The guitarist, drummer, and musical polyglot Ani Cordero will be performing some of her seismic solo work with several of her longtime collaborators at the David Rubenstein Atrium on Thursday, January 31. Ahead of the performance, writer and author Paula Mejía caught up with Cordero to talk about her life in music, speaking truth to power, and her work to help Puerto Rican artists in the wake of Hurricane Maria.


"Follow your dreams" is requisite (if a bit monotonous) advice for artists. But Ani Cordero, the whip-smart Puerto Rican songwriter and musician, has had recurring dreams recently—all of them about machetes—that are sonically and psychically guiding her forthcoming album, El Machete. "I have crazy dreams, let it be known," she laughs. The first one, she says, involved fighting a vampire king, which she speculates might be symbolic of colonialism and the disaster capitalism on the island that followed the devastation of Hurricane Maria. Another dream, about her grandfather, brought a song with it. "We were cutting sugarcane that kept coming back. . . . I woke up from that dream with a full song in my head," she says. "I went into the kitchen and sang it into the phone, and it's now on the album. Despite the turbulence in this moment in time, spiritually and artistically it's been very fruitful."

For several decades and throughout many musical projects, from the barreling accordion swells of Pistolera to her own solo work, Cordero has unfurled worlds in song that mirror the realities we face, fraught and astonishing at once. Her approach to El Machete is admittedly different than what she usually goes for in the studio: instead of playing drums on all the records, as she usually does, Cordero is working with Chilean producer Pablo San Martin to build hip hop–style beats. She isn't working on a precise timeline either—instead she's following the dreams she has at night, and will see where they lead.

In many ways Cordero, who grew up traveling back and forth between San Juan and Atlanta, Georgia, has always followed this ethos in her music, driven by ideas that enrich the mind as well as the ear. Growing up in a musical family that was particularly interested in folkloric music and protest songs, Cordero wanted to be a drummer since childhood, and was finally able to when she auditioned for snare in her high school band. The experience playing snare drumline-style was formative. "I think that it gave me my backbeat honestly," she says. She soon started playing in punk bands, then indie bands, and hasn't stopped since.

At Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, Cordero studied international relations, with a focus on the transition from dictatorship to democracy. There she met professor and mentor Dr. Juan Allende, the brother of Isabel Allende and the nephew of Salvador Allende, who was president of Chile before Augusto Pinochet's regime. "As part of that, I learned about the very high stakes and prices that artists were paying for being vocal advocates for social justice," she says, noting that learning more in-depth about this part of history came as a shock. "I was part of the punk rock scene—people sang whatever they wanted. How is it that your request for people having food to eat equals you being tortured and killed?"

All the while, she toured at a breakneck pace with her band #1 Family Mover: driving home overnight from gigs in Nashville so she could make her 8:00 a.m. class wasn't unusual. Later, when the band broke up, Cordero headed to Tucson, Arizona, on what she says was "basically a sabbatical to learn how to play guitar and write songs. I thought, 'This is a terrible feeling to realize that I depend on other people for my creative output.' That's where I decided to start being a songwriter."

Six months later, she moved to New York with her now-husband, Chris Verene, and the two started performing together as Cordero. She's been in the city ever since, performing in scores of bands including Pistolera, led by Sandra Lilia Velasquez, which imbues social consciousness with cumbia rhythms. While no longer in Pistolera, Cordero has continued creating activism-imbued songs on her own. In 2014, she released Recordar, an album on which she covered iconic songs by the likes of Chavela Vargas, Piero, and Violeta Parra, and 2017's stunning Querido Mundo, a poignant look at our present reality.
 


Along with Raquel Berrios and Luis Alfredo del Valle of Buscabulla, Cordero is also a cofounder of PRIMA, the Puerto Rico Independent Musicians and Artists Fund, which they created in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Since its founding, the group has given out emergency grants and other resources to help artists whose livelihoods, homes, and futures were threatened by the storm. The organization flew four bands to the Latin Alternative Music Conference in New York City, where they performed at a showcase and attended the conference. Recently, PRIMA helped connect Newport Folk Festival and Alynda Lee Segarra (of Hurray for the Riff Raff) with island-based musicians to do workshops and donate $20,000 worth of musical instruments to schools in Puerto Rico. "Those are the kinds of things we're doing with PRIMA now: being a resource, and helping increase visibility for musicians on the island," Cordero says. "But it also speaks to how many musicians wake up and still figure it out and hustle and still keep moving forward with their work despite the obstacles."


Paula Mejía is a freelance arts and culture writer based in Brooklyn, New York, whose work has been published in The New Yorker, New York Magazine, NPR, The Paris Review, Rolling Stone, and others.