20th February, 1993
Within the first few notes, "El Costo De La Vida" shimmered its way into my favorite of the songs I've listened to for this project. It's something we haven't heard before, something we haven't even come close to hearing before; even the few trópical tracks we've had before weren't this light-footed and funky, big muscular salsa or jacking dancehall instead of goosey, jiving merengue with bachata guitars and afro-pop percussion.
Or rather afro-pop guitars and bachata percussion. If it's not easy to draw a clear distinction between the dance music of the Dominican Republic and the dance music of Western Africa, there's a reason for that; not only is the music of the Caribbean more African than European or native (a mixed heritage to which Guerra refers when he sings "una raza encendida, negra, blanca y taína" — "a race on fire, black, white and Taíno"), but twentieth-century African pop has long drawn inspiration from the music of the Caribbean.
But then this isn't a song produced by anonymous, collective Caribbean, or even Dominicans — Juan Luis Guerra (both with and without his muso band 440) is one of the major figures of modern Latin Pop, and it's only the vagaries of US airplay that has kept us from considering him before now. Most of Latin America was introduced to him in 1989, when "Ojalá Que Llueva Café" ("if only it rained coffee") became the biggest Dominican hit to date, and introduced his hyperliterate, danceable fusion of merengue, bachata and highlife to an international audience which ate it up. If there's a comparable figure in Anglophone pop, it would be as if Billy Bragg had had George Michael's career — only he never went away. (Not to upset a certain bunny, but stay tuned for lots more Guerra over the years.)
"El Costo De La Vida" means "the cost of living," and as usual with the phrase there's an implicit "high" in there. Both an unrelentingly funky dance track, with the call-and-response and punctuating horns typical of tropical music, and a sharp-tongued analysis of the political and economic woes of the early 90s (although, he noted with despair, very little about it would need to be updated to reflect 2010), it was also, if Wikipedia can be trusted, a source of controversy, as certain  listeners heard anti-capitalism and anti-Americanism in its litany of ills (accurately! see below) and certain  countries actually banned it from airplay, afraid of pissing off the US. That it reached number one here anyway (if only for a week) is a testament to its innate danceability rather than to the radicalism of the Spanish-speaking population in America.
That radicalism: "Democracy cannot grow if corruption plays chess." "Unemployment also bit me/No one cares, because you see/We don't speak English/Or Mitsubishi/Or Chevrolet." "We are a perforation in between sky and sea/Five hundred years later a race on fire/Black, white and Taíno/But who discovered who?" All of it punctuated with chirrups and "ya ves" ("now you see") because, after all, this is a dance song. But it's also a political song, and a literary political song at that.
Not only is this now my favorite song I've heard so far in this project, the more I listen to it and study the lyrics and shimmy to its intoxicating rhythm, it's fast becoming one of my favorite songs ever. One of the key tracks of the 90s, of world music history, of pop music generally. This is me grabbing you by the lapels and shaking you: listen to this song.