Madrileño. That night Residente took the statuette home with “René.”

Antón Álvarez Alfaro studied Philosophy at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, meanwhile finding his own sound with influences such as the Beastie Boys, Drake, and Kanye West. He was born in Madrid in 1990 and was raised by a traditional Spaniard family. Through his father, he had his first encounter with music playing in the family band: his father was on the guitar, his uncle and cousin Carola de Sevilla on the strings and vocals.

“That was my musical beginning, even though the purist flamenco culture wasn’t our priority.” His parents enjoyed flamenco, without necessarily being experts. In his household, they listened to flamenco artists and others such as Ketama, Rosario, or Kiko Veneno. “My parents haven’t listened to cante jondo all their lives. Cante jondo is one thing and Spanish folklore is another,” he says.

By the end of 2019, C. Tangana already had an urban music album ready to release.  There was a promotion and release plan, but before that, the Spaniard realized that that wasn’t what he wanted to do and was clearly bored. “I felt like I had to take that step, and since I did “Un Veneno,” I had been researching other kinds of music for a while.”

Privately, he began sharing his time in the studio between a conventional urban music album and a new experimental project he had in mind. Before 2020’s lockdown, he went to Cuba looking to collaborate with Eliades Ochoa from Buena Vista Social Club. This motivated him to continue developing his experimental project based on the glorification of tradition and folklore. His work with Eliades gave him the strength and security to convince other artists of that level and from different generations to go into the studio with him. 

Although he had been working on the album, he slowly began to tell the label about the project: “At the beginning, they pulled their hair and thought: ‘This is not happening, all that we’ve invested in the other album… What you want to do is an album that goes with the trends.'” He came from collaborating with Darell, Becky G, and Natti Natasha. So it came as a big surprise for them that he now wanted to collaborate with elder artists that didn’t represent a guaranteed success. 

Subsequently, he released “Nunca Estoy,” his first Number One in Spain. It’s a song with an alternative beat that didn’t subscribe to the Latin reggaeton vibe at all, in which he integrated an excerpt of Rosario’s lyrics and another one of Alejandro Sanz. This was a determinant for the label to green light El Madrileño.

“This is what everyone wants, this is what I want. Surely I was afraid, but I ignored it and was fully convinced that it would be a success, so I went with it. I feel ok in that uncertainty. I’m used to saying it like it is, but inside you’re always gonna be afraid. Luckily, everything lined up and it has been the best decision I could have ever made in my career.”

Understanding the relevance of El Madrileño is not an easy thing to do, because it’s a masterpiece around conciliation: tradition and pop intertwine in a conceptual album that defines and reshapes music in Spanish in an industry that has been down-on-his-luck in artistic terms. Besides, it is heading to its own destruction in a wheelchair built, essentially, by a creative comfort zone that produces tons of money. Expediency -misinterpreted as content minimalism- defined the standard of pop music in the last decade.

It is very likely that El Madrileño puts some records on hold: a creative re-examination and a purpose definition that will make more than one artist study and re-evaluate their work. Although the industry plays the game of money making, at certain times in the cycle, art takes precedence over business by defining and redefining the paths that enrich music in Spanish. This album is the creative pinnacle of the urban sound of the last decade that, although successful, has lacked depth and artistic legitimacy. It integrates the naturalness and simplicity of urban music, with the robustness and richness of Spanish-American folklore and pop-rock.

Latin critics will continue to wonder, without accepting it, why Spaniard artists are rethinking the artistic terms of music in Spanish. The controversy between what is Latin and what is Hispanic will remain in force and it resembles the discussion that arose in 1998 when Manu Chau delivered its multi-cultural album Clandestino. In the meantime, and without further pretences, C. Tangana delivers one of the best albums in the last decade, which becomes a declaration of artistic principles.

(Photo by Javier Ruiz)

Flamenco has been mixed with other sounds and genres for over 50 years, but in the last decade some interesting things have come out. What was your inspiration for this mix that includes an urban sound and folklore?

