"Inside my mountain, hay un misterio."
With these suggestive words, the first line of the first track of Oye Mujer (Listen Up, Woman), Ladama lays down their brand of sexual politics vaunting empowerment and liberation on their own terms. Ladama (La Dama—the lady, without a facetious undertone) is an all women collective of players from the Latin American world, including the US.
Ladama isn’t intent to merely throw down a velvet gauntlet of sexual empowerment. The group has also taken up, notably as women, the web of urgencies of the day, including global warming, homelessness, poverty, immigration, indigenous rights, and more. Ladama is not just a mouthpiece against indignity: these women are serious musicians, all, and care equally about their art as players, composers, lyricists and arrangers, achieved, they are proud to disclose, collectively. Their commitment to mastery as women musicians engages the listener, lending more agency to their message.
With the coordinates of “Latin” culture fluid, varying from region to region, demographic to demographic, each member of Ladama, from Venezuela to Brazil to Colombia to New York, contributes a nuanced personal flavor to the mix, allowing, among other contributions. a different band member to take the solo vocal on each of the ten tracks. Oye Mujer's simple, clean and acoustic-heavy sound, produced by Brazilian maestro, Alexandre Kassin, is in keeping with the integrity of the sound as a vehicle for the message. Kassin gets it, and doesn’t stint on the message in favor of the medium. Pat Swoboda, who’s had a long-standing association with the group as electric bass player, is a welcomed addition.
Marked by an insistent Afro-percussive beat and a suggestion of reggaetón, “Misterio,” with the aforementioned first line, turns the too-often misogynistic genre on its head, using the same come-on lines as would a papi chulo “in the mood,” and some pretty raunchy double-entendres. Lest anyone not get the device here, "Misterio" reprises some of the tune’s more sensual lyrics in sultry French a la Serge Gainsbourg’s 1990s chart shocker, “Je T’aime.” The song's satire demonstrates that women can be overt about their sexuality and, at the same time, refuse to perpetuate their objectification under the misnomer of liberation. Instead, the members own their sexuality as individual thinking and feeling women.
A metaphoric song with multiple allusions, “Underground” is a screen shot of the bowels of New York, and is as emblematic of the City as the neo-honkey tonk of Broadway, or the grey-worsted caverns of Wall Street. The influence of Laura Nyro is inescapable in the shared embrace of urban grit amidst lyrics riding a stream of consciousness and seeming non sequiturs, as well, even, as in the shading of vocalist Lara Kraus’s intonation of “brother” and other words or phrases. In a different guise, “Underground” wears the mantle of an original and independent artist who fought over 40 years ago for artistic integrity as a woman.
“Underground” infuses me as a native New Yorker with the image of the denizens of the underground as both the City’s wage slaves, trapped in the loop of the subway that takes them from home to work and then back again to the salt mines (salt being what most inhabitants worked for in Roman times, hence the word, “salary”) ultimately going nowhere, as well as the homeless who ride the underground just as infinitively, stepping off to build fires below to keep warm. One group snugly inside the rapidly moving trains, the other outside in the freezing cold, they are so close yet so far, except for their entrapment.
“Tierra Tiembla” is a cry to save the planet, burning from the depths and through to the very matrix of women’s bodies where life begins. As such, the nexus between the Earth to the essence of womanhood is like an umbilical cord joining us all to the indigenous Mother Earth, the Pachemama. Repetitive, alliterative, sometimes one-word lines in this stirring song, coupled with the plaintive, and beautiful vocal from Sara Lucas, which, with her lyrical Spanishy guitar underpinning, make for an ineluctable plaint.
Oye Mujer avoids the trap of becoming lost in identity politics, as fervent as their feminism is. Instead, Ladama has given us an immensely listenable compendium of cautionary songs, delivered with soul and conviction and with minimum acerbity, rancor or finger pointing. At the same time they’ve succeeded in proving, yet again, that women have chops.
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Photo: Sea Robin Studios