Asthmatic Kitty, 2009

What started with a stray cat from Wyoming named Sara who had feline asthma has now evolved into one of the leading indie music labels of our time, Asthmatic Kitty. Its focus has always been on excellent music, but more specifically well-rounded artists whose erudition is more than just an electric guitar and a drum set. This is truly a label for creators of art, both musically and aesthetically.

The New York collective Helado Negro, which translated means “black ice cream”, fits this bill perfectly. The brain child of the band is the magnificently afro’d Roberto Carlos Lange, the son of Ecuadorian immigrants, who spent his childhood soaking in the sights and sounds of South Florida. His earliest interest in sounds and music were rooted in rich, childhood parties (or “penas”) infused with all sorts of traditional music and exciting sights. He’s worked with several reputable music groups and producers, experimenting both with musical textures and visual interpretations, and all of this history presents itself throughout the music.

The most straightforward cut on the album is the very first track, “Venceremos”, which is a fairly simple melody sung over acoustic guitars, bongos and other similar percussion, and wandering instruments in the background. It’s full of the Latin American flavor that the rest of the record so cleverly spreads and tucks away throughout the eleven tracks. Much of Helado Negro’s music is based on samples and looping, but it’s done with such subtlety that it can be easily overlooked.

By the middle of the album, it becomes just as much ambient mood music as it is ethnic pop. “Dahum” opens with sampled voice and percussion while Lange fills in gaps with near-melody before clarinets and horns interrupt chopping out the vocals. “Awe” uses this template as well with a wider range of loops and sounds, including marimba and choral arrangements.

When all’s said and done, trying to put your proverbial finger on the sort of music you’re listening to just robs you of the experience. The point you stop trying to figure out how to categorize the tunes and just listen will be the moment when you can really open up and relish it. Lange’s group draws from all sorts of influences, and really transcends classification despite its Spanish lyrics and flavor. Where Helado Negro, and Lange more specifically, go from here is really up to their own motivations. Lange is a fierce talent, as is blatant on Awe Owe, and clearly has potential to be a lead player in many music circles for a long time to come.