I was interested in looking for the Spanish song, comprehended from Hombres G until Antonio Vega, Antonio Flores, and El Pescaílla. Those are people who had, to a certain degree, participated in roots music, but might have had the Spanish song. I have also wanted to include some copla elements, which is a chant that might sound similar to flamenco for outsiders, but here we believe they’re two different things. And also another kind of folk music, Easter music, for example. Although it may seem like flamenco, for purists it’s something else.

I wanted to include several elements from the Spaniard roots, and find where they connect with Latin music; there are many connections there. For example, I remember that Eliades [Ochoa] played “Sarandonga” as son, and in Spain, we’ve always played it as rumba. So there we have things in common. Also, many flamenco lyrics have similarities to those of tangos and boleros. There’s a strong bond between the two worlds that go through roots music. 

What do you think the Spanish culture has that seems to be reshaping urban music right now?

In Spain, I’ve always been interested in artists that are connected to their roots. I’ve collaborated with Dellafuente, for example. He’s been a big influence for me, and I believe for a lot of people, to return to roots music. I’ve also worked with Niño de Elche, he calls himself “former flamenco singer”, I’ve worked with La Húngara… I’ve worked with a lot of people who are on the sidelines of flamenco music. But I think the only one that I know that has reinvented Spaniard music, in that sense, is Rosalía. She’s the one who has gone straight towards making a more flamenco album.

My work has Spaniard and Latin music, but I don’t do flamenco “palos,” for example. The rhythmic pattern of some bulerías, some joys, some tarantos, a saeta, a lullaby – within flamenco purism, that is flamenco. That’s what’s on Rosalía’s record, “El Mal Querer.” But my music is more folklore and less flamenco.

Do you think the result might end up being a statement of principles for the urban industry at this moment?

I would hope so, and I think, in general, urban music is demanding for those things to happen. Not everyone has to do roots music, but even Bad Bunny is sick of reggaeton and trap as they are, and he’s the most mainstream icon. Even he’s looking for that, to a greater or lesser extent. We might think he’s innovating more or imitating more, or perhaps you might not even like Bad Bunny that much, but without a doubt, there are people on the mainstream that are tired of what’s being done. In fact, he’s the one that’s doing it the most within the mainstream, he’s the one people like the most. I mean, people are also looking for artists that offer new and different things.

There’s always fear because it’s a big industry and there’s a lot of money at stake and there are things that might’ve told us to follow the same path, but everybody is demanding a change: the critics, the audience, even the artists. It’s a matter of courage – artists need to experiment, the media needs to take the risk and include other artists, and when concerts return, promoters need to do it as well. I think the industry is asking for a change.

One of the first conclusions we came up with when we heard El Madrileño was that it is a conciliatory record. It integrates everything urban with roots music, good lyrics, and good production, and it seemed to be a utopian universe where everything can coexist. What do you think about the idea that it is a conciliatory record?

That’s one of the biggest compliments I can receive because that was part of my intention. I’ve always listened to music open-minded, I’ve always listened to a lot of styles, and the idea of making a record that was really conciliatory -I’ve never thought about it in those terms- is something that was there. It was one of the things I wanted to do, for it to feel that way because that’s how I feel about music. It’s a way of feeling music and it also helps new artists. I don’t know what 14 or 15-year-olds who are innovating are gonna do, but a record like this lays the foundation for us to be open to what’s coming. For me, that’s the best thing I can hear, that it’s an inaugural record. It’s my dream to make that kind of music.

When artists link so many things in one record, it can be a disaster or a masterpiece. How did you find that sound and manage it?

When we knew the record was on track and we already had a couple of strong collaborations and we felt there was an idea, one of our main fears was to end up with a mix of things that didn’t make sense. I intended for it to have features that brought the record together, and for that, I had Víctor Martínez’ help, he’s a composer and a brother with whom I always play. He plays guitar and I try to write things on top of it. And also I had Alizzz, who’s a producer and has his own solo project.

