Mabe Fratti, a spark in Mexico City's experimental music scene
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Mabe Fratti, a spark in Mexico City's experimental music scene
Mabe Fratti in Berlin, June 8, 2024. The singer, cellist and composer has found inspiration in Mexico City’s experimental music scene — her new LP, “Sentir Que No Sabes,” wrestles with the idea of progress. (Maria Sturm/The New York Times)

by Carolina Abbott Galvão

NEW YORK, NY.- Ten years ago, cellist and experimental composer Mabe Fratti came across a strange painting by Paul Klee. “Angelus Novus” depicts an angel, wings splayed, eyes wide open, who looks as though he is about to flutter away from whatever he is looking at.

“It’s a metaphor for history,” she said, video calling from her friend’s living room couch in Berlin. “The philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote about it: this idea that we’re looking forwards but also always looking back.”

The concept would go on to form the basis for “Angel Nuevo,” the first song Fratti wrote on her new album, “Sentir Que No Sabes,” out Friday. “I wanted to talk about what it feels like to know you want to progress but not know where you want to go,” she said of the track, which starts out quietly and builds in an anxious crescendo.

Moving forward hasn’t exactly been a problem for Fratti, 32, who was born in Guatemala and is based in Mexico City. Since releasing her debut album, “Pies Sobre la Tierra,” in 2019, she has put out two more solo records, in addition to collaborations with her partner and producer, Venezuelan musician Hector Tosta (known as I la Católica); German electronic artist Gudrun Gut; and her improvisational quartet, Amor Muere. In just five years, she has built a reputation as the most prominent member of Mexico City’s dynamic and rapidly evolving experimental music scene.

Driven by an influx of musicians to the metropolis and the establishment there of new institutions — sound galleries like 316 Centro in the city’s La Merced neighborhood, and labels such as Umor Rex — the Mexican capital’s avant-garde music community has flourished in recent years.

Older musicians have been sowing these seeds since at least the 1970s, Fratti said, citing Ana Ruiz, a pianist who helped create Atrás del Cosmos, a “community of improvisers Don Cherry participated in,” and saxophone player Germán Bringas, who founded the venue Jazzorca in the 1990s.

While this world of artists, musicians and writers has always been close-knit, it is by no means exclusive. “There are a lot of free shows at public spaces,” Fratti said, “so people can stop and look and, if they like it, they stay.”

Camille Mandoki, a member of Amor Muere, agreed that the scene is “very open.”

“There’s noise around,” she noted, “there’s ambient around, there’s rock around, and all these things can get very mixed, which is, of course, great for the music.” This mélange, the singer and sound artist said, is crucial to understanding Fratti’s work.

“She’s super open to collaboration,” Mandoki said, “so obviously she then gets many different colors in her music from all these musicians, as well as her own perspective.”

Fratti is known for her minimalist structures: economical arrangements made up of distorted cello sounds that sometimes build upon each other. In “Sentir Que No Sabes” (Spanish for “To Feel Like You Don’t Know”), a pop sensibility often shows up in her voice, which tends to dip, glide and curve into these gaps.

Although Fratti credits the bulk of her growth as an artist to her involvement with the Mexico City scene, she first became interested in improvisation at a neo-Pentecostal megachurch back home in Guatemala, a giant concrete building now known as City of God.

“The cello would come in during the sad songs, and the pastor would tell me to play, so I played,” she recalled as she puffed on a pastel vape, her dark blue hoodie bunched around her neck. “I was improvising with zero knowledge of improvisation.” Eventually she started making her own songs and posting them on SoundCloud.

In 2015, organizers at the Goethe-Institut, a German cultural nonprofit, stumbled upon Fratti’s work online and invited her to take part in one of their international artist-in-residence programs, where she met Mexican noise artist Julian Bonequi. He showed her a video of South Korean cellist Okkyung Lee performing and invited Fratti to his radio station, where she encountered Don Malfon, born in Barcelona, Spain, who was playing solo, improvised sax.

“To me this was mind-boggling,” Fratti said, grinning, her eyes narrowing mischievously. “My experience with experimental music up until that point in Guatemala was with a quartet, which was more academic, but this was very free and, you know, kind of punk.”

A similar sense of urgency courses through Fratti’s new album. She and Tosta, who produced the project, began working on it as soon as the clock struck midnight on Jan. 1. “We started and didn’t stop,” she said. “It was super intense, sometimes to the point of being dizzying.”

“Sentir Que No Sabes” features Fratti’s signature plucky cello and haunting vocal arrangements, but it also finds the artist at her “grooviest,” as she put it. While she usually takes a melody-first approach, a strong rhythmic base underpins most of this album, inspired by what she called pop “bangers”: Lenny Kravitz’s “romantic stuff” and tracks by Alice in Chains, Argentine rocker Charly García and Peter Gabriel.

“We were trying to do things a different way,” Tosta said. “For example, we started some of the songs with the beat first, and then the singing, and everything else came after that.”

The relationship between pop and the avant-garde can be fraught. But Fratti appears to be comfortable being pulled in seemingly opposite directions — past and future, or the experimental and the conventional.

It is tempting to compare her to Arthur Russell, an experimental cellist and composer whose work in the 1980s encompassed disco, minimalism, new wave and folk. There are commonalities in their sounds and they share an instrument, but their strongest similarity perhaps lies in their knack for reinvention: Like Russell, who didn’t care much for genre conventions, Fratti is one of the few artists working with field recordings and tape manipulation who can also cite Britney Spears as an influence.

“I think Mabe has been successful because she has been bringing in new sounds and new textures without losing track of the song,” Tosta said.

At times, the new album sounds like pop music reflected in a fun-house mirror: “Enfrente” builds on a trip-hop beat before it breaks into a new age synth interlude; “Elastica II,” recorded at Willem Twee Studios in the Netherlands using tape manipulation, splices together dissonant cello fragments and drums that could have come from a T. Rex song.

Working on the LP has taught her that uncertainty is inevitable, and she’s still thinking about the different possibilities confusion can open up.

“I actually wrote a little poem about this after I finished the album,” Fratti said. “Confusion makes you more soft, but accepting that you don’t know also gives you space to change your mind.”

It has also helped her trust and open up to other people — something that feels vital to all forms of collaborative work.

“People are often worried about keeping their own authenticity or identity when they play with others,” she said, but they shouldn’t be. “When you are having a conversation with someone, you learn something. In music, it’s kind of the same.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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