Conceptual dance duo XUXA SANTAMARIA are imagining revolution
Watch the premiere of the Oakland-based duo’s new video for “RIVER NEVA.”
On a Friday night in July at the Lab, an experimental art and performance space in San Francisco’s Mission District, a chant “ Otra! Otra!” broke out in the audience after XUXA SANTAMARIA finished their set with the last song off their newest album, Chancletas D’Oro. “I’m so pregnant. I can’t believe you’re going to make me do this.” pleaded Sofía Córdova, one half of the punk inclined dance music duo, who was visibly very pregnant in her form fitting dress. But after a breath, she gave in: “Dalé!”
Along with Matt Gonzalez Kirkland, Córdova has been making music under the moniker XUXA SANTAMARIA since 2009. Born in Isla Verde, Puerto Rico and raised in nearby Carolina, Córdova moved to Massachusetts for college in 2001 where she would meet Kirkland, a native New Yorker. The duo’s considered sensibilities led them to retreat from music-making after their first single’s success came with descriptions like “sultry” and “sexy summer banger” and designations like iTunes Latin Single of the Week. “We're just like this is a really psychedelic song about horrible murder and colonization,” Kirkland remembers.
Their first song, “Fiebre Tropical,” was born out of a score to an installation and performance piece by Córdova, a multimedia artist whose work centers diasporic movements, objects and bodies in real and imagined spaces. “It all started [with] very rudimentary descriptions of say the rainforest or a certain kind of evocative environmental space.” Cordova says of that track. “That's how I would describe what I wanted it to sound like even though it was within the dance music bracket it always came from this more abstract place.” A further abstraction was the service of XUXA SANTAMARIA as an alter ego. “I say that she's born within 1492 with the arrival of Columbus in the Caribbean,” she says of the original idea.
Despite these heady concepts, you won’t be hard pressed to find a rhythm to bounce to in XXSM’s music. On their latest output, Kirkland’s imaginative, synth-heavy production, which pulls from a wealth sounds across Latin America and the Caribean as well as rock mood points, is a natural fit for Córdova’s maneuvers between melodic verses and ominous recitals in English and Spanish. Moody and lush, Chancletas D’Oro plays both as a dance record and a soundtrack for femme-led revolutions, a concept that underscores the 10-track album. “Color of the Dark,” for example, is the song that’ll pull any beating heart to the dancefloor whereas the album’s closer, “¿Quien Lleva Los Pantalones?” featuring another Oakland experimental music duo, Las Sucias, is a beautiful, melancholic tribute to Puerto Rican labor and civil rights activist Luisa Capatillo.
In a bright yellow corner of their live-work studio in the East Bay, the couple hosted me for an early morning chat over coffee and pastries where we talked about the realities of creating conceptually forward music and the revolutions that inspired their latest album.
Tell me about the approach to Chancletas D’Oro.
SOFÍA: I was thinking a lot about these narratives that were specifically coming from women's voices and at the time, I was only thinking about fiction. So for example, I read Dracula I was really fascinated by the idea that Lucy, the main female character, everyone is trying to protect her from getting bitten and becoming a vampire.
MATT: Classic Victorian heroine who's both interesting and smart but also perennially in danger.
SOFÍA: And about to faint at any moment. I was like well fuck that. What if there's clearly also this element of seduction and she's complicit in her own fall? How exciting is that and how liberatory is that. That's when I wrote "Puro Animal" which just means pure animal and it's about her becoming this beastly, larger than life untamable, creature woman. Based on that, the album started to take this shape. I wanted to take lots of samples from mostly fictitious places and then flip them on their head.
Where else were you drawing inspiration from for this album?
MATT: I was thinking about how "Heaven's Gate Path" was very much just written because we were in Vietnam and we went to the Vietnamese Women's Museum in Hanoi. It was a staggering experience. First of all experiencing [and] thinking about imperialism and thinking about [its] role. My mom's Cuban, but I'm American. I grew up in the States, and thinking about the narratives of the Vietnam War, even when critical, in America are written from the perspective of white people. Then you going to Vietnam and seeing these are the people who are being attacked, who lost millions. It's pitiful — it shouldn't even be shocking as it is obviously. This is what imperialist war is.
SOFÍA: That specificity becomes really universal to speaking about America's continued imperial activities around the world and this is not new or has stopped since.It's a song that's both puffed up in the power of righteousness but it's also really sad because it talks about raising little babies in the trenches and living your whole life this way because [the war] was for years and years.
How did revolution, may it be fictitious or historical, come to be at the core of this album?
SOFÍA: The last three songs [on the album], we call the revolution trilogy and they were written at the end. They do dovetail with the research that I've been doing for this other project that I'm working on. It's a performance and video piece but I've just been dealing with and embracing, and I mean embracing as a negative term, but standing in the face of our collective inability to see change. Our collective inability to imagine revolution, our collective inability to imagine a solution outside of climate change.
I've been reading a lot about historical instances of revolution, and again this is for my own practice, but I was reading about the Russian Revolution. Fascinating how we have this revised idea of it being really cut and dry. But one of the things that was most striking as I'm writing this album about these histories of like femmehood and womanhood is that the Russian Revolution is essentially started on International Women's Day during the International Women's Day March because all of these men were fighting World War I and all of these women were fed up and there was not enough bread.
