From within / Kamankola
The record (re)appearance of Kamankola in 2014 had a certain impact on the public of the Cuban alternative scene. He couldn't stop talking about Before they ban it (2014), promoted as the first Cuban phonogram financed by micro patronage through the platform of crowdfunding Verkami. Kamankola, who had debuted in 2008 with the album disposable muses, quickly became a loyal audience that packed the spaces where he performed and seemed to know even the songs that the artist had not yet composed. Public that, in addition, was mostly adolescents, which has some merit if we take into account that the artist is usually pigeonholed in trova, a genre whose popularity among young people has decreased considerably. Six years and three albums after that return, Kamankola brings us From inside (2020), her cleanest album to date.
Starting from the outside, the cover of the phonogram shows Kamankola's face made up of a compilation of every Cuban cliché there is. Come on, that could work like mood board from some craftsman of souvenirs for tourists: there is a selection of iconic buildings of the capital; tobacco and rum; the almendrón and the camel; Soyuz 38 and truck cameras; sunflowers and royal palm; the CUP and the CUC; Christ and Caridad del Cobre; the plane and the hummingbird; the baseball bat and the supply book; the Van Van, the Rolling Stones and La Bayamesa... Maybe it will work, I wouldn't deny it: it's a collage nice, attractive and well composed that can connect the same with the chauvinism of the Cuban than with the simplifying curiosity of the yuma standard. Kamankola carries all the Cuba inside, the image seems to tell us. But, does anyone doubt it at this point in the game? The musician has been telling us this for four albums and, in that sense, this cover fits more with the content of his previous albums. Because in this the Cuban hardly appears and never explicitly.
Despite the fact that, probably, the national reality continues to be his creative trigger, in this production Kamankola proposes a more universal, less localist approach: you no longer have to be Cuban to understand what is being said. There will be those who see this as something negative. There will be those who think that it is an attempt by the artist to reach new markets. There will be those who speak of loss of essence. And maybe he is right. For my part, I see it as a symptom of artistic maturity. Cubans - and Latin Americans in general - find it very difficult to transcend the national. It makes sense: our daily lives, cultures and identities have traditionally been made invisible by international circuits and as a response we tend to ponder it. But universal themes also belong to us, even if they have led us to believe otherwise. Inferiority complexes are just as harmful as external minimization.
On this album we find a more leisurely, thoughtful and intimate Kamankola that tries not to remain superficial, not to repeat pictures with rebellious overtones that have even become costumbrista for us, and that tend to easily fall into porn-misery which the Colombian filmmakers Luis Ospina and Carlos Mayolo warned about, back in 1978. A more humble and simple Kamankola who does not attack with a torrent of clever phrases pretending to talk about everything —at the risk of ending up talking about nothing—, but tries to more thoughtful and measured dialogue about what he considers essential in these times. In fact, the speech From inside It practically rests on three central ideas: the struggle of life for life, the truth as a lifeline, and love as the ultimate truth to cling to.
If in the previous albums Kamankola was a hyperkinetic character, active protagonist of a reality in which he moved like a fish in water and aggressively confronted it, here he adopts a passive role and becomes a cautious observer. In these violent and convulsive times, the street has become too uncomfortable, threatening. This hostility is portrayed in verses such as “I can feel / the merciless fog / and the first hyenas / hear them breathe". Although perhaps he suffered the change: has humanity ever known calmer times? Reality has worn him down. He suffers a weariness that drags him to ask for help: "Someone to save this life"; to alienate: “Give me rolling paper / I want to relax / (…) give me scissors and time / I want to disappear”; or, ultimately, to take refuge in oneself: “It rains cheaper alcohol outside / and the quieter life inside / Inside it is expensive / but sometimes I prefer it”. After hearing From inside one feels that Kamankola has opened the channel to expose the fears, worries and remorse that plague Jorge Lian.
If there is something difficult and important in music and in art in general, it is saving resources; transmit more with the fewest possible elements; let the play make it seem that two plus two makes five. That is one of the strengths of this phonogram both in the compositions and in the musical.
The band is limited to three instruments: guitars by Nam San Fong, drums by the giant Rodney Barreto, and Miguel Valdés on bass. This basic scheme of instrumentation is enough to give the texts a robust body of sound. Sure, this is only possible with solid production work. Credit to Nam San, one of our most talented and versatile guitarists, who (I think) has been unfairly relegated to the background on other occasions.
It is easy to imagine that there was a strong chemistry between producer and composer, that this delicate creative relationship flowed unhindered during the gestation of the project, that Kamankola blindly trusted Nam San's genius. As a result of this, the guitar is the great protagonist of the album —something that was already announced from the cover. With a successful use of effects -especially reverb and delay— atmospheres are generated for those more calm and reflective themes, while in the tracks more energetic and direct appear the acoustic guitars and predominate riffs heavy. That sea of guitar —where Kamankola's voice floats and submerges at times— reveals the marked influence of Gustavo Cerati, fundamentally in the final plates of Soda Stereo as Sleep Stereo (Sony International, 1995) and Comfort and music to fly (BMG Ariola Argentina SA, 1997).
Nam San's work in his role as producer is impeccable to the point of perfectionism and is exercised with a tremendous sense of control, methodical one might say. This does not contradict that feeling of fluidity that I was talking about above. On the other hand, it did not cut off or overwrite Kamankola's spirit. And that is one of the essential characteristics of a good producer: to guide the artist, but letting him be. With all this, expectations are raised for Unique pieces, the solo debut of the former Habana Abierta, still in the recording process, and of which we have already been able to savor a first single precisely as a duet with Kamankola.
From inside it's one of those albums that divides fans and simultaneously wins and loses a few listeners: even if one couldn't speak of a break, the divergence from his previous work is more than evident. Kamankola has perhaps reached a turning point in his career in which he either returns to the trails of his previous work, or launches himself once again in search of new topics and ways of saying. I would prefer the second path, because this time I feel that I have heard Jorge Lian speak from within. And that I understand.