BORDER RADIO Latin Alternative Music (Pt. 1)

The Latinos are
coming. And they’re gonna rock your
cojones off.

 

BY MARIO I. OÑA

 

We first published this story in late 2007, as a
feature-length article in BLURT predecessor
Harp
Magazine, and bearing the following
tagline: “
Whatever you call it
– Rock en Español, Latin Alternative – the Latinos are coming. And they’re
gonna rock your
cojones off.” At the
time, “Latin Alternative” was the increasingly popular term used to describe a
broad-based, multi-hyphenated genre of music being created by young musicians
from Mexico, Latin and South America, Spain, even Brooklyn, that reflected both
their traditional Latino heritage and the infusion of contemporary styles.

 

The article, penned by
veteran music journalist Mario L. O
ña, was a hit, drawing praise from
numerous corners (and, in striking the occasional nerve among purists, it also
attracted some criticism, which was fair enough). In the three years since it
was published there has continued to be a groundswell of activity in and
mainstream acceptance of Latin Alternative – so much so that we have decided to
revisit the topic and see where thing stand in 2011.

 

We’ll publish our
newest look at the Latin Alternative scene, written by Senior Editor Randy
Harward, on Monday at BLURT. Meanwhile, please check out the original 2007
article below –  it’s followed by the
sidebar guide to selected artists that we also published at the time (apologies
in advance for any info that is out of date) – as we remain proud of it and
feel that since
Harp closed up shop a
couple of years ago, “Border Radio” needed to be permanently archived on the
web. – The Editors

 

***

 

Walls are being built on the U.S./Mexico border, but La
Migra can’t stop the music. Thanks to the Digital Age, bands from Mexico, Spain
and South America are pouring into the country
through unpatrolled ear buds and amps in an influx called the Latin alternative
movement.

 

With Franco-Spaniard Manu Chao recently
releasing his anxiously-awaited third album, La Radiolina (Nacional) and appearing at Coachella, Sasquatch! and
Bonnaroo, Colombians Aterciopelados
earning another Grammy nomination for their comeback album Oye (Nacional) and
breakout octet the B*Side Players getting exquisite iTunes placement (not in
iTunes Latino either), the constantly evolving genre has never been more
artistically compelling, more available or more abundant.

 

“Rock en Español [Latin
alternative’s pre-cursor] was born from imitation – from aping the much better
stuff being made in England and the U.S. – but later took its own, very
seductive personality,” says Ernesto Lechner, author of the quintessential back
pocket reference guide Rock en Español:
The Latin alternative Rock Explosion
(Chicago Review Press, 2006). “I
almost imagine the day when young Latino rockers found a stack of their
parents’ LPs and fell in love with that music and began fusing it with their
rock.”

 

Los Lobos’ Louie Pérez also
remembers a time when “bands from Mexico where very derivative – they
all sounded like the Police.” Pérez, who tells HARP that the band is planning
to tour next year behind their critically-acclaimed 1992 album Kiko, says it took Los Lobos ten years
of learning complex folkloric Mexican music to start blending it with rhythm
and blues or rock.

 

Los Fabulosos Cadillacs (pictured above), for example, sounded
and looked like influential ska band the Specials, until they traded in their
plaid sounds in the mid ‘90s for more folkloric tango and bombo-pounding murga
rhythms from their native Argentina reinforced with Afro-Brazilian percussive,
carnival samba. The result was instantaneous, pure gratification, leading
Lechner to declare in his book that the Cadillacs or newer bands like Tijuana
norteño electronica DJs Nortec Collective or Monterrey banda hip-hopsters El
Gran Silencio were “more fascinating” than Björk or Massive Attack.

 

Despite its seemingly irresistible
appeal, Latin alternative has failed to cross over to the American non-Spanish
speaking masses. Every year, the Latin Alternative Music Conference (LAMC)
tries to find out why, and by showcasing commercially elusive, but artistically
rich music, it reminds the country that great music comes in all shapes, sizes
and languages.

 

Enrique Lavin, of New Jersey’s The Star-Ledger, started the first bona
fide Latin alternative weekly music chart at CMJ and says, “Let’s not forget to
put things in perspective. This is a monolingual, though culturally diverse,
country. There are thousands of alternative bands singing in the national
language that have a tough time breaking through.”