That's where we wrote “River Neva.” River Neva is this huge river that crosses St. Petersburg. Because we are still invested in fantasy and creating a grey area within all of these stories, I had also been thinking about Bloody Sunday which had happened 10 years earlier and is actually led by a priest that actually starts out as a very “polite” peasants march. It's not a revolt in any way. The Czar sends people to murder all of these protesters who are mostly people from the clergy and women and children and they're all on the frozen river. The descriptions are really harrowing like all of these men and horses are cutting down. People can't walk because it's like slippery with blood on this ice. So the song borrows its title from that image of River Neva. But it conflates these two important historical events. The song devolves into this psychedelic battleground where everyone's fighting for their freedom.
MATT: In a way that track feels a lot to me like it's really propulsive and fast and it's about trying to capture the exhilaration and fear. It's more about that specific embodiment of that moment of breakage. The moment when you realize there's ten thousand of us and 20 cops and that shift. I think each song for us carries a different flavor. “Heaven's Gate Path” is a little bit slower it's like this trudge of like the work of like this fight and also the loss that it embodies and then the last track is a little bit more elegiac. But you know I think it's a bit it's a bit more romantic and wistful.That one specifically is about Luisa Capatillo who a Puerto Rican feminist and revolutionary.
SOFÍA: She's part of the Puerto Rican anarchist and syndicalist movement.
MATT: Believing in kicking off but the United States of occupation, forming like communes and bottom up forms of democratic governance. That song fades out with a little clip from the [Ghetto Brothers] song “Viva Puerto Rico Libre”. And it's about the beauty and power of that dream but also a little bit of fraught with the sadness of trying to see how that's achieved in the world we live in with what's happening now and how enervated Puerto Rico in particular has been. It's hard to imagine a revolution when people are just like trying to find work and they're cut off.
SOFÍA: So that one's, unlike the other ones which do take on those groups of women, stems from the single woman story, Luisa Capatillo. But then as it's being written the hurricane is happening. The financial crisis in the island has reached this like untenable peak and so the song, in its ending wants to be more open ended than the other ones. It's not without hope but it's also wary of the current situation and its impossibility.
What guides and empowers your creative travels from European literature to various revolutions and war?
SOFÍA: I think at some point I had to grant myself permission but I also think that as a maker and this is something that I struggle with because something the art world is very invested in is this idea of talent and formula equals success. But I actually worked really intuitively which is another thing that the art world is very like, Ew, gross don't do that. We need to be able to write about it so don't say intuition. I am called by an energy or a certain friction so once I start down a path I start making all sorts of strange connections. And I'm not always the best at articulating how these threads are made but in the moment, they just feel right and then I follow them down. I think my labor happens in the generating of the idea of the umbrella concept so that's the parameter but then I let chaos take control.
So intuitive chaos?
SOFÍA: Yeah, Virgo chaos.
MATT: Sófia is the engine of all concepts [and] top lines of our work although I participate in the whole process. But I also think there is a layer of like with that subjectivity comes the fact that you know of we're writing a song about the Vietnamese women truck drivers during the war or the Russian Revolution, I would certainly hope it doesn't come off as if we're presuming to say here is their experience. It's almost like this is our experience of learning about those people.
SOFÍA: I will say that I don't exist in a bubble so I've of course have encountered other works that made me feel a certain permission to expand what I'm looking at and what I'm consuming in a way that might not feel linear at all.
As we close the album with this revolution moment, it does come from the desire to create, less than telling the stories as I think I should tell them. It's about creating threads between all of them from the fictional [things] to the things that are coming straight from my head and my interpretation of these historical moments as a means to highlight again that all of this is full of nuance.
Because of Sófia’s performance art practice, are live shows something you both consider when you're creating these songs?
SOFÍA: For me the visual identity of these albums really resides in the videos. As an art maker, I love the objecthood of a record. So we're really excited that the LP has this really beautiful form that corresponds with the themes of the record. But specifically when thinking about the live iteration of it, as someone who performs a lot as a performance artist and has these big productions with projections and all of this stuff, I actually like to pair down our band identity because I feel like I don't want to feed the hierarchy of the senses. I wanted to be really about the sound and the booming base of these songs and the words to rattle in the chest of the audience and let that be the experience.
MATT: Our very early shows like we'd had waves and projections and costume and then you realize that there's a pleasure to just letting [it be]. If we've done our work right, the songs embody the feeling of each track and the concept of the track.
SOFÍA: One thing that is interesting that happened because this album was so slow to cook and then of things outside of our control and the pressing made it be really late, I'm more pregnant for all of this than I thought I would be. It's become a really exciting facet of it. That is one part of a visual component to this that is really interesting just like what does it mean to be a pregnant body singing these specific songs. How unusual that is and the dance or pop vernacular because these are bodies that are relegated to an entirely different fiction like an entirely different history and it's like, No, I'm still here to say these things, and I'm still here to make this music.