He’s always been by my side and he’s been producing music with me for a long time now. We always go into the studio together and there we have some sort of manifesto that we’ve been doing for so long in the studio. It has to do with looking at music with an open mind and with certain tricks at the time of writing and producing. Tricks like if the song works without any arrangements, don’t fix it. You don’t need to follow a traditional structure or you don’t have to follow the structure of the short intro and go straight into the chorus, and all these mainstream music stuff. What you have to achieve is that the song is always on the move – radical changes, say no to transition, to progressive. If you can say it in less time, do it.

Certain things are underneath and we use them constantly and naturally in the studio, but we know them. If we’re trying to make a 10-second transition to make it softer to the ear, we look at each other and go, “We’re making a transition, aren’t we?” Or if we see a verse [like], “Am I not talking about images that can be played?” “No, you are in abstract,” “Well, that’s out.” Some things stay underneath and, no matter what genre you’re doing, they always work and they give that uniformity to the record. Which I think this one has, doesn’t it? Even though it’s music from many places, there are many accents, many voices, and many rhythms, there is a uniformity and there is a sense that the record is finished. We struggled, but I think we got it.

(Photo by Javier Ruiz)

Do you think the depth in the lyrics has to do with the quality of guests you have?

The quality of guests I have has to do with projection, the idea of the album I had in mind. I’ve certainly been looking for people who want to sing songs that transcend. And some have put their writing, others have put their voice, but the idea was to sing songs like the ones we remember. There are salsa choirs that you play them and, no matter if the previous song was the heaviest reggaeton or a classic hip-hop song, you don’t need all that mixture or music production architecture for a song to work. Some choruses have melodies and lyrics that will last forever – “Llorarás y llorarás [You will cry]” will last many years, and “Tu amor es un periódico de ayer [Your love is a newspaper of yesterday]”… that hits deep.

There are a lot of boleros lyrics that will work for years. And looking for that transcendence in the lyrics is what made me go after those artists. I wanted to do those kinds of songs, and then I included people whose writing is heavenly: Andrés is amazing, Jorge Drexler is like a maestro, an academic in writing songs, and then Adriel Favela or Carín León are people who are bringing back the corrido and focusing it on a younger audience in Mexico and across the border in the U.S. They are people who care about the lyrics and go into the studio to write authentic lines, verses, and quatrains in depth.

Of course, and even more so in times when youth is overrated. Here, you work with artists that could be your parents’ age, and that goes against everything that’s being made because I think what artists are looking for is cool and young people to collaborate with. And, in this record, you went the complete opposite.  

Yes, that was also one of my fears at the beginning. If we were gonna be able to make young people vibe to it as well. But all 14 songs are on the Top 30 in Spain, and that Top is influenced by 16 to 28-year-olds, who are the ones that make things viral, that make hits. 

People can resonate with other things, but if we never give them those things, we’ll never know. If you really write a timeless song, with exciting lyrics and universal images that can be powerful, and besides you have good harmony and a good melody, give it a try. One day you’ll have an important single, regardless of the generation.

I believe in that. And I believe that when young people are given that opportunity, they know how to appreciate it. I had that concern; Toquinho, over 70 years old, Eliades, José Feliciano, those are older people. But everything has worked out, I don’t know how, but it has. The songs are good and they know how to integrate into what I’m doing, and it has worked out fine.

There are a lot of alternative and underground elements in your sound. How did you develop that and what influences caused it?

Well, there are a lot of artists that I like who have managed to get into the mainstream, but always by being radical and experimenting. I could mention Kanye West, everyone knows him and he has always tried to experiment and be radical in his proposals. I could mention Bon Iver. If there’s an alternative, experimental sound after funk, that’s your guy. And everybody listens to him. Well, in the 70s there were a lot of bands that made experimental music that would reach everywhere. So I don’t think there’s a small group of people who like underground or alternative music, it is linked to experimentation and trying to do something that hasn’t been done, to be innovative. And when you get that, I think it can please anyone in the world and you don’t have to be very intellectual for something to surprise you at a sound level.

