In a recent photo, Rita Indiana has a plush stuffed kitten perched in a basket on her head and is smoking a cigarillo. Two swoops of hot pink eyeshadow jet across her lids, and there’s a tattoo of two triangles on her wifebeater-bared shoulder that looks like a fast-forward button. She is Carmen Miranda, Wendy O. Williams and gangster supermodel all in one—a protean confluence of identities Indiana channels through the vibrance of her feral electro-mambo band, Los Misterios.
The path to her radical status comes from surprising origins, though. By the time she was 20, Indiana was already a star in her native Dominican Republic on the basis of one semi-autobiographical cult novel, 2000’s La Estrategia de Chochueca, the story of a boy who robs a rave’s sound system and spends the next 24 hours trying to unload it. It was a candid, drugged-out, disaffected road novel and turned her into the DR’s very own Jack Kerouac. By the time its follow-up, Papi, was published in 2005, however, Indiana had already found the literary life too constraining—filled with pretentious peers and shady government connections—and hit the road to New York, where she worked as a nanny and began experimenting with DIY rhythms with a Harlem schoolteacher named Raina Mast. That music, under the name Miti Miti, eventually evolved into Indiana’s longing first single with Los Misterios, “La Hora de Volve,” or “the time to return,” which she meant quite literally. “It’s the Dominican dream: going to New York, working and saving some money to buy yourself a house wherever you left your family,” she says. “It was a call to come back.”
Indiana has since returned home to Santo Domingo to hone Los Misterios’ odd pitchshifts and plinked out piano counter rhythms into digital merengue jams purely out of instinct. “Misterios” refers to the orishas, deities within vodou, a monotheistic Dominican religion descended from the West African Yoruba culture, and her beats follow traditional Afro-Caribbean rhythms, like the drum-and-bells festival music, gaga— partly because they were easy to learn, and partly out of Indiana’s desire to reclaim Dominican music from the country’s religious authorities. “Our root music has been demonized by the Catholic church and Pentecostals who are very powerful on the island,” she says. “There are so many rhythms here that are completely unknown by the public. It’s just what I’m made of.” To the beats’ mysterious syncopation, Indiana adds her sweet, resinous alto, a preservationist street-chanteuse whose outré impulses are being embraced in the usually conservative home country. “At my shows you see the indie middle-class white kids, and you see the kids from the barrios who are listening to mambo and hip-hop and reggaeton. That’s the beauty of this project. When people come, they’re not expecting a religious show of any kind. It’s more [about] the rawness and openness of creating something out of millions of elements. Everything’s invited.”
Stream: Rita Indiana y Los Misterios, No Ta Llevando El Diablo