If mixing musical genres required a visa, American-Argentine pop-folk artist Kevin Johansen would no doubt face more bureaucratic hurdles than even his culture-hopping, transnational upbringing would have required. The bilingual American-born artist, in addition to seamlessly fusing his two mother tongues into sui generis Spanglish, combines a mishmash of international and regional styles—everything from cumbia to milonga to funk to reggae—in his compositions. While many of the many musical and linguistic references—from sambas and candombes to Tom Waits and James Brown—may be lost on some listeners, Johansen's humorous performance style and pop sensibility have taken him from the rock underground to commercial success in Argentina and beyond. What Johansen calls on his website the "de 'genre' ate" nature of his music led Carlos Schroder of the e-Folk Music website to dub him "the new cult-postmodern-folk-musician of his generation."
Kevin Johansen was born in Fairbanks, Alaska, where he lived until age five. His Argentine mother and American father (who reportedly fled the "lower 48" to avoid the Vietnam-era draft) later separated and his mother remarried. Upon leaving Alaska, Johansen lived for brief periods in San Francisco, Phoenix, and Denver. At age 12, he moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where an uncle's gift of a guitar prompted his interest in music. Despite having an Argentine mother, he had problems speaking Spanish at first. A few months later, he packed up once again moved to Montevideo, Uruguay, for two years. The constant movement between countries and cultures allowed him to collect musical imprints the way travelers collect stamps in their passports.
Returning to Argentina as an adolescent in the 1980s, Johansen made his debut on the Buenos Aires underground rock scene with a folk-pop band called Instrucción Cívica (Social studies), which released Obediencia Debida in 1985. The album, moderately popular in Argentina, reached gold record status—in Peru. The group followed up with Instrucción Cívica in 1987.
On October 12, 1990, around his twenty-fifth birthday, Johansen left Argentina to rediscover the country of his childhood. Upon arriving in New York, where he would live for the next decade, he supplemented his musical career with several jobs: he worked as a barman in the Roger Smith Hotel, a tour guide at the United Nations, and, at one time, dog walker for comedienne Joan Rivers. Soon after his arrival Johansen met Hilly Kristal, owner and founder of the legendary underground rock venue CBGB and the accompanying music label. "Since CBGB's had sort of became my artistic home, the owner, Hilly Kristal, helped me a lot to play there every weekend and record whenever I wanted," Johansen told Rock Clandestino. "That helped me become a professional. The idea of making records was always there, and luckily I had someone willing to record me."
Although Johansen originally rejected Spanish lyrics, he slowly yielded to Kristal's insistence that he be himself. He soon became a Saturday-night fixture at CBGB, and also played such renowned venues as the Knitting Factory and the Mercury Lounge. He even recorded four albums with the CBGB label. After ten years in New York, however, Johansen returned to Argentina in 2000 with his Argentine wife and their daughter just as political and economic chaos descended on the country.
He brought with him a number of recordings, most backed with New York-based Latin American musicians, which he intended to remix and release as an album. Persuaded by the independent record label Los Años Luz that the material was ready to go and didn't need any further work, he released Nada in 2001. The album, later released in Spain on the K Industrias label, included tracks such as "McGuevaras O CheDonalds" and "You're the Bossa."
Nada established Johansen as "the new cult-postmodern-folk-musician of his generation," said Carlos Schroder on the e-Folk Music website. "This hybridity means that everybody will get some and will lose some while keeping time with their feet as they listen to Johansen's music. For Johansen, 'mixture is the future' but it is also the home he inhabits."
"All this traveling back and forth, so tied to his personality, has turned him into an original being—inclassifiable, terribly funny—who integrates cultures with ease," said the Spanish newspaper El Mundo. "He sings in English, French, in Argentine, in Spanglish. He mixes cumbias, tangos, French chanson and whatever else pops up." The song "Campo Argentino," for example, repeats similar but differently nuanced sentences in English, Spanish, and French, using an Argentine folk form known as the malambo, mixed with French chanson and American country. Sung in a voice that some critics have compared to that of Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, Johansen's songs are sometimes entirely in English or Spanish. Others are pure Spanglish.