 

Lechner “would love to be wrong”
about his belief that Latin alternative is unlikely to secure a cult following
among non-Spanish speakers but insists “language has very little to do with
it-it’s more about reaching the American sensibility,” citing the
Chinese-language Crouching Tiger, Hidden
Dragon
movie phenomenon. “To fully understand the cultural codes, sense of
humor and third world magic of Café Tacvba,” he continues, “you have to have
lived in Latin America. But music is universal and for an Anglo, there’s always
the seduction of exoticism, much the same way music from Bollywood promises the
exotic to me.” Gabriel Abarao, president of the Latin Recording Academy, which
oversees the Latin Grammys, agrees that language is a negligible barrier and
points to “La Bamba” and Santana’s “Oye Como Va,” among others, noting that when they started airing the Latin
Grammys in English, “we were very much impressed by the amount of non-Spanish
speakers who tuned in.”

 

Rock roots and alt-country pioneer
Alejandro Escovedo, whose music arguably can’t get more American, hints at
being marginalized. He remembers radio folks’ reluctance to play his excellent With These Hands album in 1996, not
because it was “good or shitty,” but because as the radio execs told his label
Rykodisc, “We can barely pronounce his name, let alone play his record.” In
some ways, north-of-the-border musicians like Escovedo, who are too gringo to
be Latino and too Hispanic to be Yanks, stand to be doubly marginalized.  

 

Nacional Records label boss and
LAMC founder Tomás Cookman has every reason to be more optimistic. His two-year
old label is leading the way on embracing digital distribution (five Nacional
releases are in the iTunes Latino top 100) and consequently enjoying
counter-cyclical prosperity as many labels are slimming down or going belly-up.
But Cookman also thinks it helps that stereotypes are subsiding: “The days of
people hearing Latin and just thinking fiesta, chili peppers and dancing señoritas
are not as prevalent.”                               

 

LAMC co-founder and Cookman’s
business partner, Josh Norek, adds that Nacional is enjoying new markets in
places like Seattle and D.C. in part because digital distribution, with its
“negligible overhead and minimal… costs,” makes the music accessible to anyone,
anywhere. Conversely, digital distributors like iTunes, Zune, Urge, AOL and
eMusic – who all sponsored or had a presence at the recent LAMC – are finding
that labels like Nacional and events like the LAMC help to attract the elusive
second-generationers who are too Americanized to be courted via
Spanish-speaking media and too Latino to be reached through American mainstream
media.

 

Another question that tends to
send the movement chasing its own tail is ascertaining who’s in and who’s not.
Most musicians, understandably, avoid being pigeonholed. Chao recently told
HARP, “I don’t trust labels. I’m Manu, that’s all.” As Café Tacvba’s Rubén
Albarrán puts it, “Our music is impossible to categorize and not many musicians
will claim that their music is ‘Latin,’ but I suppose it’s sort of like your
name; it’s given to you by someone
else and it identifies you.”

 

Cookman, who’s signed Latin
alternative’s most exciting artists, including Chao and Aterciopelados, and
also new boundary-redefining architects like Barcelona’s
audio-visual electro-lounge stompers the Pinker Tones, one-man cha-cha cumbia
cool factory Mexican Institute of Sound and sultry Bronx
dub-hop duo Pacha Massive, simply says, “Latin alternative is music that is an
alternative to mainstream Latin music. It can be hip-hop, electronica, ska – almost
whatever. Sometimes, it feels more like an attitude than a genre.” Journalist Lavin
similarly defines it, but adds that it’s also a “sentiment” – one that
“continues to make critical observations, be it social or economic, and more
often than not makes thoughtful statements lyrically and sonically.”

 

With Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina” becoming a cross-cultural,
international phenomenon and climbing to number 32 in Billboard’s Top 40 in
January 2005, the rise of reggaetón – Latin alternative’s tropical and
lascivious answer to gangsta rap – has stirred up some debate on its place
within the
Latin alternative scene. “With its success, there’s been some watered-down,
overtly commercial acts selling units, but they do nothing for the longevity of
the genre,” says Nacional’s Cookman. “I do feel artists like Tego Calderon and
Calle 13, who don’t take the safe road, keep the genre growing and exploring
new avenues of expression.” In essence, even successful mainstream acts – provided they continuously push the envelope,
like Radiohead – offer an alternative.

Author Lechner, who is
Argentinean-born, has an admittedly subjective definition that goes beyond language
or ethnic make-up of the artist. “If there’s a defining quality about Latin
alternative it’s that it’s absolutely and unequivocally Latin American. It has
that identity.” He dismisses Mexico’s Maná for being “Latino only by country of
origin,” since they are “disguised as arena rockers like Boston and Journey.”
And he thinks Santana being called rock en Español is “grotesque,” because even
though Santana is from Tijuana, his music is absolutely marked by his American
identity.

