There’s a weary innocence to the musician Cuco, whose début album, “Para Mí,” released on Friday, somehow manages to be as catchy as it is morose.
Photograph by Cameron Postforoosh
In June of 2016, a shy teen-ager named Omar Banos uploaded a short clip to YouTube, in which he played slide guitar along to Santo and Johnny’s weepy instrumental hit “Sleep Walk,” from 1959. At the time, he was seventeen and a self-described “hermit,” a high-school band geek who spent a lot of his time alone, making music in his bedroom. He was raised in Hawthorne, a suburb of Los Angeles, the only child of Mexican immigrants. Banos had a soft spot for psychedelic drugs, and a gift for composing exquisite melodies. It was as though he were writing songs about love in order to conjure it into being. He built his songs out of blissful synths and crisp guitars, his lyrics full of the fantasy and the yearning of someone dreaming of love from afar. He posted music online as Cuco, Spanish for “cuckoo”—his mom’s affectionate nickname for him.
The “Sleep Walk” clip went viral, in part because Banos was wearing a T-shirt of the rapper Pouya, who eventually found out and then retweeted it to his followers. People began listening to the music that Banos was making as Cuco. Within months, he was playing small shows throughout Southern California, often in friends’ back yards. He borrowed from jangly indie pop, bolero, samba, psychedelic rock, and soul music, switching freely between Spanish and English. Some of his ballads were influenced by the sluggish dreaminess of chopped and screwed hip-hop. His music proved especially meaningful to young Latinx listeners, particularly those who saw themselves in Cuco’s dreamy odes and shouted along to songs like the joyfully hazy “Amor de Siempre” or the spangly, prom-ready “Lo Que Siento.”
Cuco’s début album, “Para Mí,” was released on Friday. It’s an album of extreme highs and lows, though everything sounds pretty carefree and blissful. One moment, he’s singing along lazily to syrupy, kaleidoscopic textures; the next, he’s cursing out an ex with a bratty, self-loathing petulance. Sometimes it seems that the melodies, so effortless and abundant, act as a distraction from his neuroses. On “Keeping Tabs,” he’s coasting along to a quirky synth line, singing about getting high and playing Nintendo. But peace of mind eludes him. “I’m not satisfied / Where my mind resides / Hell is bound to find me / And if I find the light then that shit is gonna blind me,” he sings, retreating back into the song’s sparkling textures.
“Far Away from Home” is a gorgeous piano ballad, something like Randy Newman in outer space. Yet, even on that track, Banos returns to his loneliness—of “rotting in the image of my head.” Eventually, he seems to scribble all the pain away with a hot-blooded guitar solo. The album somehow manages to be as catchy as it is morose. As any romantic knows, a love song always carries the minuscule threat of disappointment and devastation. “Love Tripper” moves at an achingly slow pace, with Banos stretching his words around glistening shards of guitar. “The aftermath of love and crying eyes,” he softly sings. “I’m here, my love, just follow all the signs.”
“Sleep Walk,” the song that inadvertently accelerated Banos’s career, was originally made by two young Italian-American brothers with dreams of becoming rock stars. It was a big enough hit to sustain them through the mid-sixties, when their career fizzled out. But “Sleep Walk” was also taken up by the Chicano low-rider scene that began in Southern California in the sixties, a subculture that revolved around souped-up cars blasting sentimental soul ballads. The song became a staple of low-rider oldies compilations. It is famously used at the end of “La Bamba,” the 1987 movie about the brief career (and tragic death) of the pioneering fifties Chicano singer Ritchie Valens.
Cuco’s music reminds me of these low-rider anthems, which were adopted by young Chicanos as a way of expressing dreams and vulnerabilities that they sometimes didn’t feel comfortable articulating for themselves. It’s one of the ways that Banos’s identity comes out, subtly, through language and his affection for tender, tear-jerking soul ballads. Sometimes that personal history is foregrounded, like in his charming mariachi version of “Amor de Siempre.” Banos is managed by Doris Muñoz, who, like him, is the child of Mexican immigrants. In 2017, after absorbing what she could from a series of music-industry internships, she started Mija Management, and today oversees a roster of talented, predominantly Latinx pop and rock acts. “I just don’t want some old white dude to come through and Ritchie Valens you,” Muñoz recalls telling Banos, referring to Bob Keane, the white manager sometimes accused of exploiting the young crossover star. Muñoz also organizes Selena for Sanctuary, a series of benefit concerts for immigrants’-rights groups. Cuco, Helado Negro, Kali Uchis, and others will be playing one of these shows at the Central Park Summerstage, in August.
There’s a weary innocence to Banos, as he has learned to become the heartthrob in his songs. I saw him and his touring band play a small show in New York about a year ago, on one of those summer nights when it’s still hot and muggy well after midnight. His band is predominantly made up of friends from home: the drummer Julian Farias, the guitarist Gabriel Baltazar, the bassist Esai Salas, and the keyboardists Ismael and J-Kwe$t. It was a gloriously sloppy show, a bunch of boys riding the delirium of tour life, horsing around onstage. They were rejoicing about being young and Mexican, living out their dreams in New York City.
Last October, Banos and his bandmates were in a near-fatal accident. While driving through Tennessee, their van spun out of control. They managed to climb out with minor injuries. But, as they were standing on the side of the road, a big rig struck the van, sending it flying through the air, hitting them. During his recovery, Banos finished a song that he had been working on for a while, a bluesy shuffle about a recent breakup. He ended up calling it “Hydrocodone,” after the powerful pain medication he was on. The broken bones somehow made his heartache feel worse, yet he made it to the other side. So much of figuring out who you are involves time spent alone, cycling through language and melody: “I’m sitting in my room / I’m all alone now / Missing you / Every single day.” He watches paint crumble and fall from the wall, as he dreams of better days, another melody that will momentarily transport him outside his head.