Boring, I thought. The first time I listened all the way through Rosalía’s debut album, Los Angeles, all I could think about was that, boring. 12 tracks and an hour later it felt like I had listened to the same song over and over again, the same guitar strum repeating itself with some off-beat vocals scratching on top of it. This had been right after discovering Rosalía on J Balvin’s new record, Vibras, in which she delivers an interlude (“Brillo”) that completely overshadows Balvin and the rest of his guest features on the album. The hype built up later as I discovered her latest single at the time, “Malamente,” and loved the choreography, the production by one of my favorite Spanish artists El Guincho, that sexy repetition of “malamente” aided by the claps in between. So with all the dance-y hype built up in me, I decided to listen to her debut album, reaching that first impression I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post: boring.
It had to be impossible, though. It couldn’t have been that this singer rose to fame among her peers had they thought she was boring. So I listened to Los Angeles again two or three times, and its beauty and elegance struck me in weird and nostalgic scenarios: as I cleaned my room, as I folded my clothes, as I drove to hang out with my friends. Her vocal range and constancy of such a raw performance took me back to childhood when my mom played her old Ghazal and Qawwali cassettes in those exact scenarios: when she cleaned, or folded clothes, or drove me to my friends’ houses. Los Angeles likened itself to that hour-long string of consciousness prevalent in performances by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the feeling like you’re listening to one long song with fragments of various identities that tie in with its overarching theme of love or loss or peace. Where I saw the beauty in the variety of her talents through “Brillo” and “Malamente,” I now also saw in Rosalía’s range of whispers and shrill screams compiled together into a central theme. Listening to “Si Tú Supieras Compañero,” you inch towards the desire she emanates through her lyrics and lilting vocals (as my friend would classify them), following her through an awaited climax that never arrives, just as she does when she remarks,
”Ay, te voy pintando y pintando
Al la’íco del brasero
Y a la vez me voy quemando
Por lo mucho que te quiero
Válgame, San Rafael, tener el agua tan cerca y no poderla beber”
“I paint you and paint youTranslation by Anonymous
To the laic of the brazier
And at the same time I am burning
Because I love you so much
Oh San Rafael, to have the water so close and not being unable to drink it”
The same effect captures you in the next song “De Plata,” as Rosalía expresses her mere 14 lines of anguish towards this unrequited love for 4 1/2 minutes. The elongated “Cuando yo” at the beginning takes you inside that raw emotion, those periods that seem like forever just waiting for that person to understand the extent of her love. The pattern goes on from song to song, the concise feelings of loss piercing deeper in Rosalía’s vocals and getting heavier in each song’s lyrics. Time passes as the narrator’s mother dies, and little brother dies, and the town’s gravedigger buries his daughter, and by the time you can’t handle anymore she concludes her narration with a cover of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s song “I See A Darkness,” an ending that dually traps the narrator in her own head yet brings her closer to the ones she loves through her familiarity with imminent death.
Los Angeles and its similarity to Ghazal and Qawwali helped me connect to these feelings of loss in such a larger-than-life manner. This connection as well as Rosalía’s objective with flamenco-pop moving forward helped me realize the quickly-changing landscape of music that she is adapting to.
For me, this isn’t the first time I’ve been exposed to South Asian/Arab and Spanish cultures coinciding. The Bollywood movie Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara draws connections between flamenco and Hindi music in its hit song “Señorita.” Indian authors like Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy incorporate elements of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude into their tales of India and Pakistan. El Guincho, Rosalía’s co-producer for her newest album, has incorporated Hindi samples and Indian influences in songs like “Cuando Maravilla Fui” and “Bombay.” I even wrote about a project by Moroccan artist Bouchra Khalili in which she juxtaposes speeches by prominent (albeit controversial) North African leaders and revolutionaries next to those by Latin American leaders and revolutionaries to universalize the experiences of Maghrebi immigrants in Europe.
For Rosalía, she’s not the first to try and bring a niche, traditional genre like flamenco into the pop or hip-hop world. “Despacito” became one of the most widely-heard songs in 2017, Riz Ahmed and Heems integrated Bollywood-inspired production with East coast rap and grime in their duo Swet Shop Boys, and Skepta found his way into every rapper’s feature list from A$AP Rocky to Playboi Carti to Drake. But what seems to be so unique about Rosalía’s flamenco-pop integration is that it embodies her transition into a purely diasporic art-form, beginning from the foundation of authentic Catalan flamenco and shifting according to her surroundings.
In an interview with a fellow student named Jon a few months ago, we discussed the essence of diasporic identity being the ability to take the morally-rich parts of our parent-country’s heritage and the morally-rich lessons we learned from the new environment we were raised in and combine them to create our own identity, one that transcends any doubt we experienced trying to fit into exclusive circles throughout our lives. Through that experience we learn to identify with people who experience the same feelings as us, like displacement and the necessity to adapt to unfamiliar surroundings, rather than exclusively people who look like us or share the same traditions as us. That’s not to say I didn’t mostly hang out with South Asians anyways. Sometimes people who experience the same feelings as us are also the ones that look like us. It’s not mutually exclusive.
And perhaps this inclusiveness, or absence of exclusiveness, is what allows Rosalía the ability to delve into these new areas of her music while staying true to her roots. This flamenco-pop wave she basks in is not a new era but a transitional one. In an interview with Tom Tom Mag, she discusses her perspective of creating popular flamenco, stating, “It is not my intention to alter, in any way, the status quo of this genre. It is more like….I sing flamenco from my perspective. For me to make music, and specifically flamenco, it is absolutely necessary for me to play in my own way.” In this sense, she maintains that diasporic identity through the creation of her own perspective of flamenco, one that she hopes younger generations who were not exposed to its pure form since birth can identify with. And through this perspective, she capitalizes on the expanse of the genre without denouncing its purists.
