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A brand new hurray from the riff raff

With the release of their latest album, 'The Navigator', this American folk blues band is questioning the very concepts of Americana

Alynda Segarra in a video still.
Alynda Segarra in a video still.

In 1963, The Ronettes, a trio of young women from New York, had a huge hit with their song, Be My Baby. Written by Jeff Barry, Phil Spector and Ellie Greenwich, the song was later performed live by the trio for a television show, a black and white clip of which you can watch on YouTube. Decades later, early this year, the video of that iconic song of teenage love and longing was recreated, painstakingly, by Alynda Segarra, another New Yorker or, rather, Nuyorican, as Puerto Ricans raised in the city are referred to. For her video, done in black and white like the original, Segarra and two other singers appear eerily like The Ronnettes’ singers, white dresses, beehived hair, choreography and all.

Such dedication in re-enacting one of pop music’s most loved songs is probably to be expected from Segarra, who leads a band named Hurray for the Riff Raff, a group that is steeped as much in American music tradition as it is in passion and an eagerness to experiment with new influences. Since 2007, Hurray for the Riff Raff have released nine albums, the latest being this year’s The Navigator, a concept album of 12 tracks through which Segarra, songwriter, singer and main architect of the band, attempts to narrate, relive and comment on growing up as a Latina in the US. The Navigator is Hurray for the Riff Raff’s coming-of-age album—besides its autobiographical nature, there is also reflection on the emergence of Trump-era xenophobia and what it means for minorities such as Nuyoricans.

But first a bit more about Segarra’s fascinating journey: Brought up in Bronx by an aunt, Segarra became a runaway in her teens, leaving home to hitchhike and also illegally hop freight trains to travel all over North America. At the same time, she musically explored not just the rich folk and country music heritage but also genres such as hard-core punk, hip hop and rap. By the 2000s, she found herself playing banjo and washboard with the Dead Man Street Orchestra on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans. She formed Hurray for the Riff Raff there, and self-released a couple of the band’s early albums before getting signed on by established labels. In the beginning, she spent time assiduously studying and covering American folk and country music, immersing herself deep into those genres. In one of her albums, 2013’s My Dearest Darkest Neighbor, which almost fully comprises covers, Segarra delivers songs by Townes Van Zandt (Delta Momma Blues), Billie Holliday (Fine And Mellow), Joni Mitchell (River), Lucinda Williams (People Talkin’) and Hank Williams (I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry). She covers non-Americans as well—her version of John Lennon’s Jealous Guy and George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord are not to be missed.

Strikingly, Segarra’s music has a passion that’s quite palpable. On her show on Apple’s Beats 1 radio station, Savages’ lead singer Jehnny Beth recently had Segarra as a guest and complimented her by saying that she was one of those uncommon singers whose speaking and singing voices were the same. On that show, Segarra recalled how in the early days, when she was self-studying the music of folk and country greats, she would write down the lyrics of their songs by hand in order to try and relive the emotions and thoughts that may have gone into their writing. That endeavour is borne out by her performances—in the studio or outside. In 2012, Hurray for the Riff Raff played a set at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which resulted in a very lively album that shows not only the band’s deep commitment to the music they play but also Segarra’s ability to connect easily with the audience. There are many originals that they did during that set but there’s also a dedication to Levon Helm, drummer and vocalist of The Band, who had died recently. Segarra sang Ophelia, a song written by The Band’s Robbie Robertson but sung by Helms. Segarra’s version is bound to strike a chord with The Band’s fans.

The Navigator is different from their earlier albums. Here we find the singer (or narrator) describing her experience and emotions of coming back to a city where she had grown up and one that she had left. Her songs cover themes of being a minority, of gender and of politics. She sings about gentrification and how that alienates the original inhabitants of a neighbourhood; and of the Trumpian policy on immigration and what it means for minorities like her. But deeply introspective and personal as it is, The Navigator also curiously teems with realism and hope. The music has Latin influences and city sounds—the backbeat of percussions is pronounced, as is New York City’s ambience of subway and traffic sounds.

Those who identify Hurray for the Riff Raff with folk and country sounds may find The Navigator different—musically as well as thematically. That’s not a bad thing. With their new album, the band and its driving force, Segarra, amply demonstrate that they’ve moved up another notch. From street musicians, they became talented purveyors of Americana; now they seem to have come into their own. And it certainly doesn’t seem like their last hurrah.


The Lounge List

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. New York by St. Vincent from New York (single)

2. Pa’lante by Hurray for the Riff Raff from The Navigator

3. Ain’t No Woman (Like The One I’ve Got) by Jerry Garcia & Merl Saunders from GarciaLive Volume 9

4. Sixteen by Diet Cig from Swear I’m Good At This

5. Dream Of Life by Patti Smith from Dream Of Life (remastered)

First Beat is a weekly column on what’s new and groovy at the intersection of music and technology.

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