Irka Mateo’s artistic career has been one of breaking boundaries to embrace people’s deepest humanity. Her art has incubated in Spain, France, Brazil, Canada, the United States and her native Dominican Republic.
In the Dominican Republic Irka – a Taina – is an important cultural figure – of some controversy.
In the mid-1970s she was a candidate member (a gymnast) of the Dominican Olympic Team her. In 1992 her performance in Santo Domingo – where generals of the former Balaguer regime were in the audience, ended with her leaving the country to Canada. The occasion was Columbus’ 500th anniversary landing and Irka’s performance of 1992 rankled the sensibilities of the military elite.
In Canada Irka surrounded herself with the best artists in that country, performing to enthusiastic audiences regularly at the Montreal Jazz Festival (she performed three times) and numerous other events and venues. It was also in Montreal that she recorded the Spanish-language version of Sucre Amer, a song in defense of Haitian sugar cane workers–the recording that lead to her opening for the Fugees when they played in Haiti in 1996.
The desire to reconnect with the culture of her native Kiskeya (Hispaniola) led Irka to return to the Dominican Republic in 1998. Over the course of the next 10 years she immersed herself in the island’s folk music; which is founded on popular religious celebrations and the Taino culture that remains there. This exploration infused her music with a unique and magical dimension; with compositions that speak of love, folklore, and influenced by native-Afro Caribbean rhythms. This work also lead her to co-found Guabancex, Wind and Water Society dedicated to the popularization and preservation of native culture. A key moment in any Irka performance is when she dons a native headdress during the singing of Anacaona – the song is a passion play of the Taino queen hanged by the Spanish Conquistadors.