Chancletas y Camisetas Bordada, Los Rakas
Soy Raka LLC, Panama
by Carlos Reyes
In last year’s video for “Soy Raka,” Panamanian sensation Los Rakas rolled their Afro-Caribbean mojo through the streets of Oakland, shouting loud and proud to the bursting pulse of their self-assuring anthem. In the middle of that video, they stopped by a Mexican vaquero wear shop where, immediately after entering the building, they paused the turfing beat shower to honor the Mexican song playing on the shop’s speakers. This is the kind of genuine gesture that has situated the duo as one of the most beloved acts in the current wave of cosmopolitan urbanism that includes M.I.A., Systema Solar, and The Very Best.
Under the appealing premise of putting a Panabay twist on hip hop, and after acquiring zeitgeist laurels with “Soy Raka” and “Abrazame” last year, Los Rakas have released their very first proper reference in the seven-track EP, Chancletas y Camisetas Bordadas. Self-released and wonderfully self-assured, we’re in front of one of the year’s most eventful and accomplished urban albums. Los Rakas sing about family business, panties, and national and circumstantial identity in what they’ve rightfully classified as “El Flow Californiano.” Like in the best intros of any Tego Calderon album, the duo opens the show with the self-introducing manifesto, “Vengo de Panama.” This piece is an ode to the land that witnessed the birth of two guys with a fascinating skill at punctuating beats and a clear-minded dexterity at accentuating rhythm.
After a quite moving introduction, the pair takes its chances moving their personal agenda to the dancefloor. In “Panty Wanty” and “Borracho” they boost the temperature to the highest degree, sounding effervescent, if only because of their idiosyncratic delivery. In the former track the cousins find themselves filling melody lines with an over toned “tra tra tra” sequence that’s more suggestive than definite, while in the latter they go on to reference Match & Daddy’s “Pasame La Botella” in a fun, yet ultimately ludicrous, fashion. After a two-track walk on a tightrope, they pick things up with the terrific “Ta Lista,” and, from that point on, Chancletas y Camisetas goes on to break its own purpose in surprising numbers that go beyond the common dancehall record. The should-be-all-over-MTV3 single “Ta Lista” is especially intriguing because of its fragmented depths and hinting disco strings. Also terrific is the instrumentally bundled and delightfully folkloric “Camisetas Borda.”
Throughout the album, the topic of family and neighborhood legacy prevails as Los Rakas’ most proficient theme, which makes me realize this is the kind of record that transcends beyond its actual artistic core. For me, it's the moment when your 13-year-old niece asks if mainstream Latin music is as lame as FM radio makes it seem. As semi-responsible adults, we should always aim for allowing our youth to formulate their own conclusions (for one, because of the generational switch), but between you and I, I felt like congratulating her for realizing that so early in life. We might not have the all-comprehensive tools needed for a Latin airplay reform, but it’s artists like Los Rakas that make us hopeful. Not to say Los Rakas have lost their underground status, but not since Calle 13’s beginnings has an urban act received such approval from all corners of the artistic medium. Because when it comes to Los Rakas, they are as alternative, eclectic, and viscerally majestic as they come.