Mala, Devendra Banhart
Nonesuch Records, USA
by Carlos Reyes
The white savior complex is far from being a popular topic of discussion on Latin music forums, but when hipsters get together, it seems like no one is indifferent to the subject. “I am Venezuelan. Do I represent Venezuelans? I don’t know…I can barely represent myself.” Although Devendra Banhart carries Venezuelan blood and lived his formative years in that country, the general perception (at least from those in Latin America) is that he is still an outsider (some people are still resistant to the idea of Manu Chao being one of us, and others doubt of Ry Cooder's intentions). It’s a conformist, unfair, and anti-integrationist reading of an artist who clearly carries his identity on his sleeve.
Banhart isn’t being accused of a complete cultural appropriation, but is indicted for contributing to the exoticism of cultures (the fact that he also happens to symbolize Los Angeles’ boiling-pot society adds to the fire). When you hear the name Carmensita, does the image of Natalie Portman playing a Bollywood princess come to mind? While the allegations make up for a rich cultural debate, it’s easy to dismiss such opinions by simply listening to his records. Banhart is far from a gimmick. Mala, his eighth studio album is so thematically deep and sonically enduring to distill any skepticism. Sounding ambrosial in barebone acoustics (“Daniel”) or plainly twee in strummed melodies (“Your Fine Petting Duck”), Mala feels like the work of an experienced artist who has acquired cosmopolitanism through the arts.
By now we’ve come to expect Banhart singing in Spanish at least on one track of his albums. And they usually turn eventful. Such is the case here with the lovely “Mi Negrita.” It’s an unconscious habit, but Banhart always puts on his crooner voice whenever he sings in Spanish. It’s not a pose, it’s a loving way to show respect to his identity, an identity he can grasp and contribute to through either bolero or Americana. The song is also a great companion to Banhart’s recent collaborations with Natalia Lafourcade and Adanowsky. You can’t say the man isn’t trying to get more involved with our soundscape. Mala might not be Banhart’s strongest hour, but it’s easily his most respected work yet. He’s no longer filling the freak folk quota at your local artwalk or the young man putting a magnifying lense to his roots. When Banhart sings “you’re a young man on a dancefloor,” it all becomes clear—Mala is disambiguated and beyond earnest.