 

Lechner’s point highlights the
most contested division: whether U.S.-born or U.S.-raised, north-of-the-border
musicians raised on Spider-Man and Wheaties instead of El Santo and Cerelac fit
the bill. By pragmatic definition, Mexican American punk icon Tito Larriva and
his many incarnations (The Plugz, Cruzados, Psychotic Aztecs and currently Tito
& Tarantula), The Mars Volta, Del Castillo and even Los Lobos – with their
Latino heritage and inability to secure a safe haven in the mainstream – would
be shoe-ins. But as Lavin points out, “These bands would have to identify
themselves with the Latin alternative scene.” And most of them do not.

 

The Mars Volta’s Cedric
Bixler-Zavala, for example, admits that they are a “salsa band” trying to make
it back to their roots and that he grew up in a household where there was a
“cross-pollination of destroying both languages that’s bound to come out in
what [he] does,” but that he never believed they “belonged to any of that
[Latin alternative],” until they were invited to the MTV Latin awards in 2003.
Escovedo, who just finished the soundtrack for Jonathan Demme’s documentary on
Jimmy Carter, says, “I don’t think of myself as Latin alternative because it’s
so broad.” But he then admits, “My parents’ passion for their music – Los
Panchos, Vicente Fernandez, Perez Prado – influenced me. When we lived in
Texas, they’d do go out to the little honky tonks and listen to rancheras and
that filtered into my subconscious.”

 

Singer-songwriter Patricia Vonne,
who has played with Tito & Tarantula and Del Castillo and recently released
her third solo album, Firebird (Bandolera
Records), on the other hand, does identify herself with the movement.
“Alternative means affording a choice to an audience,” she says, “and my music
is bilingual and a diverse mix or roots rock with a south-of-the-border
flavor.” Cookman, who by virtue of being a talent scout for Nacional is
constantly monitoring the movement’s pulse, adds, “We are not discriminatory.
In my book, the Mars Volta, Los Lobos and the Plugz are all Latin alternative.”

 

Formed in L.A. in 1978, The Plugz – widely heralded as
the first Latino punk band, along with The Zeros – are rarely identified with
the Latin alternative or even rock en Español movements, despite singing some
songs in Spanish and their inclusion of indisputably Latino artillery in their
sonic arsenal. But it’s difficult to continue justifying their exclusion,
especially since a then-freshly immigrated Argentinean by the name of Gustavo
Santaolalla produced and even played the charango (a 10-string folkloric Andean
instrument resembling a tiny guitar) on their 1981 album, Better Luck. Today, Santaolalla, who also started a mostly Latin
alternative label called Surco in 1997, has become one of the genre’s most
sought-after music producers. Call him the Rick Rubin of Latin alternative – that
is, if Rubin was also a two-time Oscar-winning film composer. So if for no
other reason, The Plugz are guilty by a very strong association.

 

While it’s true that most
north-of-the-border musicians might be far removed from having third-world
hunger pangs or walking the La Panamericana highway barefoot with blistered
feet, there’s something to be said about a passion fueled by a starvation to
reconnect to your roots. From Louie Pérez proudly claiming: “We wear our
culture on our sleeves – we don’t disguise it or homogenize it, nor do we call
ourselves The Wolves [lobo is Spanish for wolf]” to Escovedo lamenting that he
“went a little too far” in “immersing” himself in the American culture, it
seems fair to ask: Why couldn’t Latin alternative music also come from dissimilating
Americans who also raid their parents’ LPs searching
for their long-lost identity? The Mars Volta’s Omar Rodriguez-Lopez sums up the
sentiment beautifully: “We are definitely traveling somewhere [musically] so
that we can be closer to our roots when we die.”

 

At the end of the day, the
minutiae matters little. Latin alternative is the
meaty, heart-pounding realization of something completely foreign; the bragging
rights that come with finding something fresh; music that transcends cultural
and language barriers. And the ripe Latin alternative movement, sentiment, sensibility, genre or
whatever you choose to call it is
“more alive than ever,” according to Abarao. “The amount of albums, groups and
alternative bands is amazing.”

 

Lavin concludes, “The movement
seems to have found its place, particularly in this digital era. The music
enjoys a niche market and what non-Latino music consumers may eventually learn
is what Spanish-speaking, bilingual music fans have known all along: we get to
enjoy the best of both worlds – our music libraries are bigger and more diverse
and we’re richer for it.”

 

***

 

¡BANDAS CHINGONES! NEVERMIND LOS LABELS, HERE
ARE SOME BADASS LATINO BANDS.

