Since the advent of the singer-songwriter era, there’s been a pervasive notion in pop music that songwriting should be personally revelatory and confessional; that it should be an exercise in soul-baring intimacy and earnestness. After sometime in the early seventies, a pop song was no longer merely a pop song, but a scrambled enigma to decode and find details of the songwriter’s life. Gone were the days of Cole Porter writing wide-reaching “Night and Day”s or Jerome Kern composing something as universally appealing as “They Didn’t Believe Me”; now, thanks in large part to seminal records like John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band and Joni Mitchell’s Blue, the measure of authenticity was the constrainedly autobiographical.
And just as many other musical tropes established in the early 70s, this concept has largely stayed with us. Music somehow feels contrived and hokey if it is perceived to lack this intimately confessional nature, or it’s seen as nothing more than a farcical distraction, devoid of any real emotional poignancy; like a regular bar band covering all your favorite singalongs with sterile accuracy. It is rare to see a performance of other people’s songs, delivered with all the histrionics and gusto of a bawdy lounge performer, that still carries a great deal of emotional weight.
Meet Uruguayan musician/performer/author, Dani Umpi.
Dani Umpi has been a sort of cult showbiz personality this side of the continent for many years now– having published several novels (which have inspired film adaptations) and as an electro-pop musician putting on pretty over-the-top shows, gathering fans and accolades in the process. This is the side of his career that interests me the least: the songs are a little too synthetic for my tastes, the shows are a little too big (they will often culminate with dozens of people dancing on stage to the loud sound of synthesized beats and sugary keyboards). At last Friday’s show in No Avestruz (this cool little art bar in Palermo with awesome ambiance and shitty drinks), however, there was none of that: all we had on stage was one guitar and a couple of microphones.
Dani’s collaboration with fellow Uruguayan guitarist Adrian Soiza is known as Dramatica. The duo perform an eclectic array of covers– from Ace of Base to bossa nova classics to Argentinean punk rock– in sparse guitar-and-vocal arrangements, often times radically changing the songs to fit the format. The tone is set as soon as they take their places on the stage: Dani– wearing a tattered dress, sporting a long black wig and tall black heels probably too big for his feet– is all outrageousness and exuberance, inhabiting the songs like a master thespian, prancing unabashedly around the small stage. Adrian, by his side, in a suit and tie, short curly hair and sneakers, complements Dani’s stage presence with a calm and collected cool. The shtick is in place and executed perfectly, but what absolutely astounding here is the actual performance.
Dani and Adrian’s nearly two-hour set was an emotional rollercoaster– skirting the line between flamboyant outrageousness and heartbreaking beauty. Dani’s animated, nasal and sometimes-not-quite-on-key vocals bring an intense fragility to the songs, which are in turn held together by Adrian’s playfully masterful guitar playing– a rich and melodic fingerpicking style that’s equal parts bossa nova and punk rock, making tasteful use of the effect pedals to give sonic brushstrokes to the bare-bones arrangements. The interactions between these two enormously talented performers, their banter, the interplay between Adrian’s stopstutter guitar and Dani’s glottal stomp had the crowd delighted cheering and in great spirits throughout the entirety of the show.
And as the show reached its end, after its third enthusiastic encore performance (a wonderfully heartbreaking rendition of Argentinean punk-pop band El Otro Yo’s “No Me Importa Morir”), I couldn’t help think how silly and overrated the concept of “honesty” is in music– how putting on somebody else’s skin– or in this case, a wig and high heels– can bring out beauty and meaning in a song. Like Pollini playing Chopin, it’s all about how you make it your own, and the Dramatica duo certainly did that. During the quieter numbers, the entire theater would be in absolute silence as Dani’s plaintive vocals and Adrian’s elegant playing brought these songs– largely throwaway cover material– to emotional peaks just as powerful and satisfying as any other dimestore Eddie Vedder with a guitar singing about his pain possibly could.