Just like a good cut of meat that only needs salt, pepper and heat to become steak, Dilemastronauta y La Tripulación Cosmica's new record En Orbita does away everything extra to let listeners really taste the rhythm in all of subtlety—and then, just for good measure, they kick everything into overdrive.
The anchor and bandleader behind the drum kit is the Colombian-New Yorker Andres Jimenez, a stalwart of New York's hipper, tropical psych-meets-Afro-Latin scene. He can also be heard on the drums for local Afropop favorites MAKU Soundsystem, Combo Chimbita, and the futuristic Los Aliens.
To cut to the quick, Dilemastronauta is a chance to hear what Jimenez is really doing, to hear what he's normally up to behind the curtain of vocals and guitars. But that understates what happens when a gifted arranger gives himself limitations.
Jimenez, joined by Ricardo Gallo on keys, Juan Opina on bass and Isaiah Richardson Jr. on “winds,” has created something every bit as full and complete as in his other bands. Everyone here is focused on the rhythm, even playing the saxophone and other “melodic” instruments in hard percussive bursts. And a curious thing happens: the distinction between rhythm and melody blurs. When nothing is “melodic,” everything is. Dynamics become more important. Stripped down, the textures become more important, and the listener is sensitive to every choice of instrument and every change.
Take the second track, “Llora.” It starts with drums and melodica—one part Afro-Colombian, one part dancehall. But rather than staying in one pocket, the track builds into a ripping saxophone climax, the woodwind played as rhythmic as any drum, coming in hits like an agogo bell.
On “Ay China,” a grinding loop station forms the sonic haze from which a fuzzed-out Afrobeat-esque keyboard comes stalking. Like on a Fela Kuti track, the keyboard solo doesn't feel like it's leading down a melodic passage; rather it is pumping to keep you in place, in a moment that is both kinetic and still.
Different rhythms juxtapose and color each other. The cumbia grind of “La Cumbia del Astronauta” gives way to the straightforward pummeling blues of “En Tren Pa Necocil.” It highlights the latter's comparatively minimalist backbeat, one that caught the world's ear in just slight mutations that became funk, rock 'n' roll, and all of the blues' other children.
On “El Cohete,” Jimenez and the group treat themselves to a free jazz workout that builds and builds until finally snapping into place and soaring away. The spacious calm of the final track, “Mr. Poof,” alerts you that this mission into space doesn't end back on Earth; it ends among the stars.