For her widespread influences, Xenia Rubinos’s music defies neatly bound classifications. Now living in Brooklyn, Rubinos draws heavily on her Cuban and Pueto Rican heritage to create a personal brand of experimental soul that explores ideas of race and economic strata. The Afro-Latino jazz grooves are evident as well as indelible inspiration from neo-soul potentate Erykah Badu.
Her most recent offering, Black Terry Cat, riffs off hiphop influences and the current political surround to create an exploration of how coloured women fit. The sonic texture finds its roots in the forceful pop hits of Beyonce to the cross-over success of Esperanza Spalding to the homestyle dance verve of salsa music. The movement provoked resembles the proletariat thrust and initiative she extols on the album. Just as it takes the cohesion of disparate backgrounds to create the panoply of harmonies of Rubinos’s music, it takes the cohesion of various immigrants united to create modern America.
In her NPR Tiny Desk Concert, Rubinos puts her full musical range on display with a three track set of the harmonically roaming “Lonely Lover,” polemical “Mexican Chef,” and poignant skat-pop “Laugh Clown” off Black Terry Cat. “Lonely Lover,” with its curious and investigative vocals, reminds of Spalding’s Emily’s D+Evolution, but also the heady pop of St. Vincent’s distorted instrumentals and vocals.
Thematically, the constant search for a new harmonic expanse matches nicely with the song’s charged thesis “Mami just feel like she needs to breathe today” with allusions to Black Lives Matter and suffocated coloured feminism. The next track, “Mexican Chef,” sounds light and satiric, but a closer listen to the lyrics reveals a sardonic humour. The list of unsavoury and typical immigrant jobs from “Boricua chef” to “Chinese takeout” to “Bachata in the back” serve as proof that America’s “party” depends on the toil of these people. The short and dry guitar-bass backing provide constant jolts of energy to a song that celebrates the energy that coloured labor brings.
To cap off the performance, Rubinos takes the bass in a solo, acoustic rendering of “Laugh Clown.” The song is a scatted meditation on the divergent goals of the idealistic mind and the realistic brain. Unlike the studio version with its added reverb and gospel instrumentation, this live performance allows Rubinos the space to craft a personalized reading, flush of real flaws. Vocal breaks in the higher register, audible laughs and drained air capacity breathe a crisp realness into the already potent song.