Hurray for the Riff Raff’s new studio record, The Navigator, is a narrative concept album telling the story of a character, Navita, who resembles Alynda. Navita Milagros Negrón grows up poor and vulnerable on urban streets, but empowered by love and community, she overcomes fear to lead her people.
Navita discovers self-confidence set to Alynda’s soothing vocals and her new backing band’s Caribbean percussion. Kansas City–based Juan-Carlos Chaurand and Devendra Banhart’s drummer Gregory Rogove supplied the Cuban, Puerto Rican and Brazilian backing beats. It’s her first album without her fiddle player, Yosi Perlstein, but there’s still plenty of folk sound to the early songs, before Navita grows into maturity midway through, to a soundtrack of son montuno, plena and salsa sounds.
New Orleanians got a sampling of Navita’s story on Ash Wednesday with a solo pre-release show at Euclid Records—an event so packed that people stood on the stairs and reached over the aisles to see Alynda preface songs with songwriting inspiration. She asked the audience if New Orleans would be a good place to stage The Navigator as a play, which was her original intention. The crowd erupted, so look out Marigny Opera House and Southern Rep Theatre.
You just dropped some amazing news.
I got engaged at the railroad tracks!
That spot on the tracks at Press and Burgundy is where I started playing music. I guess I played some when I was a kid, but that’s where I was with my friends Barnibus and Kiawa, and we were all these little hobo kids. I had my washboard. We would just hang out there at night. I would just strum along, scratch along, and that’s where they were like, ‘You’re pretty good at harmonizing. We should all go busk together.’ So that’s where it all began, gathering there at the railroad tracks at night. That’s where I did a lot of listening, you know.
You say your ‘boyfriend’ proposed but now he’s—
My fiancée! [Laughs] Crazy. On my 30th birthday, too.
And it’s Mardi Gras season.
And I’m back in New Orleans. That makes me want to cry out of joy because I’m just so happy to be back here. It’s such a relief to be in New Orleans because of how divided our country is right now and how agitated and aggressive everyone is towards each other. Here, everyone is celebrating Mardi Gras together. We’re uniting under this tradition. Thinking about life together, joy together, and music and food—these things are universal. In Mardi Gras, we always make fun of our elected officials, so we can all agree they deserve to get poked at. It’s our duty.
New Orleanians show resistance through living and celebration. That has inspired me so much. When I first came here—growing up in New York, I didn’t know much about joy. Even though Puerto Rican people are joyous, I felt like we were such city people. We were very contained. At our family gatherings everyone was loud and wild, but New Orleans taught me about joy and about living on my own terms.
How was recording The Navigator with Paul Butler?
It was so fucking beautiful, this big house by the ocean in Stinson Beach. We all slept there, ate there, and bunkered down for two weeks. Paul was like, ‘Are you ready to go on this journey with me? Because I’m going to push you, try to make you better, get you out of your comfort zone. We’re going to wake you up and really dive into what this album is about.’ And I was ready to do it.
How was that without Yosi?
Yosi decided he didn’t want to tour anymore and wanted to live his life in Tennessee. So that was another really big change for me. It felt like I lost my partner in crime, you know, and this total comfort of having this person who’d been with me for so long. I felt like I’m finally riding solo now. And that’s the thing about having a band where you’re the songwriter. You gotta let people also live their lives.
Michael Stipe of R.E.M. said that being in a band is like being married.
It’s just like a marriage—well, I don’t know what marriage is like yet, but I’m about to find out! A lot of communication and patience and growing together. Where it’s different for me is that there’s also been a lot of divorces. There’s been a lot of, ‘Well, you gotta go your own way because you’re growing in a way that doesn’t include this project anymore. So I gotta let you go.’ In some ways, it’s like going to school with people or growing up with people and then going to different colleges. I’ll see ya around and I love you.
You and Sam Doores of the Deslondes started out together and collaborated on Small Town Heroes. Will y’all in the future?
Oh, I hope so. Me and him are so—we always say we’re siblings. We’re not soulmates but we were meant to meet, you know? We really changed each other’s lives. I’ve been so excited to see what he’s been doing. And now it feels good to live here again because, it’s like, ‘Man, we gotta make some music together.’ We’re still on really good terms and he’s always inspiring me. I love saying, ‘I wrote this song, is it good?’ and send it to him.
What do your knuckle tattoos—‘song bird’—represent?
I got these when I was nineteen. My friend Andy bought them from Electric Lady. I was singing but it’s not what I did or how I identified with myself, as a singer. But I knew I really wanted to. It was my way of making a commitment to myself. Terry Brown did them, the guy who now runs Downtown Tattoos.
