Helado Negro: Ecos of Healing

El Sonido: Cancioneros
Albina Cabrera

El Sonido: Cancioneros is the first season of KEXP’s newest podcast series, El Sonido, and the first produced fully in Spanish. 

What keeps us rooted in a world where everything is changing? Music. We each have songs that connect us to our origins, and through those, we can draw the sound map of our lives. The first season of the El Sonido podcast offers a musical tour through the personal songbooks of key artists in modern alternative, popular and independent Latin music to explore what it means to be from a place and what Latin music is today. Host Albina Cabrera guides us through each artist's story across eight episodes, from the song that decided the destiny of Mon Laferte to the visual and political approach of Lido Pimienta, from the revolution of Villano Antillano to the childhood of Trueno and the comeback of Buscabulla. As we journey through the songs that shaped each artist, we get a portrait of the present and future of their music scenes.

Listen to the podcast with English subtitles on the KEXP Podcasts YouTube channel, or read an English transcription of our latest episode below. A Spanish transcription and audio is available here.

Helado Negro: When I speak Spanish I feel like I hear the voices and the accents of the important people in my life. My dad’s, my mom’s, my sister’s. When I hear the words, I listen to the tone of my voice and that’s how I hear my story. I hear it and I know it’s there. So for me, that’s also how I preserve my story. 

Albina Cabrera: Roberto Carlos Lange’s way of evoking emotional memories and preserving it in songs is rooted in orality. Robert makes music as Helado Negro and is the focus of the last episode of this first season. The tools that I see Roberto using have been used since before instruments existed. I’m drawn to this coincidence because this tool was deeply important for me in reviving my own soundtrack, which changed abruptly when I moved to the U.S. from South America and became the spark of what would ultimately become this podcast. In this series, you and I went on a shared journey where we tried to discover the melody at the root of it all. In our last episode, we’ll arrive at the musical DNA of our origins.

Albina Cabrera: Friends, how are you? I’m Albina Cabrera. Welcome to El Sonido podcast, the first series on Spanish from KEXP. Here, as you know, we piece together songbooks of fundamental artists in various Iberoamerican scenes. This is our last episode of the first season, where we land after a long journey that will be marked by, in this episode, the songs that made Roberto Carlos Lange, the Ecuadorian-American composer, producer, and singer whose musical project is called Helado Negro. It’s a soundtrack that’ll push the limits of possibilities, visiting icons of the Latin American song, electronic music, and touching on the experimental scene of the diaspora in the United States. 

Helado Negro: I wanted to sing, but I didn’t want to sing in English because there were already so many people around me who spoke English, and for me it was personal, a personal space where I could, not hide, but protect (the Spanish language). I knew that the people around me wouldn’t understand right away. It was like a transmission from me to the world, and I hope someone connects with it, we’ll see who does. 

Albina Cabrera:  Coming back to Roberto’s technique, I’d compare it to sound healing, because for me orality is directly connected to my emotional memory, just as music does. This knowledge isn’t anything new, it’s been around for a long time. Helado Negro’s case is special because he combines both. The resonance, frequency, and vibration of his voice and the sounds he creates, generate rhythms that push the listener into a deep state of relaxation. I think that Roberto’s experimental vision and multidisciplinary nature are what make his project so comprehensive. His music is very visual.

In his musical project, Helado Negro, Roberto composes and sings in both languages. He’s been bilingual since birth, but his use of language is beyond that, he uses it as a way to remember, preserve, and expand the reductionist notion of the term 'Latin Music.' 

Helado Negro: I think that it begins with understanding that Latin America is a mix of many nations… if you start there knowing that there are people from all over, understanding that we are who we are and what we’re doing here. And that’s what we wanted. We’re made up of many things and we want to do the things that make us happy. I think that was the idea.

Albina Cabrera: Roberto talks to me about the beginnings of his scene, built over a decade in New York. It was a time when many Latin artists from the diaspora converged across time and space in the city.

But we start Helado Negro’s story before he became Helado Negro. Roberto was born in Florida in 1980 to Ecuadorian parents.

