Earlier this week New York songwriter, Alynda Segarra released her tenth record under the name Hurray For The Riff Raff titled The Navigator. It’s only been out for a little over a week and already serves as the redefinition of what Americana music is. Segarra comes into a mature stride on her latest release that blends all types of American music from 50’s pop to outlaw country and even takes ques from contemporary greats like Neko Case and Wilco. At this point, her sound has been able to evolve and mold into something that belongs only to her and yet, belongs to all of her fans.
So what is Americana music? If you look it up on Wikipedia, it’s defined as “an amalgam of American folk music formed by the confluence of the shared and varied traditions that make up the musical ethos of the United States; specifically, those sounds that are merged from folk, country, blues, rhythm and blues, rock and roll and other external influences”. That definition is about spot on to how I would define it but what peaks my interest about it is the last three words. What are those “other external influences”? I believe Hurray For The Riff Raff’s The Navigator sets out to answer that question.
On the Rican Beach and the title track, Segarra uses Puerto Rican rhythms and even opens the track in Spanish. “Where will all my people go, the navigator wants to know” Segarra sings and it’s assumed she’s speaking on the subject of deporting immigrants. Now in case you haven’t noticed, Spanish speaking people make up about 13% of the United States’ population. I think it’s safe to say that part of their history has become part of ours. If there’s going to be a genre that celebrates all aspects of America, then Spanish speaking culture needs to be included in that.
The same should be said for feminist movements which tracks three and five, Hungry Ghost and Nothing’s Gonna Change That Girl, touche on. Sexual revolution has been a part of our social commentary since the 1910’s and it’s weird that most folk acts stray away from it as a subject. I think a lot of people believe Americana music is supposed to be this neo-conservative movement where we pretend it’s the 30’s and being a migrant worker is the most relevant thing to talk about. This is dead end for artists when they want to sound like older music instead of just taking influence from it.
With that said, Americana should celebrate our historic roots as well as address the state of our nation today, Hurray For The Riff Raff has done a marvelous job of capturing that concept by speaking on deportation, urban living, and feminism over the backdrop of traditional song structures.
As far as favorite tracks go, it’s hard to choose one because they’re all great. Because I’m a sucker for old country music though, I’m going to go with Life to Save. The track follows in the footsteps of other great country songs that are supposed to be “three chords and the truth” as Harlan Howard said. Rather than singing about current events, the song takes on a more biographical tone as Segarra croons about her family and upbringing in the Puerto Rican Bronx. There’s a story teller element in the delivery that gives Hurray For The Riff Raff a personal touch.
So to bring things full circle and to an end, what is Americana music? For some, it’s a celebration of our roots; a break from what’s happening now so that we can look at the past a little deeper. But where do we go from there, how do we improve the genre? Perhaps creating new traditions by opening up a dialogue and looking towards some external influences like on Hurray for the Riff Raff’s The Navigator.
Click the link to see the video for Hungry Ghost.
– By Mike Metcalf