By Sasha Frere-Jones
In 1962, at the age of nine, Luca Prodan was sent from Italy to Scotland. The son of a successful art dealer, he was bound for Gordonstoun, the same boarding school Prince Charles attended. A few years later, after he'd learned to play guitar from the school’s Boy Scout leader, Prodan sold a shotgun to fund a trip back to Italy; upon returning to the U.K., he moved between Brighton, Manchester, and London, became addicted to heroin, worked in a record store, and occasionally wrote songs. He left for the hills of central Argentina in 1979 to live with a boarding school classmate, Timmy MacKern, and get clean. After moving to Hurlingham, a suburb of Buenos Aires, he formed a band called Sumo, who released their debut cassette, Corpiños en la Madrugada, in 1983, and became famous almost instantly. Sumo made three albums of filtered reggae, early digital reverb, and spindly rock for CBS Records in the next four years. Prodan died from alcohol-related causes at the end of 1987. He was 34.
In 2016, you can find “Luca Vive!” graffiti in Buenos Aires. T-shirts bearing Prodan’s face are still sold. This summer, one writer I spoke to said that the city’s biggest pop station, La 100, had just played a Sumo song from 1987 under the weather report; another said he’d seen two different indie bands quote Sumo songs during their sets this year. Spanish-language rock acts outside Argentina who have found success with Anglophone audiences — like Manu Chao — cite Luca and Sumo as influences. Within Argentina, Sumo have proven as fertile and ubiquitous as James Brown in the States.
Despite this, Sumo are barely known in the U.S.; they don't make the cut for Wikipedia’s English-language entry on Rock en español, for instance. This isn’t because Sumo albums are hard for Anglophones to find — they’re all available on iTunes and Spotify. Rather, Sumo faces the same challenges as any band that cultivates local music and ignores the idea of a global market. Prodan’s lyrics focus on Argentinian issues; Sumo’s use of reggae was a reaction to prevailing trends there that didn’t necessarily prevail elsewhere; and the band didn’t favor the dark or the experimental. When non-Anglo groups like Os Mutantes are discovered by American audiences, there is usually either an overt reference to American music (in that case, '60s psychedelia) or a level of avant garde tomfoolery signalling, intentionally or not, highbrow advance. Other people’s party music, revolutionary or not, doesn’t travel as easily.
Jamaican dancehall renews American pop every few years; in 2016, Drake, Rihanna, and Young Thug have put Jamaican music and ideas back in front of listeners. But the North American pop audience open to Assassin and Popcaan today isn't necessarily here for Sumo's version of reggae, which was filtered through both Italian and Argentine sensibilities. A recording from 1983 of Prodan singing “Play I some music, I hope I don't come on too strong” on “Regtest” sounds, at best, awkward. (Maybe The Clash’s “Police and Thieves” would sound odd now, too.) This isn’t exactly, or only, a question of cultural appropriation. Bands like Magic! and Twenty One Pilots have built pop hits from reggae, but the overlap between the audiences for “Controlla,” “Ride,” "Rude," Sumo's “Regtest,” and Marley's “Them Belly Full” could easily be zero. The American audience was softened up for these hits with decades of dorm-room Marley consumption. In the last 20 years, dancehall has become the soil for other Anglophone iterations of dance music, from drum-and-bass to reggaeton. The West Indian musical diaspora reaches both Jamaican expats and pop audiences who are entirely unaware of what music they’re hearing.
Sumo’s version of reggae sounds like 1983 without having the virtue of being actual 1983 reggae. Once Anglophone bands like The Clash and The Police had delivered their versions of Jamaican music, American audiences began moving towards versions that were fewer degrees separated from the source, like UB40. And the motherlode itself, as condensed into Marley’s Legend compilation, has still outsold all derivations. Sumo might have made it in America, if promoted from the start. In 2016, they are on the other side of a sandbar that can’t be worn down.
They were on the wrong side of other divides, too. What felt like punk rock to Buenos Aires in 1983 would not have cut it in L.A., D.C., or New York City. America needed to wind up punk rock until it could spark hard enough to hit Reagan from 10 states away. In 1983, Argentina was barely out of the Falklands War and a decade of paramilitary death squads. Sumo's strength was a bald Italian who owned the latest in drum machine technology and was willing to trash celebrities. “Luca talked shit about Sid Vicious, calling him an idiot — and he said that because he met him!” Ale Cohen tells me.