Helado Negro: I started going to Ecuador in 1988. I was eight. I spent a lot of time there, getting to know it, seeing it. That deeply affected me and changed me a lot. I was super young and my older cousins would take me everywhere and to their parties. It was amazing. It was an experience that I think affected me a lot, and I learned the rhythm of Latin America.

Albina Cabrera:  Like all children of immigrants, from the moment you’re born you begin a journey to understanding your roots which stems from curiosity that becomes intentional with age. He journeyed towards the stories of his parents, the language he was raised with, and the music that played in his house, all much different from the things he encountered in the world around him. It was there that his journey to preserve his memories began.

Helado Negro: There was so much music. My dad always had someone around on the weekends who would play guitar and play covers at parties, lots of danceable music, salsa, and everything. We listened to all of those genres. For me, it was something that I wanted to share.

Albina Cabrera: Roberto takes me to the music of his youth, which was important in the expansion of his ideas and would become his reason for making music himself. After studying art and animation at Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, Roberto moved to New York. The music of New York, old and new, piqued his interest and would become one of his most important sources of inspiration. 

Helado Negro: I was just starting to draw out the first ideas for Helado Negro, like in 2000, before the first album. And I remembered a band that I listened to in university, ESG, they have a song called “Moody.”

Albina Cabrera: ESG was an iconic band from the South Bronx that was started in 1978. The band’s vocalist, Renee Scroggins, claims that Latin music was a major influence while growing up in Queens, New York. ESG boasts one of the most sampled songs in the history of music: "U.F.O."

Helado Negro: I think they’re Nuyoricans, it’s a New York band. That band was incredible and deeply impacted me.

Helado Negro: It was them and a band called Ghetto Brothers who have a song called “Girl from the Mountain.” They were also a part of that movement of Nuyoricans in New York.

Albina Cabrera: The Ghetto Brothers have one album that was released in 1971. They started as a gang and formed the band in 1964. They were part of the independence movement in Puerto Rico and they were revolutionary for the fact that they treated their female members equally, calling them the Ghetto Sisters.

Helado Negro: So when I moved to New York and connected more with the music from that time, I was deeply inspired.

Helado Negro: The band Broadcast was also a supergroup for me.

Helado Negro: Beyond Latin music, as a young person I was always connected to electronic music. There was a scene when I was younger, and I’d go to parties at a club called Jungle in South Beach.

Helado Negro:  On the top floor they had an experimental room. That was in '98, '99. It was once a week, something like that, I don’t remember, and we’d go there and hear things we’d never heard before. I have so many songs from that that I can share. But that was a big influence. Also the labels, like Thrill Jockey...

Helado Negro: ...and Drag City from Chicago. That’s what connected me to making music and also to meeting other musicians.

Albina Cabrera: Roberto began making music accentuating his voice and accompanied by electronic textures, avant-pop mantras, and loops that surround a voice that fluidly switches between English and Spanish, activating the sound healing that Helado Negro has become known for.

Building a scene isn’t something you’re really conscious of when it’s happening. Helado Negro and his contemporaries had no idea what they were doing, but they facilitated a new way of producing, sharing, and appreciating music made by artists with roots in Latin America who were raised and live in the United States without pigeonholing them, and attaching them to the monolithic idea of what it means to be Latin American.

Helado Negro: I think that when you’re doing something you’re not really thinking about the fact that you’re organizing something that’s so abstract. 

Albina Cabrera: It was this scene that came to me like a secret when I got to the U.S. and seemed very musically interesting to me. It was a scene that didn’t want to use misnamed musical associations based solely on where they came from. They just wanted to make music. Many of these artists’ stories intersected at common points. Roberto tells me how he met Xenia Rubinos, who he includes in his songbook.

Helado Negro: When we were getting to know each other we talked about that, the fact that we weren’t a part of that Latin American scene. We could relate to part of the culture, but as far as what we were doing… we didn’t want to use labels, genres, anything like that.

