‘Pa’lante’ from The Navigator by Hurray for the Riff Raff
If we drifted upwards and onwards through the ‘Lunar Days’ of The Clientele in 2017 then here, as we settle down in preparation for Christmas and wind up our Unpopular advent for another year, the thrust is most definitely onwards, onwards, onwards. At least this, I am reliably informed by the Interwebs, is the rough translation of ‘Pa’lante’, the song by Hurray For The Riff Riff which has been my touchstone for much of 2017; the song I keep coming back to; the song that takes me higher and deeper than any other.
Like many other artists in this advent series, Hurray For The Riff Raf were new to me in 2017, and whilst I very much enjoyed unearthing Alynda Segarra’s previous work it was to The Navigator set that I kept returning, convinced that whilst there is much in the likes of Look Out Mama, My Darkest Neighbour, Small Town Heroes, Young Blood Blues and It Don’t Mean I Don’t Love You (highlights from these last two – or first two – collected on the ‘eponymous’ Hurray For The Riff Raff) to treasure there remains a sense that, ten years into her career as a singer/songwriter, it is on Navigator that Segarra has most profoundly and wonderfully found her voice. The Navigator is expansive and adventurous. It is a record that explores Segarra’s personal roots and which necessarily weaves around notions of personal identity within contexts set by geography and history. I cannot help but hear Kevin Rowland’s cry that his “national pride is a personal pride” in this record, and that is surely no bad thing. I am put in mind too of Joan Armatrading, whose early albums Segarra brings to mind on Navigator. Not just in that marvellous voice but also in the determinedly warm essence with which she cloaks her songs. Remember that old Saint Etienne/George Pelecanos notion of soft yet strong? Something like that. And do you remember that idea of Pop not being best placed to deal with complexities due to its essential short-form medium, and how we thought that The Granite Shore proved lie to that with Nick Halliwell’s extraordinarily detailed conceits of theatrical ambition? Well, something like that too.
The theatrical concept is key here, for it is the structure through which Segarra uses The Navigator as a means of exploring her Puerto Rican/New York/East Harlem axis of identity and it emerges as a stunningly prescient commentary/anticipator of contemporary history. There was something chillingly apt about spinning songs like ‘Rican Beach’, ‘Hungry Ghost’ and especially ‘Pa’lante’ in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s grotesque comments after Hurricane Maria. On ‘Hungry Ghost’ Segarra heartbreakingly sings “When will you help me out? You can’t even pick me out from the crowd”, yet it is a line delivered with a knife-sharp steely edge you would not want to be on the receiving end of.
It is to ‘Pa’lante’ that I am endlessly, tirelessly, hypnotically drawn however. Over it’s nigh-on six minutes the song majestically progresses in a series of movements. Sublime, almost resigned sorrow (funereal piano notes accompany Segarra’s isolated vocal) gives way to a hardening of tone announced by ‘Marquee Moon’ style hesitations and chords pronounced with sombre strength. Thunder rumbles. Lightning crackles. An interlude of poetry (‘Puerto Rican Obituary’ by Pedro Pietri lifted from the El Pueblo Se Levanta documentary) now punctuates the song before we enter the final movement where, over a swelling chorus of piano, strings and inter-twined voices Segarra says, time and time again “Pa’lante!” to numerous characters from the cast. Real, imagined, past present and probably future (a notion which mirrors Pietri’s words “All died yesterday today and will die again tomorrow”). It is profoundly moving. Extraordinarily stirring. It is a song that both holds a mirror to the times and which informs and colours the moments reflected.
And so we look forward even as we glance back. We glimpse the past as we strive onwards to the future. ‘Pa’lante!’ indeed.