Catalina Maria Johnson

International radio broadcaster, bilingual cultural journalist, music curator

“A lot of songs on the record for me deal with individuality and identity amongst social structures”, comments Roberto Carlos Lange, the visionary experimental electronic producer/composer, sonic sculptor and innovative performance artist known as Helado Negro. Lange, born in Florida to Ecuadorian immigrants, is commenting the origins and the creative energy behind his latest album and performance piece, Private Energy, which continues to explore sampling and sound synthesis in the context of issues of personal identity. One of the highlights of the album is the song called “My Brown Skin”. Lange reflects that he created this song and others in Private Energy to digest the experience of defining a personal identity and how to deal with different expectations and the “confusing nature” of what it is to be born as a child of immigrants.
He adds that it is a deeper reflection of this condition, and “definitely intentional”, but it’s his way of processing the effect of certain events. More specifically, Lange comments that he began to create Private Energy in late 2014, shortly after the police officer in the Michael Brown case was not indicted: “I felt like that was the beginning of where we’re at now what has boiled to the surface”. Lange reflects, “When things like that happen here or everywhere in the world it all comes up to the surfaces. We’re looking and watching and reading and tweeting and sharing and it’s so overwhelming…there’s no time to process this, no one is given a chance to grieve or go through any those stages of emotions. We cannot respond or process, We’re all just reacting. That’s frightening, I just have to stop and reflect”. As an artist, he wanted to respond in some way, and Lange realized he could make music, and make it a platform “…that’s not specifically like ‘put your fist in the air’, staunch political statements, forcing people to feel a certain way. It’s more like I’m forcing people to make up their own minds and come up with their own conclusions”. The desire to create music that in its ambiguity forced the listener to draw their own conclusions became expressed in the performance/dance aspect of his shows via the Tinsel Mammal dancers he created and choreographs.
Present at each Helado Negro show, the Tinsel Mammal dancers, bedecked head-to-toe in silver tinsel strands move as shimmering genderless, race-neutral beings that embrace and respond to constant change. Lange comments that his vision of the Tinsel Mammals has evolved over time. He initially made them in 2014 with visual artist Kristi Sword in response to a few simple requirements – they had to be portable, work day or night, and be able to be activated and moved. He first began to tour alone but have volunteers join him as Tinsel Mammals every night and that year, over 80 different people in different cities learned a choreography and joined him onstage. As always, says Lange, he was guided intuitively to what the Tinsel Mammals eventually became: “It was not at the surface immediately. In the process I realized how the people were volunteering had never performed and were not performers at all but they expressed like this huge want to perform”. The Tinsel Mammals gave performers an opportunity to participate anonymously, Lange explains: “When you’re onstage performing, you’re extremely vulnerable to falling in any of those wormholes of vanity [and think] : “Oh my God,  I look ridiculous!” He became excited to see how the Tinsel Mammals gave people a safe place to represent something they wanted to be a part of.” Now, he sees the Tinsel Mammals are a part of himself, as well as how he moves on stage and others can move with him, although he is sure his vision of their place in his art will continue to evolve. Most importantly, Lange highly appreciates the Tinsel Mammals’ role in his performance: “The exciting thing is that even the audience is disarmed. Some people think it’s goofy or funny or maybe think, ‘Yeah I wanna be that for Halloween’. In the show, it’s become this mesmerizing moment teetering from being on either side of scary to wonderful, but it’s never telling you to feel either way”. — Helado Negro will perform Thursday October 20 at The Hideout. Feature photo by Justin LessnerCheck Catalina’s show, Beat Latino, a weekly exploration of the past, present and future of Latin music.