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On '¡Ay!', the tropical music of Lucrecia Dalt's childhood becomes avant-garde sci-fi

Lucrecia Dalt has become one of modern music's most fascinating chameleons.
Pedro Nekoi for NPR
Lucrecia Dalt has become one of modern music's most fascinating chameleons.

In celebration of Latinx Heritage Month, NPR Music is spotlighting a series of artists across Latin America who are engaging with their musical heritage in unique ways. From reworking conservative genres for new eras, to teasing out modern sounds from old-school instruments, these artists represent the wide range of experimentation that makes up contemporary Latin music.

Three months ago, the experimental musician and composer Lucrecia Dalt was on the Spanish island of Mallorca licking a rock. She was filming the music video for "No Tiempo," the lead single from her new album, ¡Ay!, playing the part of Preta, an alien newly landed on planet Earth. As Dalt explains over a video call, she was licking the rock because Preta is able to sense stratigraphy with her tongue — in a way, she is able to taste geological history. At another point, Dalt dances weightlessly because Preta is "organless," moving with a slow motion grace to a winding bolero rhythm. Together, the images and music conjure a world that is sensual, surreal, sci-fi and decidedly romantic.

Today Dalt is sitting in her Berlin home studio, dressed in a comfy woolen cardigan, backed by an array of synthesizers, a gigantic bookshelf and an ominous sculpted white hand. She laughs at the absurdity of pairing what she describes as the "tropical music" that she grew up listening to in her native Colombia — bolero, salsa, merengue — with the album's alien-driven narrative. "Sometimes I read the lyrics and I'm like, 'God, this is so insane,' " Dalt says. "Other times, people ask me what the lyrics [all sung in Spanish] mean and I'm like, 'Preta is channeling time through her glandular gate.' It feels bizarre that I'm saying that in the context of a bolero song but, at the same time, it feels right."

Dalt has become one of modern music's most fascinating chameleons. Across a series of albums released since 2005, the musician has occupied many forms, from creator of off-kilter indie pop (released under alias The Sound of Lucrecia) to purveyor of esoteric Colombian field recordings. A pair of records on Human Ear Music solidified an avant-electronic sound before her move to New York-based label, RVNG Intl. prompted more reinvention — spoken word poetry on 2018's Anticlines, atmospheric horror on 2020's No Era Sólida. On ¡Ay!, which translates as "Oh!," Dalt has recorded her most dramatic transformation yet: an album of lushly arranged "bolero sci-fi," one that fuses tropical music, jazz and electronics but which — she makes clear — is no "fusion" record.

Dalt has been thinking about ¡Ay! for many years. The Berlin-based musician summoned the "memory of rhythms" from her Colombian upbringing rather than precise, studied recreations. She started writing as the pandemic began in the spring of 2020, a period following some of the busiest months of her life. She had recently wrapped up work with an orchestra in Chicago, recorded a collaborative album with Wolf Eyes' Aaron Dilloway, and produced material for an art installation at the Museum of Modern Art of Medellín in Colombia, all while recording and touring No Era Sólida. The musician was possessed by an "eruption of wild, creative energy," but when the virus arrived she was forced to slow down. It felt like the right moment, Dalt says, to pursue an album of tropical rhythms that would eventually require "very patient studio time." Each day the Colombian sat at her keyboard, listening, reflecting, and playing the music of her childhood. "I had more of this introspective time," she says. "I was slowly analyzing tracks and thinking, 'What is happening with this progression? Why does it generate this feeling of longing within me?' "

Like so many people who experienced the pang of homesickness during lockdown, Dalt sought comfort in the music of her past. "You look at those memories in a different way, through the lens of nostalgia," Dalt says. "I was here, they were there." The emotional thrust of music from artists La Sonora Matancera, José A. Méndez and La Lupe became intertwined with Dalt's recollections of the place she most associated with the music, her family home in Pereira, a city high in the Colombian mountains.

"The best way for me to describe it would be the memory of cozy meetings at home with my uncles, the family gathering and talking. The music was just there — very present," Dalt says. Her grandfather played maracas and sang; Dalt's mother played guitar. In a broader sense, she says, "Music was encouraged but it wasn't imposed ... I always thought of it as something fun."

You can hear a playful sensibility rise to the surface of ¡Ay!, not just in its delightfully absurdist story of an alien, but the arrangements themselves. On "Bochinche" ("The Mess" in English), amid a tremulous organ and a salsa beat performed by longtime collaborator Alex Lázaro, Dalt sings of Preta the alien inhabiting a corporeal form, perhaps for the first time, "Oh how nice / Oh how great / A hand / In my hair." As Dalt croons with poise and a wonderful sense of comedic timing, a spritely trumpet played by Lina Allemano parps into life. "It was so funny to see this excessively experimental jazz player doing such a silly melody," Dalt jokes. "Her making faces as she's doing it and us enjoying it, of course."

Despite springing from a place of melancholy, the tone of ¡Ay! could hardly be considered sad. Often it sounds as if Dalt is simply having too much fun experimenting with music, not only incorporating the metallic stabs of her Prophet 6 synthesizer into downtempo rhythms of South America, but stretching her vocals around traditional song structures. Melodies often fold back on themselves, as on "Dicen," in which Dalt relays the village rumors circulating about Preta. "She thinks she's the Circe of Aeaea ... / She crawls around and licks it all up," Dalt sings as a mournful trumpet pipes alongside her. When it arrives, the Colombian's breathy exhalation of the closing phrase, "So 'dada'," lands like a musical punchline.

While Dalt's sound has shifted profoundly, her lyrics repeatedly return to time, earth and the limits of human perception — the hallmarks of her work for a number of years now. But where there was a clinical, almost scientific nature to earlier contemplations, as if Dalt occupied the space between her former profession as a geotechnical engineer and current career as a musician, on ¡Ay!, her voice is altogether richer and full-blooded. Even on "El Galatzó," in which Dalt returns to spoken word, the aural quality of the words feels just as important as their meaning. "Now I know how it feels / to have cubic miles of rippling water in my peripheral / vision," she recites as if performing a soliloquy, backed by Isabel Rößler's flickering double bass.

Preta is the product of conversations with Miguel Prado, a U.K.-based philosopher, with whom Dalt struck up a friendship with in 2021 over Twitter. "We ended up talking about the idea consciousness quite a bit," Dalt says. "How limited our knowledge is, and even where it can be located. That idea triggered the existence of Preta as this pure consciousness entity that can't be contained within our human body." For Dalt, the album's alien protagonist represented an opportunity to expand the romantic, Latin genres she's mining. "Bolero music, and all of this [tropical] music, is about love," she continues. "I thought, 'Okay, maybe Preta can bring some kind of idea about love that is more eternal. How can I play with that in a way so that it feels as if it's still embedded in the romanticism of bolero without being explicit?' "

"Why not put these two things that have nothing to do with one another next to each other and see what happens?" Dalt asks of these genres and such cosmic ideas. On the one hand, "sci-fi looking out but also looking inwards," Dalt says. On the other, the big emotions of bolero — sorrow, compassion, intimacy and eroticism. The relationship between the two elements of ¡Ay! has only flourished since its recording, becoming even further "entwined" during the development of the live show alongside choreographer Yalda Younes. As Dalt says laughing, seemingly reveling in blurring the boundaries between reality and performance, tradition and the avant-garde, "Preta has really gotten into bolero dancing."

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