Cohen was raised in Buenos Aires and then moved to Los Angeles, where he helped found the DJ collective dublab. Back then, he explains, Buenos Aires needed its own punk rock, which didn’t necessarily involve punk as others knew it. “The political climate of Argentina in the late ’70s and early ’80s was one of repression by the government," Cohen says. "There was also an obsession with being as European as possible, in the cultural sense.” Prog rock dominated the local live scene; it's easy to think of the common theory that sees the Sex Pistols as the inverse of ELP. But a few years make all the difference, and 1983 was a lifetime after that early rush of first-wave punk. “Reggae music didn't exist here," Argentinean journalist Pablo Strozza has said. "Luca introduced two things: post-punk and reggae.”
What played to this crowd wasn’t speed and noise — it was a combination of humor, simpler forms, and Martin Hannett’s reverb. The first Sumo album on CBS was Divididos por la felicidad, as unsubtle a reference to Joy Division as you can get in Spanish. When I first heard it, at the distance a crowded bar creates, there was enough barking and roto-tom drumming to remind me of other things I love, like Rip Rig + Panic and The Pop Group. This link to the English post-punk bands that would play any kind of music, even three at a time, was not just a gesture. The very first version of Sumo featured Stephanie Nuttall as the drummer — the only British person to ever play with Sumo. Nuttall had been in the Manchester band Manicured Noise, who rumbled through reggae, jazz, and improvisation in the winning, faded way of early ’80s English bands. Prodan convinced Nuttall to join him in Argentina in 1981, when he made a brief visit to England to sell his London flat. Nuttall recorded a three-song demo with Sumo, then returned home when the Falklands War broke out the following year.
Heard in broad daylight, Divididos por la felicidad buckles slightly. Prodan can read as bro more than hero: In the radio hit “La Rubia Tarada,” the singer, or his character, asks a woman how much she spent on her hair and says that her society disgusts him. (He concludes by announcing that he is off to drink gin with the “awake people.”) “Kaya,” the final track on the band's debut, is not a Bob Marley cover; it's Andy Samberg’s Ras Trent, 30 years early. Prodan adopts a cod Jamaican accent as he sings about the “big bambu” and his taste for kaya, and let’s leave it at that.
But there were so many dodgy lyrics in 1983 in the English-speaking world that it feels unfair to abandon Prodan too quickly, and streaming their music today gives an incomplete picture of Sumo. Without prompting, every Buenos Aires native I spoke to delivered some version of two verdicts. The first is “For Argentina and rock, there is before Sumo, and after Sumo.” The second is a consistent endorsement of their live performances, especially the lineup working right before Prodan’s death.
The closest we can get to a Sumo show is Rodrigo Espina’s 2008 film Luca, which contains footage from several VHS videos made during Prodan’s lifetime. Though people in Buenos Aires alleged that Prodan was the equivalent of various historical figures — including Che Guevara and Jim Morrison — this American eye saw a charming and fearless goofball. Imagine Andy Kaufman crossed with Iggy Pop, then add more smiling — that’s Luca.
Due to his good nature or his ability to share gin, Prodan seemed to have embedded with the awakened folks by the last album made during his lifetime, 1987's After Chabón. “Mañana en el Abasto” is a song I couldn’t have decoded without the input of Argentinians. Though the band had by then turned into a muscular New Wave act flying the reggae flag, “Mañana” resurrects Manchester one last time.
The song feels like a thinned-out version of Joy Division’s “Atmosphere,” and Prodan’s lyrics (these in Spanish) have leapt forward. Gone are the jokes and yo-ho-ho moments, replaced by the non-repetitive rhythm of a short story. The song opens with Prodan describing a sunny morning and a girl passing under an elevator, afraid. He reassures her that his head is shaved because of his work: Self-deprecation has replaced swagger. Men are drinking wine in the streets and tomatoes are rotting. Prodan takes the train home and ends the song with the words "I’m in the basement, I’m in the basement" (estoy en el subsuelo, estoy en el subsuelo).
Singing about whatever common people do wasn’t the song’s only slant; the Abasto neighborhood was the home of tango legend Carlos Gardel, whom Prodan namechecks in the song. Referring to a legend of the past in a moment of rejecting the past is something maybe only Prodan was able to pull off. And then he pulled out, for good.
“I believe he had absolutely no ego and a shaved head,” Cohen says. “What can you do about that?”
Thanks to Roque Casciero, Alejandro Cohen, Walter Fresco, Timmy MacKern, Sergio Marchi, Alfredo Rosso, and Pablo Strozza for their assistance.