When I was about 16 and I needed to learn my very first lessons about cooking, I fell in love with risotto. If I was on my own in the house and I needed lunch, I would hope for risotto. But the risotto we had in the house was Vesta pre-made packet Beef Risotto. Which was great. It was exactly what I wanted to eat. But it was box ready, synthetic risotto. Just put it in the pan and wait 20 minutes. It was about another 8 years until I really tasted risotto, at a restaurant in Buxton, Derbyshire. That night, I learnt that risotto maybe was not a cheap weekend lunch treat but a buttery artform that melted me completely.

This time of year, Strictly Come Dancing season, a good proportion of the British public, myself included, find ourselves immersed each weekend in latin rhythms. Salsa, Samba, Cha Cha and Rumba are common currency, but only in a pre-packed, box-ready, synthetic format, ready to be marked out of 10 within 90 seconds on each viewer’s part-drunken scale of merit.

It comes as a surprise and a delight to find an album like Una Rosa by Xenia Rubinos, which, for me, does for these rhythms and vocabularies of music what that night in Buxton did to my pallet. Rubinos, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of musical styles, a grounded spirit and a razor sharp instinct for how to blend her Carribean heritage with jazz, classical, hip hop and alternative rock, has built her own version of the rumba sway in a distinctive, imagination stretching, powerhouse album.

Title track ‘Una Rosa’ is Rubinos’ recreation of a traditional Puerto Rican melody composed by José Enrique Pedreira. Reminding her of childhood, the melody became a healing force as Rubinos struggled through a form of burnout in the wake of her previous album’s success. In this version, the historic roots of ‘Una Rosa’ are cherished. Domenica Fossati weaves the melody with a flute with the simplest of wooden percussion keeping the rhythm. The track deepens as Xenia Rubinos carries the melody with her voice and then with a deep synthesizer. As an electronic arpeggio is added, the piece fluctuates between the bright lights of the fairground and the deep dark of a nightclub. Constant movement, an unwillingness to be pinned down, are essential to this album.

‘Una Rosa’ hold tensions and contradictions. It manages to be nostalgic and futuristic, comforting, warm and washed in teutonic cold steel electronics, surrounded by community and  desolately alone. It holds a position for a second, but then it moves again. Elaborating on this, Xenia Rubinos speaks of a first ‘red’ side and a second ‘blue’ side of the album. ‘Working All The Time’ and ‘Sacude’ capture the aggressive nature of side A. ‘Working all the Time’ is a hip hop infused club hit about the incessant demands on individuals of hyper-capitalism. ‘Sacude’ translates into English as ‘Shake’, Rubinos sings ‘I’m carrying weight for the both of us / time to let it go’ before diving into a shadowy, cinematic salsa.

The switch to the more expansive, meditative ‘blue’ section is marked by ‘Don’t put me in Red’. Again, there is a refusal to be compartmentalised or pigeon-holed on this track. It’s personal and political with an unspoken melodic sense of threat acting as a frame to references to the cruelties and clichés of Trump’s America, and it manages to be jazz, rumba, hip hop and a little bit Radiohead. ‘Did My Best’ brings the vocoders and feels like it could combust into a dubstep anthem at any point, but there is a compelling restraint that brings each element of the track into sharp focus.

‘Una Rosa’ feels like one of the genuinely unique albums of 2021. It is a fascinating exploration of the ways in which engaging with genre while resolutely rejecting cliché or tired tropes is a way of creating something deeply personal. Elusive, rooted, vulnerable and compelling, Xenia Rubinos is this year’s queen of the rumba.

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