I’ve been a hungry ghost/ So I travel coast to coast
In New Orleans we watched Alynda Segarra grow from a ragged teenage traveler singing shyly on the streets of the French Quarter to the talented songwriter fronting Hurray for the Riff Raff. Her phenomenal progress continues on The Navigator, a coming-of-age statement that immediately places her high in the pantheon of singer-songwriters from her generation. Segarra’s voice is powerful and nuanced on her strongest collection of material yet. Several songs on the album, including “Living in the City” and “Rican Beach,” are potential hits, but fans of her previous work may well gravitate to the powerful “Hungry Ghost,” a flat-out rocker that punches like a track from Patti Smith’s landmark Horses album.
I’ve been nobody’s child/ So my blood started running wild
The album concept is loosely based on the title, the superheroine avatar of a street kid named Navita who is trying to connect with her past in order to “pa’lante”—to move forward. The story mirrors Segarra’s own journey from her birthplace in the Bronx and her upbringing in a tenement surrounding, referenced in “Living in the City” and “Fourteen Floors,” to the self-realization she began to achieve hanging out on the Lower East Side of Manhattan listening to music, writing poetry and exploring her Latina roots as part of the Nuyorican Cafe group. The music ranges from the kind of folk ballads that her longtime fans will recognize in songs like “Nothing’s Gonna Change That Girl” and “Halfway There” to a daring mix of salsa, rap and rock featured on the title track, “Rican Beach” and “Finale.”
I’ve been a heart for hire/ And my love’s on a funeral pyre
“Hungry Ghost” resonates on numerous levels. Segarra has written about the tragedies that traveler friends of hers have suffered before, but this time she expands that view to include D.I.Y. spaces like the Ghost Ship in Oakland, where a fire killed 33 people last December. There’s no specific reference to the Ghost Ship in the song—“my love’s on a funeral pyre” could as easily be taken as a Jim Morrison reference—but the video, with its dreamlike dancers alternating with Segarra singing the words on a kind of altar, makes the connection.
I’ve been a lonely girl/ Now I’m ready for the world
I’ve seen some reactions on social media that indicate some of Segarra’s fans are uneasy with the new direction, but her ability to reach back and write about her life before traveling to New Orleans is a powerful sign of artistic growth. Segarra is incorporating clavé rhythms and Puerto Rican dialect into her songs, but she clearly is building on rather than abandoning the lessons she learned on the streets of New Orleans. The last show of her current European/American tour will be at the Civic Theatre in New Orleans on May 5. That’s another sort of homecoming.