Although it is officially part of the United States, Puerto Rico has an identity as strong as any singular country. Discos Diáspora is one outlet for its independent musical output, releasing lo-fi guitar rock and dreamy synth pop such as Buscabulla (whose Segunda Edición EP is available again as a repress).
We spoke with Discos Diáspora’s Alfredo Richner about the label and Puerto Rico’s cultural identity. Check out the full interview below.
MusicMap: In ten words or less, how would you describe where you live?
Alfredo Richner (Discos Diáspora): Tropical paradise with great people, music, food… and economic challenges.
For people who are unaware of the Puerto Rican music scenes, how would you summarise the country’s musical output at the moment?
Puerto Rico is known worldwide for helping develop and place several musical genres on the map, notably salsa and reggaeton. A slew of our artists have reached true international super-stardom in the pop and alternative landscapes as well, such as Ricky Martin and more recently Calle 13, who hold the record for most Latin Grammy wins at, I think, 25 trophies.
There is a diversity that comes with our socio-political status, which places us both as part (colony) of the United States and Latin America. We are neither from here nor there, and that search for an identity plays out constantly in our music. Although the majority of the Island remains largely unaware of our rich underground musical scenes, we are currently enjoying a period of great creativity and output by independent artists. Some are gaining good traction outside the Island, such as AJ Dávila in México, Buscabulla in New York City, alongside IFÉ and Orquesta El Macabeo. What remains popular in our airwaves are the reggaeton-pop hybrids, such as worldwide phenomenon “Despacito” with the likes of Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber on remixes.
Tell us about Discos Diáspora and your role within it.
As editor of PuertoRicoIndie.com I’ve been involved with the local independent scenes for almost a decade now, covering events, interviewing artists, and reviewing releases. I founded Discos Diáspora back in 2014 as a way to get more involved with independent artists and collaborate with them on limited physical releases of their music. It’s pretty much a one person operation, although I do get help from friends and family from time to time. I also design most of the packaging and artwork from the label. My goal was to get a core group of collectors excited about regular music releases coming from our independent or underground scenes.
Talk to us about the importance of the word ‘diaspora’ to you, is this to do with the philosophy of the label?
Puerto Rico is currently mired in deep economic woes. I won’t get into the causes here, but these have resulted in a large chunk of the population leaving the Island in a search for better job opportunities and quality of life either stateside or around the world. It is not the first time Puerto Rico has experience this type of migration, but it is indeed pronounced and worrisome to economists (and the families that end up separated, of course).
So Discos Diáspora seemed like a fitting name to acknowledge in part that we may be spreading out, but this music might unite us, no matter where you end up in the world. It also recognises that some of our artists on the label like Lola Pistola and Buscabulla are part of the Puerto Rican diaspora, having established themselves outside of the island. And finally the name recognises that there is not one single unified musical scene on the Island, and we want to be able to promote music from all of them, independent of genre or style or format or whatever.
For your five year anniversary, in 2014, you put out a Ricky Martin covers album by bands from your scene – how did that idea come about?
The Indie Martin album was a way to bridge the divide between popular music and independent artists. We all grew up listening to Ricky’s hits on the radio, so it seemed like a good unifying concept or starting point for a compilation that features new voices and emerging artists. Plus, audiences love cover versions, and it’s also a fun, satisfying, and challenging exercise for musicians who might otherwise shy away from pop forms. I love the results of that project and still regularly listen to it.
Who are the key local acts we should be listening to right now? A set of 5-10 tracks from local acts and a few words about them would be perfect.
This is always the toughest question. Here goes my best try (just for today, and off the top of my head):
AJ was almost single-handedly responsible for putting Puerto Rico on the garage-rock map with his previous project, Dávila 666. He recently moved to México where he has just released his third solo record and is playing a bunch of big summer festivals. The last track on the record (also the name of the record itself), ‘El Futuro’, is a dark peak inside AJ’s mind, but also bodes well for his future as a pop-rock slinger.
‘Un cuarto más pequeño’ is one of the highlights on Alegría Rampante’s debut. The band is singer Eduardo Alegría’s second big indie rock outing, after his previous band, Superaquello, helped give birth to the current scene.
Sexy and sultry, full of attitude and style: Buscabulla are making waves all throughout the latin alternative music scene. With a couple of EPs to their name they have become torchbearers for the Puerto Rican diaspora and true influencers. The best thing about them is that they are just getting started.
Campo-Formio are by far the most impressive post-punk trio I’ve ever heard. They blow most bands offstage –I swear I’ve seen members of way more established bands from abroad cry after having them open for them. Intense, progressive, fun, funny, aggressive, weird, and challenging… I can’t wait for their new record to come out!
Producer Mark Underwood, known locally as DJ Nature and now as Otura Mun, became an Ifá priest in the Yoruba religion before embarking on this spectacular new musical project that borrows from traditional afro-caribbean influences while thrusting them into the future.
Los Wálters are a dance group who are gaining in popularity here in Puerto Rico against all odds. Their last record, Isla Disco, is their best yet. Perfect for road trips to the beach and late night hookups.
Also shoutouts to Orquesta El Macabeo, Fofé y Los Fetiches, International Dub Ambassadors, Las Abejas, MIMA, Macha Colón y Los Okapi, Balún, Sr. Langosta, Baba Gris, Fantasmes, Los Manglers, Los Vigilantes, Los Pepiniyoz, Zafakón, Fullminator, Clarias, Robertito Chong, Velcro, Tropiezo, Juventud Crasa, Los Bronson, and many, many more.
What’s the live music scene/nightlife like?
Nowadays there are plenty of intimate shows to go to during weekends and even some weekdays, even if the scene remains small and venues are scarce. La Respuesta is one of the best known venues in Santurce, which is billed as San Juan’s art district, and can fit a few hundred people. It regularly books hip-hop, indie rock, and metal shows with bands from both the local scene and other parts of the world. There’s also El Local in Santurce, where you can listen to the newest bands begin to shape their sound and develop a stage presence. Club 77 in Río Piedras, a few steps removed from the University of Puerto Rico campus, regularly schedules punk and garage shows. There are a handful of venues outside of San Juan that help flesh out the local circuit as well.
For anyone visiting, what should they see and what should they eat and drink?
I hate to be boring and say “mofongo”, but you gotta do it. You can order it almost anywhere and it’s hard to fuck up (just ask the staff how’s the plantain before ordering). There are all sorts of creative restaurants and fun food trucks popping up in San Juan and all around. It’s a good time to dine out, I’d say. Just explore and ask around on the street for recommendations, or you can walk around Viejo San Juan, La Placita in Santurce or Loíza Street in Condado. I’m not drinking these days, so it’s hard for me to recommend much, but a good friend says that the best cocktails in San Juan are served at Bar La Unidad, La Factoría, and Jungle Bird.
What one song, past or present, sums up your country best?
Right now I’d say that Alegría Rampante’s ‘Alucinando Al Máximo’, the latest single off their debut Se Nos Fue La Mano. It works as a bold statement of purpose in challenging times – we are sort of partying off the cliff, so to speak. That masterful record as a whole is a knowing peak inside the Puerto Rican psyche and lore, without losing humor and hope.
What are the biggest challenges faced by musicians in Puerto Rico?
Lack of access. Our musicians are some of the best in the world, but getting played on the radio is next to impossible, and local media outlets are also not interested enough to give them the regular coverage they deserve, be it on TV or print. Of course there’s the Internet, and most of them are heavily into self-promotion using social networks, streaming services and the like. But the local industry is mostly closed-off to new talent and there seems to be very little local interest from government, media, promoters and other parties involved in developing our artistic class – which could and should be one of our top exports. There’s also a lack of self-worth that permeates our culture that has to be bested (part of living in a colony). What better way to do it than with the help of our musicians?