What can you tell us about “Cuándo Olvidaré,” “Párteme la cara,” and “Nunca Estoy”? Those three songs have an alternative sound.

For me, “Cuándo Olvidaré” is a speech within the album that would act as an introduction, an outro, and an interlude. It’s a mix of all the things I’ve always wanted to put together: tradition, vanguard, and many worlds. This song is a puzzle of all my artistic inquiries. It has some lyrics from some tangos, it has lyrics from La Tana -who is a flamenco artist that was produced by Paco de Lucía- that are the quatrain of “Pasan Los Días.” It also has a classic Cuban melody in “Cuándo Llegaré al Bohío,” peasant music that has been sung for years. It has an urban music sample from YG and H.E.R., from one of their R&B and rap collaborations – YG is a strict rapper. It has a speech from Pepe Blanco, a Spaniard copla singer that, without being from Madrid, ended up doing it and has a song called “Cocidito Madrileño,” which is a mythical copla that represents Madrid very well. That’s why I like it, it’s very Madrid-ish. The album is called “El Madrileño,” but it has a lot of people from outside. It’s me traveling. So it’s like a puzzle and a statement of intent with everything that can be played and unified. That’s like the theory that surrounds the record.

Then, “Párteme La Cara” started as a folk song, but for me, it became one with Spaniard rock and pop – Hombres G, Antonio Vega. And I wanted it to be a more traditional song, more folk-rock. Suddenly, a sample of country voices appeared. Ed Maverick, when we were exchanging music, sent me one of his famous screams. That wasn’t included at the beginning, but we lengthened the pattern so there’s a moment in which he’s just screaming. I don’t know, it’s really weird that there’s a screaming solo in a commercial song. So that’s how it was building up as we were composing the song. It kind of went there and I thought it was beautiful.

“Nunca Estoy” was produced by 1995, who is a Canadian producer who has worked with Drake, and it’s really good with R&B and rap. We only had the chords, the lyrics, and the melody, but there was no production. While researching my music, 1995 decided to integrate a beat that will lift you up, and it is like a ballad you can dance to, a sad song for the club, and it has certain tradition because I recovered a lyric from Rosario Flores, Lola’s daughter, and Alejandro Sanz. And it’s written from a girl’s point of view, which is also weird. There are many women who have sung from a man’s point of view; traditionally Chavela Vargas. She sang manly songs, Mexican male, and they sounded great. The other way around it’s hard, but I thought it could work and truth is, it adds up a lot of things.

I think these three songs are a very good example of how my head works. Sometimes I have many loose elements and the hard part is doing the merge, stirring it well so that all that gets mixed, but they are songs that are put together like a puzzle.

(Photo by Javier Ruiz)

Two of the main themes of the album are love and heartbreak. Usually, we don’t see those in urban music. How do you approach that lyricism and bring it to relatively urban sound?

The idea was for it to reclaim the old writing style, where the songs had to last for years and they were folk songs, which means people remembered them. The origin of the folk song was oral, so they sang it, people remembered it and kept singing it.

So for that, they had to be catchy, easy to learn, and deep enough to have an impact on people. They would keep the songs that were exciting to them, and the images had to be simple, they couldn’t be too strange.

Right now a lot is written about the trends – if there’s a new social network, well, I’ll talk about it. A car, a brand, we only sing about capitalism and the things that are trendy. The last Gucci will not last 30 years, because there’ll be a new one in two days. But talking about youthful love, romantic love, or something more derogatory, those things last forever, so my approach has been trying to write songs that will last a long time.

What do you think about this whole thing in Spain with Pablo Hasél?

Well, that’s where I’ve teamed up with Amnesty International, which has started a campaign to amend an unfair article on the Spanish criminal code, which clearly has been shutting people up and not exactly protecting them. Fortunately, everyone is aware of this thanks to international law. People who are prosecuted for this crime are reducing because judges are also realising that it’s unfair. So I think it’s only a matter of time before it goes away. We’re helping on what I think needs to be done, which is changing the law and waiting for everything to come to a solution.