In 2002 Johansen released Sur o no Sur (South or not south). The title song is a play on Shakespeare's "To be or not to be," (ser o no ser in Spanish) and describes the existential conflicts facing emigrants: "I leave because here I can't, I come back because there I can't either.… I'd like to stay here at home, but I no longer know which that is."
While Nada had a Central American feel, Sur o no Sur was closer to the music of Argentina, featuring the bandoneón (a German concertina that became synonymous with the tango). Dishing up his usual mix of humor and sarcasm, Johansen included the heavily accented "Anglotourism" about vistors to Argentina, "Hindu Blues" played on the banjo, and a James Brown tribute called "Chill out James" played on the glockenspiel. It was the English-language song "Down With my Baby"—which Johansen called "Barry White meets Nirvana"—that won over the Argentine public. It was later used in the television soap opera Resistiré
Sur o no Sur became a huge commercial success in Argentina and caught the attention of Sony Argentina. In March of that year, Johansen played in Buenos Aires' largest theatre, the Gran Rex. That same year, Johansen was nominated for Best Artist (Argentina) and Best New Artist (Argentina) at the MTV Video Music Awards Latin America 2003. Although he didn't win either award, Johansen did perform at the ceremony.
For the Record …
Born Kevin Johansen in the mid-1960s in Fairbanks, AK; son of an American father and an Argentine mother; married an Argentine dancer, with whom he returned to Buenos Aires in 2000.
Guitarist and vocalist for the Argentine folk-pop band Instrucción Cívica, mid-1980s; released Obediencia Debida in 1985 and Instrucción Cívica in 1987. House musician for CBGB in New York City, 1990s, with appearances at the Knitting Factory and Mercury Lounge. Recorded four albums with CBGB Records. Released The Nada in Argentina in 2001, followed by Sur o no sur in 2002.
Addresses: Record company— Los Años Luz Discos, website: http://www.laldiscos.com. Booking— Gutier rez Hernan Booking & Management, Cuba 2737, (1428) Buenos Aires, Argentina, phone: +5411 4706 0300, fax: +5411 4706 0300, e-mail: [email protected]. Website— Kevin Johansen Official Website: http://www.kevinjohansen.com.
In early 2004 Kevin Johansen and the Nada were touring in the United States and Spain, promoting the Sony Music release of Sur o no Sur. Johansen was accompanied by five musicians playing flute, saxophone, percussion, guitar, and violin, as well as 63-year-old Zurdo Roistner, legendary drummer for performers like Astor Piazzolla. Johansen described the group as a sort of alter ego with which he hoped to record another album. He wants to achieve the same kind of international success that he's enjoyed in Argentina, and he intends to use technology to reach his increasing audience. "To be able to record and publish your stuff from any point in the world right now, thanks to … the terrible word 'globalization' … It also gives you the opportunity to kind of develop a project from wherever you are, and that was a great lesson," Johansen told National Public Radio.
The Nada, Los Años Luz, 2001.
Sur o no Sur, Los Años Luz/Sony, 2002.
Billboard, December 13, 2003.
El Mundo, March 3, 2004.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, December 1, 2003
"An Alaskan Pop Star Finds Fame in Argentina," Christian Science Monitor, http://www.csmonitor.com/2003/1024/p18s01-almp.html (May 13, 2004).
"Continental Post-Folk: Kevin Johansen," e-Folk Music, http://www.efolkmusic.org/FolkZine/folkzinefeature6.asp (March 6, 2004).
"Kevin Johansen," Mondomix, http://www.mondomix-media.com/womex/ShowcasesOFF/artistes-off.php?artiste_id=102 (March 6, 2004).
"Kevin Johansen," Rock Clandestino, http://www.rockclandestino.com/pag/notas/kevinjohansen_interview.htm (March 8, 2004).
Kevin Johansen Official Website, http://www.kevinjohansen.com (March 4, 2004).
"Kevin Johansen: Rock Star with Bilingual Twist," National Public Radio, http://www.npr.org/display_pages/features/feature_1466980.html (October 16, 2003).
—Brett Allan King
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