Albina Cabrera: Here’s Xenia

Xenia Rubinos: I moved to New York in 2006 and at that time I was listening to different music, I was listening to jazz… instrumental music, and I was singing a bit.

Albina Cabrera:  Xenia Rubinos is a composer and singer from the U.S. with Puerto Rican and Cuban roots. She studied at Berklee and has a solid jazz background and an uncanny control of her voice. Much like Roberto and other contemporaries in the experimental music scene, she arrived in New York to develop her career and they all ended up meeting. 

Helado Negro: When Xenia released the video for “Pan y Cafe,” I remember that I loved it and I had to meet her. We met through friends. That was in 2013.

Xenia Rubinos: I discovered Roberto on a booking website when I was looking for a booking agent and I saw Roberto's face and his afro and I thought ‘who is Helado Negro? Who is this?' I was a little obsessed.

Albina Cabrera: We’ve touched on this scene over the course of this season of the El Sonido Podcast, Cancioneros, when we went through the history of the Canadian Colombian Lido Pimienta, or the Puerto Ricans Buscabulla who also started their project in New York. They’re generational contemporaries who were unconsciously united by the fact that they didn’t want to be limited artistically by the fact that they were Latinos. They were different times. Xenia reflects on it.

Xenia Rubinos: At that time there was a blog called Club Fonograma and it was there that I discovered Lido Pimienta. I heard about her there for the first time.

Albina Cabrera: Lido Pimienta, the focus of our sixth episode, also told us that she felt like she was a part of that same scene, not limited by geography. It was a new movement of Latinos united across the internet.  

Lido Pimienta: I feel like I still identify with that. I’m from the scene that came together in the era of Club Fonograma. And I’m very proud of that, because Club Fonograma was a space where what is referred to as Indie music now was considered the vanguard of that moment, and at that time there weren’t big labels or media outlets like there are now centered around the misnamed reggaeton.

Albina Cabrera:  It’s a scene that began making music at the beginning of the 2000s and began intersecting with each other after 2010 when their musical careers and their lives were in a process of solidifying. The experimental band Balún arrived from Puerto Rico, much like the protagonists of episode 5, Buscabulla.

Helado Negro: Xenia, that was in 2013, I think also at that time… I’m not sure when Buscabulla released their first single but it was around that time, I think it was 2012.

Luis Alfredo Del Valle: Roberto is a mentor. From the moment we met him, he’s been a super positive and wonderful influence, and we learn so much from him.

Albina Cabrera:  Buscabulla tells me something similar about Roberto. They lived in NYC for 10 years and aside from having met, they weren’t conscious of the fact that a scene was forming in that moment. Luis Fre tells me. 
Luis Alfredo Del Valle: It was just when we were leaving New York that we began to feel like we were part of a scene.

Albina Cabrera: Xenia distanced herself from what the term ‘Latino’ implied at that moment.

Xenia Rubinos: I was working with an agent I really liked, who later started booking Buscabulla. There was a girl who worked at the label that licensed my first album that told me you have to see this band, Buscabulla. But I just wasn’t there as I was distancing myself from everything that was Latin Music.

Albina Cabrera: All of these artists had such different processes that were at the same time quite similar. They come together to make whatever music comes out, and as Roberto told us just now, and those who are meant to understand it will. All of these artists activate that sound healing, and they begin to form a collective. They were all healing in their own ways.

Xenia Rubinos: You’re born with a face and a body and you can do things to appear a certain way or change it. There are a lot of things you can do, but there are some things that, as hard as you try, you can’t. Sometimes I feel that way with my music, my expression. It’s not exactly the music that I wanted to make or that I like. It’s the music that I make.

Xenia Rubinos: It’s like looking at yourself intently in the mirror and trying to understand who’s there.

Albina Cabrera: As a Colombian immigrant in Canada, Lido Pimienta identifies with this process and sees herself in Helado Negro.

Lido Pimienta: I feel like I’m a part of Helado Negro’s scene. Helado Negro and I are very aligned, making experimental music that is South American and Central American because we’re from Central and South America.

