Shipwreck Songs

When Fito Paez arrived in the United States for the first time in 1989, the police at the airport gave him a thorough workover. “I didn't have the right look to get in,” remembers the gangly, long-haired singer currently in Miami to record a new disc. Laughing, he adds, “I still don't.” Ever irreverent, the rocker with a penchant for outlandish dress made his scheduled appearance completely drunk at the Warner record label's showcase for new artists. “It went really badly,” he says, “but I guess the records were okay because they kept me under contract.” Eleven years later, Paez continues to approach Yanquilandia on his own terms. With two Latin Grammys in his pocket (for Best Male Rock Vocalist and Best Rock Song), he embarks this fall on his most extensive U.S. tour to date, hitting eight cities to promote his latest release Abre (Open).

“It seems like the industry wants a boom in what they are calling Latin music,” says Paez of what he considers his surprising success at the Latin Grammys. “But the industry is directed by chance,” he continues. “It depends on things that you have no control over. I keep trying to be genuine. To make music and to defend it to the death.” Paez is less interested in arbitrary accolades than he is in the opportunity to reach new audiences. “It's always fun to play where nobody knows who you are,” he says. “It's more of an adventure.”

Born in the industrial city of Rosario, Argentina, the 37-year-old considers himself something of a gypsy. “My home is wherever I sleep tonight,” he explains. This nomadic nature applies to his world view as well. “My philosophy is permanently moving,” says the rosarino. “The most sacred thing is to live, up to a certain point, without rules. To not feel yourself tied down in any way. One day you align yourself with this idea, and then the next you see things another way.”

This philosophy-on-the-move motivates Abre, subtitled Pequeña Teoria Sobre el Fin de la Razón (A Small Theory on the End of Reason). Paez has always been a confessional songwriter, beginning with From 1963, his 1984 debut album named for the year of his birth, on through 1987's City of Impoverished Hearts, dedicated to his grandmother and aunt, who were killed by an armed robber in Rosario. With Abre, Paez takes to the extreme the habit common in his homeland of equating oneself with one's country, equating himself with various countries he has known and loved.

In a flat, almost monotone melody reminiscent of the title track of From 1963, Paez recites the history of Argentina in “La Casa Desaparecida” (“The Disappeared House”). The song opens with a young soldier asking his mother to pin him with the medals he won after losing his legs in the doomed Malvinas (Falklands) War. The military junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 through 1983 launched that cynical campaign as a last-ditch effort to stay in power. In a self-decreed Process of National Reorganization, that dictatorship broke the back of the powerful workers movements that dominated the nation throughout the Twentieth Century, from Italian anarchism to fascist Perónism to fanatic Marxism. Clandestinely abducting and torturing all perceived enemies, the regime “disappeared” an estimated 30,000 citizens in seven years and cleared the way for the full-frontal globalization of the Argentine economy. Himself a member of the Malvinas generation, Paez grew up under one dictatorship after another amid a swirl of contradictory slogans.

Over a spare, relentless pulse, accented on the upbeat as a kind of suspended march, Paez speaks of the bloody conflict Argentines have long represented as a battle between civilization and barbarity. At the “end of reason,” the dictators showed how easily civilization can serve as an excuse for barbarous acts. “Argentines, Argentines/What is our destiny, my friend?” sings Paez plaintively. “Argentines/No one knows how to respond,” he admits. The answer, in his ever-changing philosophy, is not to answer to any dogma that would categorize people as heroes and enemies. “Argentines, Argentines,” he continues, offering hope, “walking always off the beaten path/That is the advantage of not belonging.”

“Walking Off the Beaten Path” (“Al Lado del Camino”) is the cut that earned the Latin Grammy for Best Rock Song. Historically Argentina is off the beaten path of European development but also, according to many citizens, off the path followed by the rest of Latin America. Personally Paez is guided by a sense of the absurdity of life and any attempt to fit the ebb and flow of existence into a neat doctrine. In his trademark, nearly spoken singsong voice, Paez expounds on his personal embrace of the absurd: “I like to open my eyes and to be alive/To have to see things with a hangover/Then it's necessary to navigate/In boats that burst into nothing.”

Argentina is not the exclusive territory of the senseless in Paez's small philosophy. Shortly after the murder of his beloved relatives, the singer made his first trip to Cuba, where he met legendary troubadour Pablo Milanes. “I had suffered a terrible loss,” recalls Paez, “and Pablito Milanes treated me like a king. Since then, I've gone back every year. Cubans are beaten down but loved,” he explains. “It's a very melancholy city that has had a really hard life, but it's very vital. To walk along the Malecón,” rhapsodizes the Argentine. “To go hear El Tosco [Juan Luis Cortes, director of NG La Banda] play at Café Cantante. To play in the Karlos Marx [Theater]. To pass the night with Pablito Milanes or to hear Silvio Rodriguez play a new song for you. To go see the women in Old Havana. To stay up all night in marvelous Havana.”

Abre contains a love song to Havana that depicts the city as an emblem for Paez's philosophy of the absurd. A bolero with what for Paez is an exceptionally lilting melody, “Habana” depicts the desperation of the rafters fleeing the island and the singer's solace in his visits there as specific examples of the abstract ideas he presents in “Off the Beaten Path.” A trumpet softly plays an inverted echo of the melody as Paez sings: “Oh, the insanity of those who got lost in the sea/The lives broken by blood from here and there/I don't need anything today/Just to soak myself in your rum/And so lose reason.”

Reason dictates who belongs and who does not belong in Cuba, Argentina, and the United States, at times even to the point of death. The loss of reason to pleasure -- whether it be through alcohol, sex, music, or dance -- promises the salvation of the absurd. There is no dogma that matters more than happiness. “So much hatred, so much love, so many things,” sings Paez in a gentle duet with the horn. “I only want to shipwreck/I only want to shipwreck/Between the tango, the son, and mambo.”

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Celeste Fraser Delgado