Maria Isa rocks Trocaderos

Tony Nelson

Remember 2007? Women's shirts that looked like short dresses? Barack Obama's run for president? And reggaetón, the soundtrack beat for Miss Universe Mexico? Okay, maybe the first new rhythm of the century has yet to overtake its hype, but its ongoing miracles were manifest last night in Maria Isa's set at Trocaderos. Brought down hard behind a slower version of the St. Paul singer's live standby "Yo Lo Quiero," the dembow beat became an organizing force in her complex music, saving that song and a couple others as a Godsend of simplicity amid what seemed at times like too much of too many good musical things. To be sure, no one else in Minneapolis/St. Paul (or anywhere else?) has even attempted Isa's fusion of Spanglish rap, keen R&B, Puerto Rican percussion, and live-band funk: Among her band mates last night, I counted two guitarists, one bassist, one keyboardist/trumpeter, one full-time keyboardist, three percussionists, three backup singers, and two dancers flanking Isa (though no DJ)—all hailing from different groups, with core talents from Leroy Smokes, and extra percussionists and singers (on a couple songs) from the local Puerto Rican folk dance group, Raices. A product of Raices training, Isa is the rare local singer/MC who dances as she performs, and with all that rhythm and movement, you'd imagine that beats would drive her songs. At her best, they do, but sometimes the chaos overwhelms. Isa began strong, with Raices dancers in headdress garb swishing their dresses to hand percussion beats, a spectacle that gave way to the full-band grooving along. The group faltered a on a sluggish number with a "Rock Box"-like beat (the audience thinning to get drinks), but then took flight with "Yo Lo Quiero," for which the crowd gave praise with its hips and shouts. A slower funk number followed, and I imagined the drummer inserting a go-go beat to liven things up. But then Isa did something with a one-drop reggae beat, and once again, all the parts fell into place, though I wanted more from the backup singers just then. The show wound up with "MN Nice," the kind of slow, radio-ready synth dirge that requires more swing than Isa could muster at that pace, but then she encored rapping in Spanish on something suddenly lighter, faster, and funkier. Behind her, a large screen displayed posed photos from the new album, M.I. Split Personalities (Emetrece Productions/Smoke Signal), a bit of expected promo, and then she ceded the stage entirely to Raices as the house lights came up. The group's tradition-minded simplicity somewhat upstaged Isa's ambitious busyness, I think, if only because the three drummers and the maracas player locked together so tightly as a band, and the young singers wailed with such abandon. It's this kind of naturalness that Isa strives for at a higher plain of expression, personalization, and polygot musicality.

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