Helado Negro: What was happening here instead of there, the United States and Latin America- there, everyone understands the music of Latin America… because they’re there, living there, and this is just their music. In the United States, it’s part of a commercial system: “this is Latin music, so you have to sell it a certain way, Latin music is part of this.” It has to sound this way, the style has to be this way.

Albina Cabrera: What you’re hearing is Young Latin and Proud from his 2016 album Private Energy, one of the 7 albums that he’s released, on top of 4 EPs and dozens of musical experiments, orchestral pieces that break, expand, and secretly sound like Helado Negro. His albums are

Awe Owe from 2009
Canta Lechuza from 2011
Invisible Life from 2013
Double Youth from 2014
Private Energy from 2016
This Is How You Smile from 2019
Far In from 2021

He also makes music as an extension of the work he does with his partner, the visual artist Kristi Sword, Kite Symphony, Four Variations.

Albina Cabrera:  We return to Helado Negro’s personal songbook. I ask Roberto which artist connects his upbringing and the music that he makes.

Helado Negro:  I think that what really affected me was that album by Juana Molina, called Segundo.

Helado Negro: I think it came out in 2000 and I was in university exploring many kinds of music and just starting to make it. I think that album shifted my brain chemistry.

Albina Cabrera: Martin Fierro is the first track on a fundamental album of a key artist in the experimental Latin American scene, the great Juana Molina.

Helado Negro: Not necessarily to make music, but it opened the doors, I already knew a bunch of music in Spanish, things I like, but it wasn’t… none of it was that inspiring. And this on the other hand was a huge inspiration and I think the beautiful thing about this album is that… I think if you listen to this album it’s like a blueprint for a lot of things that exist today, a lot of music from Latin America. I think she built the foundation for many. Me included. I don’t necessarily make music like that, but I listen to it and I hear very close sensibilities. There are things about it that are just magical.

Helado Negro: When I listened to that album, it wasn’t like it was the first time I heard those kinds of sounds. What connected me to it was that she was singing in Spanish, and that’s where I connected and sparked a lightbulb in my head.

Albina Cabrera: Juana Molina is a living legend whose music is textured by experimentation, marked by loops, layers of sounds, and Juana’s voice, a source of sound healing for many generations. She was a very famous actress and comedian in Argentina but left it all to do something that filled her up, music. And not commercial music. She was a pioneer at a time when it was 100 times harder to make the music that she makes, independent and experimental. She traveled the world, she became somewhat of a cult icon and earned the respect of millions. She cultivated a global garden from which emerged many artists who consider her an influence. Roberto’s one of them.

Helado Negro: I think she was coming from the same place, there was another artist I liked a lot called Múm from Iceland, which made me remember, wow, it makes me recall the textures and the rhythms they create. But it was this Latin American connection in Juana’s music… not necessarily having to be from a certain place, it might be that it’s just a part of the world, these sounds and this language and we can make the connection even bigger. I think that she was a revelation for that reason as well. 

Albina Cabrera: At this point, I can confirm that voice and orality are a big part of Roberto’s life. What he conveys in his lyrics, how he composes, and what his influences are as far as lyric composition is, I find it necessary to ask him. He takes me to Brazil.

Helado Negro:  I think my favorite person, whose music I heard from afar and thought was something pretty special, I went to Brazil for the first time this year and we met and spent the day together and it was super special, her name is Luiz Brina. She has a song called “Back in Bahía.” I swear this song will break your heart. It’s so beautiful.

Albina Cabrera: Luiza Brina is a Brazilian singer, composer and guitarist. Born in Brasilia, her music encompasses a range of genres, mixing elements from Brazilian popular music with folk and rock.

Helado Negro: She released an album called Tão Tá. I’m telling you I listened to that album so much in 2017, so much, and it was one of the main albums that influenced my album This Is How You Smile.

Helado Negro: I listened to that album so much, for me the world they built with this album was so special. All of the music she makes is incredible to me.

