With her namesake band, Ani Cordero finds a way to connect her Puerto Rican roots and her punk-rock passions
Some days, when she’s hanging out with her indie-rock friends, Ani Cordero does most of her thinking in English. Other days, when she’s visiting with family members, her Puerto Rican roots assert themselves and she finds herself thinking in Spanish.
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Cordero, singer-guitarist for the Brooklyn band Cordero, writes about half of her songs in each language, and she sees the language choice as anything but a choice. It’s purely a matter of instinct.
“You don’t decide what language you’re going to dream in, and it’s sort of the same with songs for me,” Cordero says. “It’s just a little thing that comes into your head and you just notice it.”
Cordero didn’t always feel so secure about her bilingual creative impulses. In 1999, she moved from her hometown of Atlanta to Tucson, Arizona, and dedicated herself to learning the guitar and writing songs. In only six months there, she befriended Tucson’s most respected musical figures, Howe Gelb of Giant Sand and Joey Burns of Calexico, and recorded a demo of her first batch of songs with them.
One of Cordero’s songs from this period, “Mia,” was a Spanish-language homage to the daughter of the drummer who played on the recordings. But Cordero, not sure how a Spanish song fit into her nascent musical vision, declined to include the song among the demos she cut in Tucson. “`My friend` said, ‘That’s such a great song. Why didn’t you record it?’ I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know. It didn’t seem like it was indie rock, or something.’ She said that was dumb and I realized she was right and that I shouldn’t worry about that.”
Cordero’s hesitation is understandable because of the tightrope she’s walked for much of her life between two cultures and two musical sensibilities. As a child in what she describes as one of only a handful of Puerto Rican families in Atlanta, she grew up surrounded by percussive Latin music. “All my family plays music, so it was a big part of life and any celebration, as in most Puerto Rican households.”
In her early teens, she began to venture out with friends to Atlanta’s punk clubs and became enthralled with underground rock. Soon afterward, she learned to play the drums, and became a fixture on the city’s music scene. She toured with former Velvet Underground drummer Moe Tucker (a transplanted Georgian), played with a promising band called Number One Family Mover, and even donned silver plastic pants for a brief gig in the Gamma Clones, a group created by space-alien rockers, Man Or Astroman?, with the conceit that they were Man Or Astroman?’s female clones (the group also constructed a male-clone version of itself).
“In that year, there were three bands touring as Man or Astroman?,” Cordero recalls with a laugh. “Occasionally, we would see the boy clones in a certain city and we’d play pranks on each other. It was a really fun job.” She adds that the Gamma Clones played Man Or Astroman?’s material “faster and harder, more punk rock,” than the band they were aping. “We had more to prove, I think.”
Cordero’s stint in the Gamma Clones marked the last time she would be hidden onstage behind a drum kit. Soon afterward, she moved to Tucson for a “sabbatical,” deciding that after 20 years in Atlanta, she needed to find a place where she could woodshed without scrutiny. “Everybody `in Atlanta` knew me and had an idea about what kind of music I do, and I just wanted to try a new beginning,” she says. “Also, I needed a place with cheap rent and to be able to not work, and play guitar.”
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Cordero took her Tucson demo to New York and used it to secure club gigs and find bandmates. Her most important hookup — personally and professionally — was with former Rock*A*Teens drummer Chris Verene (notice the central role that drummers have played in her life?), who ably handled the intricate rhythmic shifts of her new music, and eventually became her husband. In comparing drumming techniques, Cordero calls Verene a frenetic Keith Moon to her steady Charlie Watts. “I’m incredibly lucky that he’s such a bad-ass drummer,” she says. “He’s really one of my favorites. And I’m a drummer, so I’m picky.”
The group’s third studio album, En Este Momento (their first for alterna-roots label Bloodshot Records), finds them adding muscle and confidence to the mix of Latin rhythms and indie-rock textures they explored on previous releases Lamb Lost in the City and Somos Cordero. Cordero’s state-of-the-union title song bemoans the Bush era in Spanish, set to a thunderous rock underpinning. By contrast, “Heart in Me,” appropriates a salsa groove and bathes her rich voice in trumpet, yet delivers its message in English.
“We have diversity in our crowd,” Cordero says. “People who wouldn’t ordinarily be in a room together are getting in a room together when they come to a Cordero show. And I really like that. I move between two worlds all the time.
“It’s always been a strange thing for me. In Atlanta, with no Puerto Ricans around except my family and a few others, we would move from having our celebration all together with music and dancing, and everybody played percussion and had a great time, and then I would go to the punk-rock show. It would be like literally stepping from one world to the other, and there was nothing that joined them at all. And now with Cordero, I finally have something that joins the two.”
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