Your Family of Man's Mustache

On Carnabailito, Gaby Kerpel moves into the culturally and technologically hybrid neighborhood settled by Chicano Latin Playboys, Brazilian Tom Zé, and French-Catalan Manu Chao. A New York-based Buenos Aires native, Kerpel created the ritualistic soundtrack behind the business-suited aerialists and rain machines of De La Guarda, the globally successful interactive Argentinean circus with the ironically virtual feel. Produced by Argentine rock trailblazer Gustavo Santaolalla, Carnabailito explores the theater piece's South American musical elements much more pointedly. But as you might infer from the cover art--family-of-man Inca flautist impersonated by a white child with painted mustache--authenticity is not the subject of this enterprise, which mounts a conscious encounter between folk elements, electronic technology, and that useful organic processor, the brain.

Kerpel records live performances that he then digitizes, juices up, and reassembles. But the actual sound persists through the distortions. Inspired by a mix of South American influences, the record opens to sweet, rough accordion, moving toward carnivale through instruments traditional and untraditional--flute, kalimba, Chinese violin, regional guitar variants, bell, echo, sound mic, child--with a running (traditional?) theme of unrequited love, obsessive in Kerpel's hoarse, faintly comic voice. The kind of guy who never goes anywhere without his portable studio, Kerpel is an admirer of ambient sound, including silence and other accidents, which he sometimes invokes via jarring, offbeat arrangements. As the Latin Playboys know well, recording tricks, texture, and timing can construct an abstracted sense of place--sideshow hurly-burly, rural isolation, thin-walled claustrophobia. A grating sound repeated can seem shabby, homey, like "Herías Sin Herir"'s hints of a familiar, half-broke old machine. Or Kerpel will use space to frame minimal moments--the nameless looped child's song is pretty intense. But that sort of effect probably interferes with the groove--welcome on cuts like "Xplicámelo" and "Sintenerte"--whose intermittent absence is the record's chief weakness.

If more pop than folkie, Carnabailito is also more avant-garde than pop. Its trim, functional felicity addresses an age of home technology and uncertain home. This is multipurpose, carry-on art. Its minimalish, nostalgia-shunning combinations provide pleasant strangeness and melancholy comfort for a new tribe of nomads--hv lptp, hv iPod, hv prtbl stdio, wl trvl.

Village Voice, Oct. 7, 2003