Helado Negro: I think she, she’s like one of the most talented people I’ve ever met and a lovely person. We spent the day together in Sao Paulo, driving everywhere, insanity. When I think about Latin America, it’s that connection. I know Brazil’s always had its own place in the world, isolated in Latin America, but the connection they have with Latin America, there are huge influences and I think it goes both ways. So when I look at it, I see it as one complete thing.

Albina Cabrera: In this episode, I want to know about the things that hold you when everything changes. What is Helado Negro’s generation of sound-healing composers, something that’s personally inspired me, made up of. What I thought had disappeared, in a physical and magical energetic act, actually transformed. I could say at this point that where I felt emptiness, really was just expansion. I’m motivated to look into the future with Helado Negro. I ask him about artists he thinks are doing great work or rather expanding the status quo. Roberto brings up the Dominican Republic and I’m reminded of Trueno in episode four of this season of El Sonido Podcast. There, Mateo also talks about Dominican music as part of a global future. 

Helado Negro: For me, there’s at least one artist, one who I believe is doing something really great lately, I’m not sure if you know Kelman Duran, he’s a producer from the Dominican Republic. His music to me is super special.

Helado Negro: I see him as someone who’s done something new, who’s taking the industry’s idea of what Latin music is and making it abstract and more avant-garde.

Helado Negro: I like it. He’s doing it in a very subtle and elegant way. His music is like a cloud passing the sun, and suddenly there’s a shadow that hovers and you see it and feel it, and it’s gone. It’s really interesting.

Albina Cabrera: Kelman Duran is a Dominican-American artist and producer. His work centers around experimental electronic music, mixing it with genres like reggaeton, dembow, and dancehall with ambient and avant-garde music. His multidisciplinary focus is reflected in his visual and audiovisual work. Kelman Duran’s been sought out internationally often, so much so that the very Beyoncé brought him on for Renaissance and his beat ended up on “I’m That Girl,” the unbeatable number one track on the diva’s last masterpiece.

Helado Negro: His music is incredible. For me… it’s very contemporary, It’s music that’s a part of the culture of dembow or reggaeton or things that he was familiar with, from his home, from the Caribbean, Antilles roots. And later, he’ll make a collage of beats that are slowed down or are much more uptempo. It’s amazing.

Albina Cabrera:  Among the artists that represent the present and the future for Helado Negro, he returns to present-day New York with a colleague and a friend. 

Helado Negro: Another special person is Nick Hakim. He is also connected to Latin America. We’re really good friends. You know, his parents are from Chile and Peru. I think people from South America are like "wow, I had no idea he was Chilean, I had no idea he was Peruvian.”

Nick Hakim: He... he's been really, he's just been really, like, supportive. It was like this was maybe 2017 or '18 or something like that and so, I don't know, since then we just became really good friends and yeah, I really, really appreciate him. He's like a brother to me, you know. 

Albina Cabrera: Nick tells me that since he first met Roberto he’s been a huge support. They’ve known each other since 2017, 2018, when they became friends, and considers him a brother.

Helado Negro: And he’s similar to Juana Molina like he’s in another world and people from different scenes have welcomed him a lot. To me, his music is super special and has that connection.

Albina Cabrera: I connect with Nick from his house in New York, he shows me vinyls he got recently on his first trip to his parents’ land in over a decade. He seems excited and we talk about the music he grew up with.

Nick Hakim: Music in Peru is like three regions. It's like music from the Andes, music from the jungle, music from the coast. And it's like all the different ways of like, kind of grew up listening or being aware of a lot of, a lot of that music out of like Afro-Peruvian, like Nicomedes Santa Cruz and my father was really a big fan of that stuff and we grew up listening to a lot of different kinds of stuff in that world. 

Albina Cabrera: Nick says that in Peru there are three regions, the music of the Andes, the jungle, and the coast. He grew up aware of all of this and with a lot of afroperuvian music like the musician and poet Nicómedes Santa Cruz because his father was a big fan of that style.

Nick Hakim: And then my mother, you know, like Victor Jara and then like nueva cancion stuff. Like all that stuff, and like Mercedes Sosa, Alfredo Zitarrosa like all that kind of stuff. Good singers, well Alfredo is from Uruguay I think. 

