Rene Lopez is a multitalented singer-songwriter, guitarist and drummer who has been on the music scene for many years and has created a consistently stellar body of work that steadfastly charts an independent path reflective of the multicultural New York City environment where he was raised and lives to this day. The timbales and guitar-playing Rene is the son of René López, Sr., renowned Puerto Rican salsa musician and trumpet player who left his mark with Ray Barretto and Típica ’73, and those roots are an integral part of who Rene Jr. is as a musician, though they have not always manifested themselves as clearly as they do now. Today, Rene says, he is “fully embracing the gifts my father passed down to me and hopefully I can do something fresh with incorporating my other musical influences like soul, jazz, funk and rock.” You can definitely hear it all in Rene’s most recent work. Bringing back the Latin instruments like Cuban tres (a guitar with three sets of double strings), timbales, congas, cowbell, baby bass, flute and trumpet as well as the melodies, rhythms and arrangements of the salsa boom he first heard as a kid listening to his father on stage, the radio or on records at home, is a big part of where his new sound is going. As Lopez simply and succinctly puts it, “It just feels so right to incorporate my roots into my songs.”
But that’s not the only element in his work that injects the personal into the universal through the creative process of song writing and performance for him. According to Lopez, “there is also a story that I tell in each song that is basically my own way of dealing with stuff going on in my life [and it] helps me face myself when I sing it out loud.” The prolific Lopez has been on a tear of late, what Félix Contreras of NPR’s Alt.Latino calls “a one-man song factory,” releasing a string of ear-catching autobiographical singles that have gotten increasingly more Latinized over time, while still maintaining elements of the funk, rock and soul (and even doo-wop) he has become known for since the 1990s. But the ‘Latinization’ of Rene Lopez, or better put, the return to Rene’s Latin roots, is thematic and situational as well as formal, because the sense of otherness, of being an immigrant or from a certain urban ethnic neighborhood infuses his recent output like a waft of tasty Caribbean cooking from abuelita’s kitchen back on the island or the local Puerto Rican restaurant on the city corner. This is an exciting development that feels as nourishing and authentic as the best meal from your home country can be when you’re feeling nostalgic or in need of some serious replenishing sustenance. What makes these new songs so authentic sounding (when in fact they are more of a fresh hybrid than an old-school replica) is the fact that, as Lopez puts it, he is “being completely honest with who I am, and a big part of that is my Latin roots,” as well as telling stories of personal relationships and experiences in an unflinching way.
In Lopez’s latest single “Flamingo” the summery Caribbean roots are strong, with the Cuban son montuno and cha-cha-chá rubbing hips with Jamaican ska rhythms, a mix that provides an exciting structure to the English lyrics while the call-and-response chorus recalls the ubiquitous party atmosphere conjured by the salsa tunes that were in the air everywhere during Lopez’s childhood. Lyrically, Lopez’s honesty is laid bare for all to hear, and he seems to strike a precarious balance between confidence and vulnerability, at once coming on like a swaggering Latin Lover but also subverting that stereotype at the same time, if you know how to read between the lines (“You need a lover like me” vs. “I don’t have the courage or money to take you out for the night”). In a recent interview Lopez confesses he wrote this about a person in his life with whom he had fallen deeply in love after he got divorced. “She was the most special woman I ever met and it was amazing being together,” but because of where they both were in their lives (he was much older and already had kids and she was young ready to start a family), he new he had to let her go. This experience was “extremely difficult and heartbreaking,” Lopez says, but he wanted her to be happy so the relationship ended before too much damage could be done. The song however dates from the initial period of infatuation, when Lopez first met her, as he was inspired to create a tribute to the “beautiful flamingo” who “brought me so much happiness when I was down in the dumps.” The flamingo is a reality-defying bird that is at once graceful and outlandish and is the perfect metaphor for the object of his ultimately unattainable love, adding to the sense of doomed romance born out by the incompatibility of the couple’s circumstances that ended the relationship. The song is full of yearning for love and healing, where the singer confesses, “I’m the diamond in the ruff, If you help shine me up, I’ll sing the prettiest lullaby, Rock you through the night.” There’s a certain fantastical flight of romantic fantasy that lends a wistful, dreamlike quality to the song when Lopez croons, “Even though I can’t fly, I’ll build you a mystic ship, Sail and watch the stars dance, Along my finger tips,” and this overtly romantic, poetic vibe also keys crucially into another Latin musical sensibility that Lopez taps into so well, namely the classic traditions of the bolero, balada and canción (as well as salsa romántica) that come from the heart as much as the head, feet and hips. As a new height of achievement in Rene Lopez’s ever-expanding catalog of gorgeously intriguing singles, “Flamingo” takes flight and certainly leaves you wondering what fresh angle on his Latin roots will the talented Nuyorican singer-songwriter explore next.