Rita Indiana’s Songs for the Apocalypse

On her new album, the Dominican musician and novelist transforms this miserable moment into something defiant and danceable.

By Daniel Alarcón

October 19, 2020

Indiana stands in front of seamless.

She was dubbed La Montra (the Monster) for her outsized talent, but Indiana embraces every connotation of the word.Photograph by Christopher Gregory-Rivera for The New Yorker

If I close my eyes and concentrate, I can recall what it felt like to go days at a time without considering the end of the world. Now these thoughts are constant, the thrumming background noise of ordinary life, a vast and terrifyingly specific catalogue of horrors. Smoke billows across the West, submerging our cities in a murky orange twilight; more than two hundred thousand Americans die of a virus whose dangers half the country seems intent on ignoring. The world’s most powerful democracy teeters, and children sleep in cages at its southern border. We’ve submitted willingly to mass surveillance and filled the oceans with microscopic plastics; the climate refugees, it turns out, are us. It all happened so fast, or at least it feels that way, speed being an essential feature of this bewildering era we’re staggering through—the relentless, furious acceleration of it all. Surely this is part of the reason that, for the past several weeks, I’ve been listening to the Dominican novelist and musician Rita Indiana’s masterly new album, “Mandinga Times,” on repeat. The title song, which races along at a hundred and ninety beats per minute, is a frenetic, danceable soundtrack for this miserable moment, a song that transforms pain and worry into something plaintive, angry, and defiant. Not every cut maintains this rhythm, but even the quiet ones have a certain urgency. It’s no accident that Indiana calls “Mandinga Times” “a songbook for the apocalypse.”

The album, the forty-three-year-old Indiana’s first in a decade, was produced by Eduardo Cabra, of the legendary Puerto Rican band Calle 13. When Cabra first approached Indiana about a possible collaboration, several years ago, she demurred. She had left Santo Domingo and settled in San Juan, a self-imposed exile from the music industry and from a kind of fame that had drained her. She’d achieved international recognition, but her notoriety at home made daily life intolerable: she couldn’t go anywhere in Santo Domingo without being asked for autographs or selfies. In Puerto Rico, she rediscovered quiet and returned to writing, publishing three novels, including “Tentacle” (2015), a gender-bending sci-fi story set in a near-future Dominican Republic in the aftermath of an environmental catastrophe, and, most recently, “Made in Saturn” (2018), an acerbic comic novel about a flailing, drug-addled Dominican artist who is sent to dry out in Havana, so as not to embarrass his corrupt father in the middle of a political campaign.You’ve read your last complimentary article this month. Subscribe now and get a free tote.. If you’re already a subscriber sign in.Published in the print edition of the October 26, 2020, issue, with the headline “Songs for the Apocalypse.”

Daniel Alarcón is a contributing writer at The New Yorker and the executive producer of Radio Ambulante, a Spanish-language podcast distributed by NPR. He teaches at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.

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