Albina Cabrera:   He tells me that his mother introduced him to artists of the Latin American folk songbook like Victor Jara, Mercedes Sosa, Alfredo Zitarrosa, and Atahualpa.

Albina Cabrera: Nick Hakim recently recorded his Live on KEXP session that you can watch on our YouTube channel. Almost his entire discography is in English but he tells me that he wants to write more in Spanish and he’s noticeably excited about the current state of Spanish-language music in the world. Spanish, to him, is a beautiful language.

Nick Hakim: And I think it's really, it's an exciting time for a lot of artists that do speak in Spanish and that do sing in Spanish and write in Spanish and then also do English or both. I think for me, I'm really interested in writing more in Spanish in the future and I think right now I'm just like learning songs in Spanish. It's a beautiful, it's such a beautiful language. I'm, like, infatuated with music from Brazil and from like Peru and from like Colombia and stuff. Mexico. There's so many good interesting differences in the cultures, but there's something that ties everyone together in a way. 

Albina Cabrera:  Nick told me that he’s just as impacted by the music of Brazil as he is that of Colombia and Mexico, aware that they’re different cultures, but something ties them together. In our chat between Seattle and New York, we also talk about things that have changed regarding “Latin Music’ in the United States and how it’s appreciated internationally. 

Nick Hakim: It's amazing that, like, two of the biggest artists in the world are like, Spanish speaking. You know, speak Spanish and everyone knows Rosalia songs and Bad Bunny songs that are like "I don't even know what they're saying" and I think that that also is like, really cool and I think that it's kind of opened up the doors a little bit for accepting... For like a broader...a broader lens, to like to see music and not to just put it in a box like you're saying.

Albina Cabrera:  So what changed? What expanded? Many things. Not only are artists who sing in Spanish breaking records internationally, but in a country like the United States, for example, there’s data that gives a little more context to the Latin American diaspora. According to the United States census, one in five Americans is Latino. There are a lot of us, but not just artists making music- there are also producers, bookers, managers, publicists, and music journalists who are immigrants or have Latin American roots who make up the social framework and the music industry. Representation is also important when you’re talking about music made by someone who identifies as Latinx.

Helado Negro: If you look at the first albums of mine that were covered by Pitchfork, you’ll see that there’s no connection to anything, just to things from here, but there’s no actual connection to the music. It’s obvious. You can completely tell that someone was just doing a job to make a little bit of money.

Albina Cabrera: It’s expected that in 2060 that what is one of four will surpass 119 million. In the last decade, the Latino population grew by 19% while the country claimed 7%. This data impacts methods of consumption and artistic and cultural creation. Roberto and I think that scenes are collectives.

Helado Negro: That’s changed a lot, I think there are so many people who are in media now who speak Spanish or are from elsewhere, that others are aware when something’s not for them, it’s almost like “I don’t think I should write about this because I don’t understand Spanish and it’d be best if someone else at least listened.”

Albina Cabrera:   That transformation, this expansion that Roberto sees alongside the artists who are a part of this episode and the entire series, is what paves the way to understanding how the way the world sees Latin music is changing. At the same time, it helps me understand myself, in a new home but very tied to my origins by a bridge built fundamentally by songs, my own music healing.

Throughout this series, I was able to express some of the questions that I had when I emigrated and my sonic palette changed. How does one survive culturally? What happens if I forget the streets I grew up on or the faces of my people? What does it mean to dream in two languages? And once more, what does it mean to be from a place? What is this that we call “Latin music?”

This is what Helado Negro, who caps off our journey and who I hope has brought us closer to the wildly complex and fascinating vision around this concept, thinks.

Helado Negro: For me… anything that someone does that’s a part of their culture is Latin American music. That we meet each other and have all of these things in common and if you listen to the music that they’re doing, it has nothing to do with what I’m doing, but we’re in the same realm, or at least we’re sharing this new sound, whether we’re aware of it or not. And for me, that is Latin music more than anything.

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