erasing clouds

New to Me: Akwid, E.S.L.

by hiram lucke

As part of an ongoing series of reviews titled “New to Me,” I’ll write about albums and artists that are new to me (duh!), while not necessarily new to others or even new in a temporal sense, pointed out by friends or found while reading. Akwid’s E.S.L., released in 2006 by Univision, is the first in the series.

First, some background on how I found this album. I met my friend Alantl Molina through a web community where we’re both members. He’s a musician from Brazil, living in another South American country at the moment, who creates wonderful music. We’ve talked about many albums and artists that we love (Os Mutantes, Lauryn Hill, Tom Zé, Magnetic Fields, among others), so I inevitably asked, “What’s good that’s coming out now?”. He told me to check out the hip hop group Akwid. Akwid consists of two brothers (Sergio and Francisco Gómez—“AK” and “Wickid”) who were born in Jiquilpan, Michoacán, Mexico, and came to Los Angeles as children. I was completely blown away by E.S.L., the group’s 10th (!) album in this decade, including at least one remix album. They also have a Grammy to their name and have even had one of their songs tapped as the official theme for Major League Soccer’s Chivas USA team. Obviously, I had missed something important so I decided to remedy the situation.

If one of the principles of hip hop is to represent your life and situation within your songs, then Akwid has taken that to its logical conclusion for their situation. Using the brass band sounds from Mexican ranchero music, known as “norteño,” and less specifically “banda,” the group mixes those sounds with hip hop beats replacing the propulsive polka 1-2, 1-2 usually used. By doing so, the brothers have created a sound that is both recognizable and foreign, American and Mexican. By rapping in mostly Spanish, the brothers have also created something for their culture that stands distinctly on its own within hip hop.

E.S.L. is an abbreviation for “English as a Second Language” courses common to immigrants and their children. The songs on E.S.L. are thematically linked by a voice imitating language course tapes speaking in slow, mispronounced Spanish and then English. The first skit (because what’s a hip hop album without skits?--I don’t know either) is also set in an E.S.L. classroom, complete with a teacher (with a pinched, nasal voice reminiscent of Eddie Murphy’s old Saturday Night Live in which he changes his appearance through white face; you may know the voice as “uptight white guy”) who tries to bring an unruly class to order and misunderstands interactions as “some sort of barrio talk... some ranchero, some gang-affiliated slang that I don’t know”. Reminiscent of the classroom bits from Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the skits from Akwid’s album don’t have the teacher calling roll calmly or asking the class what they think love is, this teacher comes into the situation without knowing his students or their culture. Throughout E.S.L., the skits and language tape bits act as a reminder of the forced assimilation that is (and historically has been) prevalent within portions of American society.

The first actual music track on the album, “El Principio,” is the story of the Gómez brothers first impressions of life as newly arrived immigrants in Los Angeles propelled by an anthemic brass section and beat. A few of the lyrics (thanks to Alantl for the translation since my Spanish is not what it used to or should be) point to the pains of a duplicitous existence within society:

When I was five, living in a modest building
lost, as a rabbit in the snow...
Knowing nothing we went to school
Foreign to the bone, doing passes...
One or two lent a hand
"Fellow citizen," we stand out like a zit....
I haven't understood that here everyone
looks like a fellow citizen
Wrong, all of them are strangers...

With the image of a (brown) rabbit lost in the white of snow, the metaphor represents living as a Mexican in Los Angeles, but also the idea of being brought to the country by a coyote, a slang term for those who are paid to bring immigrants to the country, sometimes in deadly conditions and always illegally, as well as a coyote being a natural predator of rabbits. The idea of “doing passes” is one that pops up throughout the record—in this instance, passing grades in school or passing a ball in sports, but also the idea of passing with your ethnicity in society—is then reversed in terms of color in the next lines as the immigrant community standing out like a festering whitehead (not the most appetizing of images, but it definitely works).

Passing within the community you live in does not mean passing in the community at large, of course, leading to being singled out as “other,” even by those within the “other” culture. In this way, they call into question those within the community who feel they are better because they were born within the US border rather than within the borders of Mexico: “It may be that we are even relatives/But being born here, they think they are gringos/And they humiliate me for coming from the ranch.” As the song comes to a close, the final words speak of reconciling these differences as an individual, even if society will always view the immigrant as an outsider, “And year after year goes by, without thinking once/that I’m living life upside down.../They might take me out of the ranch step by step/But they can't beat the ranch out of [me].”

The song’s chorus of “You can take me out the hood, but you can’t take the hood out me/I’m gonna be where I come from, I gonna be where I come from, si,” with the “si” acting as a homonym for both a shouted Spanish “Yes!” and a declarative English “Look, this is how it is!”. The chorus is sung by Jessie Morales, another Mexican-American performer. Morales is a singer of norteño music from the Los Angeles area, known, sometimes condescendingly, as a “Chalinillo” because of his album Homenaje a Chalino Sanchez (Homage to Chalino Sanchez), the murdered singer who helped make narcocorridos (banda songs of the drug trade rooted in folk music forms) and the rancho life and style of dress prominent within the Mexican-American community.

Not all of the songs are about the personal struggles of the brothers’ lives as immigrants. Some of the songs, like “Cuentos Pa’ Morros” (“Stories for Children” or “Children’s Stories”), which has one of the best vocal hooks on the album in the chorus, turns Anglo fairy tales on their head. Pinocchio has sex with Little Red Riding Hood and there’s a good possibility that she has a sexual relationship with Cinderella. “Que Quiere La Nena?” wonders what the brothers can “do for the princess today”. “Just Another Day” is a simple party song sung and rapped in English for South Central’s residents who “just want to play all day”.

However, even in “Just Another Day,” ethnicity is still in the foreground, with the idea of passing this time as a car that you can’t miss “bald head in a ‘Benz and cops harrasin’” as it drives down the road looking for parties. “I’m west coast like the Dodgers they came from the hood/and goddamn it feels good in LA to be reppin’ my Mexican ways/I party and drink Coronas all day” and, even if the Dodgers were transplants themselves (as some brokenhearted, older Brooklynites would argue) they’ve come to represent the growing numbers of Mexican and Latin American immigrants in Los Angeles as much as Corona is the Mexican beer of choice for anyone wanting something exotic, but not too exotic, in America.

Akwid plays with those images, and the sounds of their culture, throughout their music to wonderful effect. For anyone who finds cultural cross-pollination interesting: Os Mutantes use of The Beatles and The Stones, those great pop songs mixed with native instruments in the Sublime Frequencies series, or even Ray Davies’ use of Hollywood cowboys and cowgirls to escape working-class England in “Oklahoma, U.S.A.,” you should get this album to quench your anthropologically-minded thirst. For those who just like to bob their head to the music, you definitely need to check out Akwid. Their newest, La Novela, is slated for release in March of 2008 on Univision and promises to be closely related in subject matter, if not more entrenched in the banda style, with guests Los Tucanes de Tijuana, Jesús “El Flaco” Elizalde, and Raúl Hernández—formerly of the pioneering group Los Tigres del Norte and a formidable songwriter on his own, it should be a good one.

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