Hard truths in a velvety baritone

Identity politics is both bane and blessing - thanks to the advent of social media, self-appointed arbiters are quick to trawl the lanes and call out any supposed deviant based on set criteria.

It can be a blunt instrument, but thankfully, here, the complex issue of identity is wielded adroitly by Roberto Carlos Lange, who goes by the stage name of Helado Negro, named after the incongruously looking black ice cream.

Born in South Florida and based in Brooklyn, the son of Ecuadorian immigrants has been eschewing labels as much as he revels in the spaces between them.

This Is How You Smile, his sixth record, is a multifaceted prism of Latin-American experience, sung in English and Spanish and made resonant in the current age of cultural demonisation of people from south of the American border.

The album takes its title from a 1978 short story by Antiguan-American writer Jamaica Kincaid, about an immigrant mother's clear-eyed advice to her daughter: "This is how you sweep a whole house. This is how you sweep a yard. This is how you smile to someone you don't like too much. This is how you smile to someone you don't like at all."

It is a life-or-death matter, a survivor guide, a green book for Latin folk living in North America, if you will.

  • ELECTRO FOLK/ EXPERIMENTAL

    THIS IS HOW YOU SMILE

    Helado Negro

    RVNG Intl.

    4 stars

The genius is in the way Lange delivers such hard truths via a slightly world-weary, velvety baritone, augmented by dreamy electronics, which cast a spell over unsuspecting listeners.

In the opening track, Please Won't Please, he shares conspiratorially over a muffled beat and shimmering synths: "Blush now/ They can't know/Lifelong history shows/That brown won't go/ Brown just glows."

The disarming approach belies the killer chorus: "And we'll light/ Ourselves on fire/Just to see/Who really/Wants to believe/That it's just me."

It reminds one of the social and artistic ambition of Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso, not to mention the latter's dexterity in fusing trans-Atlantic influences from tropicalia to soul to funk.

Imagining What To Do updates early-noughties American freak-folk quirkiness and Lange sings of taking cover from the cold winter in a malleable croon, which sounds eerily like that of Venezuelan-American singer-songwriter Devendra Banhart.

Such is Lange's inclusive, inter-generational vision.

Everything has the sheen of a late-afternoon stroll, imbued with found sounds and recordings from weddings, immigration rallies and earlier demos.

At the same time, one is aware of the temporal, fleeting nature of things. What remains is patience.

In the deceptively chilled doozie, Pais Nublado (meaning "cloudy country"), he addresses the current state of anxiety and uncertainty and proffers a testament of will and faith over a woozy riff: "And we'll take our turn/And we'll take our time/Knowing that we'll be here long after you."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2019, with the headline 'Hard truths in a velvety baritone'. Print Edition | Subscribe