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Tall Juan - Atlantico Music Album Reviews

Drawing on the music of his youth, Buenos Aires-born songwriter Juan Zaballa’s second album cleverly illuminates Latin America’s rich musical heritage.

Tall Juan is as tall (about 6 feet 3 inches) as he is named Juan, and in his brief career, he has lovingly commanded the art of pastiche. On his 2017 debut Olden Goldies, Juan Zaballa introduced himself in 15 short songs as a rockabilly crooner raised on the Ramones—Iggy Pop doing an Elvis bit, maybe vice versa. The Buenos Aires-born singer made his way to Far Rockaway, Queens, where he honed his goofy brand of punk alongside former roommate Mac DeMarco and songwriter Juan Wauters (from whom “tall” distinguishes Zaballa).
When Zaballa released a modest two-song EP called Tall Juan Plays Cumbia in December, the usual adjectives no longer applied. Here, he reached for a recent past: Buenos Aires in the 1990s and its working-class neighborhoods that cultivated cumbia villera, a synth-washed genre of social protest. It was the first glimpse at his new album Atlantico, a paean to Latin America, the continent’s musical roots in Africa, and the fraught body of water in between.
If that sounds like a lengthy project, it is. “It all started when I realized that tango music was created by Africans,” Zaballa said in a recent interview. He names the music of Soweto in Johannesburg as a vector through which he came to better understand that of Latin America, and cites French no wave artist Lizzy Mercier Descloux’s 1984 anti-apartheid album Zulu Rock as his introduction to African musical traditions.

Yet at a brisk 22 minutes, Atlantico is a compact exploration of the sounds that form the cultural fabric of Zaballa’s youth in Argentina. The album opens with “Rocio,” a lilting ballad that immediately belies the influence of Zulu Rock’s experiments with Shangaan disco, Soweto jive, and mbaqanga music. Soon after, Zaballa’s whining croon enters, having lost some of its snarl as he rhymes “la isla de pascuas” (literally Easter Island, or an island on holiday) and “ayahuasca” with characteristic nonchalance.

On Atlantico’s cover songs, Zaballa uses simple tricks to illuminate the richness of Latin America’s genre dialogues. “Don’t Come,” a jauntier take on Argentine post-punk band Sumo’s “No Acabes,” infuses the song’s reggae foundation with jazz saxophone and rhythm-and-blues guitar. “Think I go to Africa, maybe Ethiopia,” Sumo mused blithely, and Zaballa echoes that desire with naive earnestness, even personalizing one lyric with his own experience as a transplant in Queens: “Living in Far Rockaway, it’s so difficult/I really don’t know what to do.” On “Irene,” the tropicália lick of Caetano Veloso’s 1969 original lends itself easily to the driving acoustic post-punk riff Zaballa adds behind it. And “Los Chicos,” while not a cover, is a sweeping, “All the Young Dudes”-esque zeitgeist ballad: “Los chicos afuera quieren divertirse/Y desde mi cuarto yo los veo tristes/Porque hoy, hoy yo no voy a salir.” (“The kids outside want to have fun/And from my room they seem sad/Because today I’m not going out.”)

Throughout the record, Zaballa asks that the music be allowed to speak for itself, just as he has sought to listen more closely. He states that mission in the slow reggae march of “El Mar”: “Desenterrando los sentimientos que hacen/Que en la canción se escuchen las notas caer/Y en las notas se escuchará esta música” (“Unearthing the feelings that allow/You to hear the notes fall in the song/And in the notes you will hear this music”). He subsequently admits he’s not always sure those feelings come through.

Atlantico lacks a deeper look at colonialism, the Atlantic slave trade, or the violence that is inextricable to the history of adopting and reframing African musical traditions in Latin America. Short instrumentals like the dreamy “White Castle” (a very Tall Juan equivalence of medieval romance and fast food) and “Rocio Piano,” the fleeting piano flourish that closes the record, give it an open-ended, unfinished quality. The album might feel more incomplete in these respects had Zaballa framed Atlantico as an outward ethnomusicological study rather than a personal one. Instead, it is an ongoing lesson in better understanding one’s own geography.

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