In a video set in Barcelona, a camera follows Rosalía through her favorite square. She reminisces on randomly meeting friends every time she goes there, and then the video quickly switches to her explaining the process of creating her new album, El Mal Querer. Through it all, I get to see how she manifests her explanation of this transcendental identity my friend and I talked about, but through her music. She remarks, “It’s quite different from Los Angeles, but the essence remains. You can sense the flamenco inspiration,” she says as she mimics the snaps and claps common in flamenco, “but at the same time, it’s a whole new thing.” This brief explanation rings throughout my head as I contextualize this leap in her career. Perhaps all the artists who pivoted to other genres of music and creativity never truly departed from their past crafts but just adapted to the environments they found themselves in. And perhaps as diaspora dominates more and more aspects of our lives, the preparedness to embrace unfamiliar circumstances opens the doors to many new forms of expression.
As I sat here writing this after hearing that quote in the video, I remembered where I had read something similar before. It was an interview with Riz Ahmed written by Carvell Wallace of the New York Times. In it, he explains his experience listening to Riz Ahmed’s verse in the Swet Shop Boys song “Half Moghul, Half Mowgli.” He ends that verse with four different voices talking to him, one of them calling him a “Paki” terrorist, one of them praising him for representing South Asian kids, one of them saluting him for his raps, and lastly an old Muslim man condemning him for his explicit content. Wallace explains his experience hearing that verse and coming to truly understand it, writing, “But the reason it unraveled something so deeply inside of me was that it also represented four different ways you can look at yourself. All completely opposite one another, and completely isolated, and yet completely validated by the world you live in. And when there are so many versions of self, maybe the only way to maintain safety is to develop a view that can see, literally, everything.”
Reading that passage a few months back brought me full circle in coming to terms with this “transcendental identity” Jon and I coughed up in our discussion, and now finding myself in the wake of this album that popularizes the artist’s own perspective of flamenco, pop, love, loss and everything in between, I understand Wallace’s notion of viewing “everything.” I understand it through being a Pakistani-American who identifies with a piece of art from halfway across the world, one based in a language I can barely speak and a form of music I have virtually never heard before.
Through this piece and Rosalía’s own expression of her diasporic identity, we get to see her perspective of flamenco come to life, whether it be in the fierce pop choreography in “Malamente,” in the flamenco-inspired crescendo of the guitar and background of emphatic snaps and claps in “Que No Salga La Luna,” or in the Bedouin-style auto-tune riffs in “De Aquí No Sales.”
Throughout her performance in everything–video, song, and stage–we see the two worlds of Rosalía combine to create a third. We see her perspective of pure flamenco come together with the pop and R&B she came to know growing up; we see extravagant displays of color and flare in costume, fabric and setting yet also her casual streams of consciousness through fluid dance, concise lyrics and steady cinematography; we hear the theme of love and loss carried over from Los Angeles–even hearing that lyric from “De Plata” in which she asks her love to tie her hands together with their braids carried into “Di Mi Nombre”–yet we find our narrator with a brand-new air of confidence in her; and we see her Catalan roots become universalized as listeners around the world share her experience.
In the song covers (yes, she has a different cover for each song) we see these elements come together even more, such as in the “Bagdad” cover as Rosalía lays on her side pointing towards the sun with stigmata in her feet, a fitting expression of the Catholic undertones for her liturgy rendition of Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River.” The cover for “Que No Salga La Luna” displays two versions of Rosalía shaking hands during the flamenco medley, the left dressed in chic white clothes as if a pop icon, the right dressed in an embroidered flamenco suit. Keys of different colors float in between them as if to open a door not accessible previously.
In the beautifully-crafted lyrics we hear the story of the narrator play out through the darker stages of her love. In “Que No Salga La Luna,” we hear a male singer repeat “Que no salga la luna que no tiene pa’ qué / No tiene pa’ qué, no tiene pa’ qué,” saying the moon has no reason to rise because the narrator has filled herself with light, yet deeper into the song those repetitions soon bring out the loss of oneself in this obsessive relationship. Whereas the line once serves as a reason for hope, it soon becomes a reason for doubt in the confines of this love full of diamonds and undying loyalty to each other. In “Bagdad,” the narrator prays to God repeatedly to see her way out of the trapped relationship, yet despite the descent of an angel she again falls in love with her evils. The story of this love bound to end in flames continues through “Di Mi Nombre” as she basks in the sexual moment between her and her love. The last three tracks show the narrator confront her desire to find that exit and maintain the hope of finding herself again too. The final track, “A Ningún Hombre,” brings us to her realization of self-worth, remarking that no man can dictate her life, asserting that she will tattoo his initials to remember what he did and how she came out of it. These songs, layered as chapters, tell the coming of age story that is born out of this obsessive love in a way so unique to the genres they touch. “Di Mi Nombre” epitomizes the sex-fueled undertones of pop and R&B, getting its name from the famous Destiny’s Child song “Say My Name.” The experimental production of “De Aqui No Sales” meshes flamenco claps, auto-tune riffs, and car engine sounds in a way that perfectly matches the scattered and fluctuating feelings of pain and infatuation this relationship causes. It seems that with every line comes its corresponding piece of instrumentation to fully embody the narrator’s circumstance.
Throughout this listening experience we perceive “everything” the way Carvell Wallace explains. We can be both the purists and the adapters, both the flamenco and the pop, both the familiar and the unfamiliar. Somehow, while having to balance all of these ambiguities, Rosalía does not fail to leave out any aspect of her new identity that she’s embracing, that of a powerful, self-realizing woman, a pioneer of the emerging genre of flamenco pop, and a product of cultural eclecticism and diaspora.
Listen to El Mal Querer below: