Between now and the time this interview was completed, the world has seemingly fallen apart. America is in shambles following the severe destruction of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida. The possibility of nuclear war with North Korea inches closer to reality. Approximately 800,000 immigrants now face imminent deportation following President Donald Trump’s order to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program here in the United States. And the death toll continues to rise in southern Mexico after an 8.1-magnitude earthquake struck just off the coast.
We live in volatile, unpredictable times — and it’s exactly that kind of uncertainty that drives Jei Beibi, the latest release from Mexico’s alternative rock icons Café Tacvba.
Jei Beibi, its title a Spanglish pun pronounced “Hey Baby,” is the band’s eighth full-length album and its first in five years. On it, the quartet tackle all sorts of heavy, real-life themes: fate and faith, newfound parenthood and the everyday stress of the current sociopolitical climate.
“This album is a product of what we are, what we see,” says guitarist/keyboardist Emmanuel “Meme” del Real, one of the band's original members. “In Mexico, it’s really hard and a really tough moment: the insecurity, the corruption. And all those things bring not a literal idea [but] it brings some energy to the band, to each one of us. We are creating in the middle of that.”
Café Tacvba openly lay out these insecurities front and center on “Futuro” (“Future”), an album single released this past New Year’s Day, just weeks ahead of Trump’s inauguration. The track’s brooding lyrics question human existence and predetermined fates (“At the end it does not matter/It’s something God already decided”) and the ache of debilitating worry about an unforeseeable future.
Despite the heavy lyrics, the song’s official video — which features a surreal cast including a miniskirt-wearing Trump and a guitar-wielding priest, flying through space on a magical bus — is a hilarious satire meant to convey “humanity in its current state,” vocalist and frontman Rubén Albarrán told Rolling Stone.
Like the song, the music video dissects the serious through the silly, and addresses social and political issues via musical irreverence. It’s a practice Café Tacvba have observed since first forming in 1989 and continue on Jei Beibi, as heard on the album’s opening track, “1-2-3.” Disguised behind an innocent and catchy pop melody, the song strongly alludes to the disappearance, and presumed mass killing, of 43 students in southwestern Mexico three years ago this month.
Still, del Real maintains that Jei Beibi is not directly a political album.
“There is some [political] presence a bit, but it’s more a reflection of where we are now and what is going on in our present and in our inner circles [and] family circles,” he says. “Those things [are] detonated by our surroundings and by the country we’re living in. It doesn’t have a political, literal message.”
Instead, he offers, Jei Beibi mostly deals with the very real, very poignant experience of growing old. After almost three decades together as Café Tacvba, the members of the group are in or nearing their 50s. Their self-titled debut album celebrated the 25-year milestone this past July. Aging and passing time, thus, are on the band members' minds, and it’s almost palpable on album track “El Mundo en Que Nací” (“The World I Was Born In”), a soothing lullaby del Real penned for his two kids.
“I believe it’s an album that represents the band’s age … but a band that changed its structure and tried to change the way of thinking and approach to [the present industry] and the system,” del Real says.
In the ’90s, Café Tacvba helped define and popularize the rock en español scene, an international movement across the wider Latin American world that saw artists mixing rock music with traditional, regional and folkloric elements of their homelands. Café Tacvba solidified Mexico’s role in the burgeoning genre with their seminal 1994 album Re, on which they pioneered a new sound built on experimentation and regional styles including bolero, ranchera, norteño, huapango and banda. Dubbed “the equivalent of The Beatles’ White Album for the rock en español movement” by The New York Times, Re is widely considered to be one of the best Latin American albums of all time.
The rock en español movement took off in the United States, particularly here in Los Angeles, a sanctuary city and a final destination shared by many immigrants from neighboring Mexico. The genre birthed a thriving local underground scene across the Greater L.A. area, with bands like Pastilla, Rascuache and Las 15 Letras making an impact.
For first-generation Latinos, rock en español welcomed a cultural duality: the native sounds of their parents’ music married to the modern rock world. Through albums like Re and bands like Café Tacvba, Latino youngsters kept one foot in their motherland and the other firmly planted on American soil.
Albarrán, the band’s singer, does notice a “melancholic ingredient” among Latino fans at Café Tacvba shows in the U.S. The band's music, he tells Rolling Stone, connects fans in their Stateside home to their faraway native lands.
Now, as a Mexican band touring Trump’s America, Café Tacvba have a firsthand view of just how their audience's dynamics have shifted over the years. “I think the energy of the shows [is] becoming a little bit more intense,” says del Real, “and that’s a good thing. We are helping to get some energy or some rage and transform it into a celebration.”
Here in L.A. this month, Café Tacvba are building a cultural bridge between this city and their native Mexico as part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, a wide-ranging art initiative led by the Getty, aimed at creating a dialogue about Latin American and Latino art citywide. The band officially kick off the musical portion of the series with a headlining show at the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday, Sept. 17, one day after Mexican Independence Day. Next month, Café Tacvba head to Walt Disney Concert Hall as part of the CDMX festival, which explores the diverse music scene of Mexico City. There, they’ll join the Los Angeles Philharmonic and its music director, Gustavo Dudamel, for their first performance with an orchestra.
For all its seriousness and allusions to doom and gloom, Jei Beibi concludes with the uplifting “Celebración” (“Celebration”), in which Albarrán sings, “We are waiting for you/The people are already in place/Let’s get ready/This is about to start.” It’s a veiled political rallying cry. Or an invitation to the international dance floor. Or both. They leave the song, much like the album’s overarching message, open to interpretation.
Cafe Tacvba’s Jei Beibi is out now. The band perform at the Hollywood Bowl Sunday, Sept. 17, with La Santa Cecilia and Mon Laferte as part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA and on Sunday, Oct. 15, at Walt Disney Concert Hall with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic as part of the CDMX festival.