And this monarch on your forearm? They fly through New Orleans all the time.
Yeah, my friend Pauly just did this. See, I got this matchbook [tattoo] after Small Town Heroes—it’s my strike another match, like Dylan, time to start a new thing. And this mariposa [the monarch butterfly] shows up in the album a lot. Mariposa is the name of Navi’s gang—I hope to make a play of it. It’s her street gang of all the weirdos and queers and girls, all the people living on the street who are vulnerable.
That vulnerability shows up in ‘Life To Save,’ which starts out and everything’s heavy, but the ‘morning opens like a Bible’ and Navi believes in herself again.
Yeah, she’s learned that her life is worth saving. She’s deciding that “I am going to be my navigator. I’ll be in charge of my destiny. I’ll go on an adventure. I’ll be an explorer.” The butterfly also represents ancestors to me, and that you’re flourishing. I got it from Kendrick Lamar, of course.
What’s your favorite song on the record?
‘Fourteen Floors.’ My aunt and uncle’s apartment where I lived growing up was on the fourteenth floor, but it was actually the thirteenth floor and just called the fourteenth because thirteen is unlucky. I remember being like, ‘It’s still the thirteenth floor. We’re still unlucky.’ And my aunt saying, ‘Stop being such a smartass all the time.
And my dad is a very inspired man, a dreamer, beatnik to the core. I remember him being like, ‘Alynda, you should write a song about growing up way up in the sky in a bird’s nest on the fourteenth floor.’ That’s a great idea. He’s always riffing, says things like ‘ya dig.’ He’s an old jazz musician.
What does your dad play?
He was a music teacher at a public school so he can play a lot. He plays the bass saxophone, the flute and the piano. He plays everything. When I’d go visit him he’d play the keyboard and I would sing. I’d sing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ ‘You Light Up My Life,’ all these really corny songs. When I was really little I would sing with him. Then in middle school is when I got inward and self-conscious, and very angsty, I was like ‘Ugh, I hate everything.’
But ‘Fourteen Floors’ was where I broke free in the recording process. I did something new and felt like that’s how I want to sound. I like how meditative it is. And I really loved talking about my father’s journey from the island over here. It’s such an immigrant song. That’s why I love it.
You’ve been a big supporter of the Dakota Sioux at Standing Rock.
Oh, yeah, and what happened recently is a national tragedy. It’s just terrible. The fact that their camps were burned is so symbolic, so much that’s going on is symbolic. Its like, ‘You thought you won. You did not win, and we’re burning it down.’ It’s trying to kill the hope that we all—well, the supporters had. How can anyone who has kids or anyone who wants kids not think this is important? This is our water.
Is it important because it’s about clean water or about the people or about the sovereignty of the tribe?
Everything. It’s symbolic for native people. It was about the importance of respecting native land and the history of native people in this country. There’s also the spiritual aspect, which is very important to me. These people are thinking about their ancestors. I was inspired for that reason: These people are coming together peacefully and they’re harnessing their spiritual power. They’re praying for the earth. It goes back to the idea of leaving the earth in a better position for future generations. It’s also important because we’re denying that we’re human in a lot of ways. Like, I love when they say, ‘You can’t drink money or oil. You can only drink water.’
We gotta recognize we’re human beings and we need clean water. People in Louisiana are in touch with this, too, because of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the wetlands disappearing.
You told me before that American landscapes and National Parks made you feel patriotic. Last fall, you did a PBS-televised concert as part of the Bluegrass Underground series in Tennessee’s Cumberland Caverns. Why are these public spaces important?
As a city kid, it’s where I first experienced nature and realized what all we had. And I grew up with Sesame Street in the city. I don’t know where it is right with cutting funding for public lands and public support for the arts—but isn’t that such a symbol for how they’re trying to make sure that poor people don’t get an education and don’t get an experience in nature? Poor people from all over of all different races. It’s a shame, and we can’t sleep on it. It’s the beginning of a fight and the children deserve it. Our country is so rich, and really? That’s where we’re gonna cut the budget? I’d like to cut some trips to Mar-a-Lago.
How can the musical arts help people of opposing viewpoints come together?
Well, there’s a reason why music is very important to advertisements. Music tugs at our heartstrings. It does something where it causes this memory or this emotion—it brings it up for us and it’s really hard to control. It makes us vulnerable. It makes us care. That’s why they use it.
So music can make even the most guarded person who has the strongest beliefs and is set in their beliefs, it can open their heart a little and make you remember something, feel something, that can make you question these strict guidelines you’ve created. It can help you think past the necessity of destroying these trees because it’s good for business. Hearing music or seeing art can take you out of the matrix, you know, to think about what’s really important in life.