 

By Mario I. Oña and
Randy Harward

 

Aterciopelados (Bogotá,
Colombia)

www.aterciopelados.com

From raw punks to synergistic
folkrockers to mesmerizing trip-hopsters, this her ‘n’ him duo embraces
Afro-Colombian percussion and accordion-laden vallenato. With each
reincarnation they seem to attain nirvana. Through last year’s Grammy-winning Oye their entire 14-year catalogue is
dud-less, but beware: no two albums sound alike. [MO]

 

Federico Aubele (Buenos Aires, Argentina)

www.myspace.com/aubele

The
DJ-turned-classical guitar virtuoso with a hearty appetite for trip-hop, dub
and the sad-but-sweet sound of the bandoneon (small accordion used in tango) is
realizing that his most disarming weapon is his sinuous baritone. [MO]

 

AUSTIN TV (Mexico
City, Mexico)

www.myspace.com/austintv

Wearing masks, this young
instrumental quintet, whose music could be from anywhere, abruptly jumps off
the Mogwai/Sigur Rós train and explodes into fierce punk diatribes. [MO]

 

Café Tacvba (Naucalpan
de Juárez, Mexico)

www.myspace.com/cafetacvba

A social experiment in what
happens when prolific Mexican musicians high on the Beach Boys, the Cure and
Sex Pistols pick up instruments, but can’t deny their beloved folklore. They’re
one of the most genre-defining Latin alternative bands, if for no other reason
than they outdo themselves with each album. [MO]

 

Chikita Violenta (Mexico City, Mexico)

www.chikitaviolenta.com

Betcha didn’t know
that Broken Social Scene had collaborators this far south. CV’s dreamy,
shoegazey alt-rock (Jesús y Maria Chain, if you will) is English-only and bears
no Latin rhythms or instrumentation-you’d never guess it was a Mexport. [RH]

 

Cuca (Guadalajara,
Mexico)

www.myspace.com/cucaconpelotas

Est. 1989, Cuca’s
towering, fist-pumping, arena metal (think Motörhead meets Metallica’s black
album) is petulant, puerile, and good fun if you know enough Spanish to pick
out the copious Mexican curse words and dirty lyrics. [RH]

 

Dani Umpi (Montevideo,
Uruguay)

www.myspace.com/daniumpi

If he weren’t real, this
flamboyant, colorful cat would be from Oz, Wonderland or Willy Wonka’s
Chocolate Factory. His syrupy-sweet, electro-pop ditties will leave you with a
sugar rush from hell. [MO]

 

Del Castillo/Chingon (Austin, Texas)

www.delcastillomusic.com , www.chingonmusic.com

Rick and Mark del
Castillo’s superhuman flamenco guitar solos power this Latino folk-rock. With
filmmaker Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi,
From Dusk Till Dawn) they’re Chingon,
which means “badass” in Spanish, and aptly describes their Mexican spaghetti western sound. [RH]

 

Garigoles (Guadalajara, Mexico)

www.myspace.com/garigoles

If you can fathom a
Kinks-Misfits summit at a haunted house from any Scooby-Doo episode, then your
jukebrain can call up any of Garigoles’ poppy, horror-inspired punk song, which
are good to the last sloppy riff. [RH]

 

La Mala Rodriguez (Madrid, Spain)

www.myspace.com/lamalarodriguez

Once a hardcore
rapper, La Mala Rodriguez went mainstream and mellow, though no less sassy. Her
bass still bumps enough to qualify her trancey, stream-of-consciousness jams as
lullaby crunk. [RH]

 

Liquits (Mexico City, Mexico)

www.liquits.com.mx

Liquits blends
skinny-tie power pop, Talking Heads eccentricity and an affinity for sunny,
hooky radio songs (when that wasn’t lame) into irresistible four-minute
wonders. Even if you don’t speak the language, you understand every word. [RH]

 

Los Bunkers (Concepcion,
Chile)

www.myspace.com/losbunkersmusic

Though they admittedly owe much to
the Kinks, the two pairs of brothers and friend formed two years before the
sound-alike Scots of Franz Ferdinand. They distanced themselves with their
impassioned vocals over disco-punk, staccato guitars. [MO]

 

Los Fancy Free (Mexico City, Mexico)

www.myspace.com/losfancyfree

You’d think the
far-out sounds of Wire, Devo and Wall of Voodoo would lose something in
translation, but Los Fancy Free is fluent in that particular column of rock n’
roll oddity, not to mention methods of making the weird palatable. [RH]

 

Mexican Institute of Sound (Mexico City, Mexico)

www.myspace.com/mexicaninstituteofsound.com

Camilo Lara’s
one-man operation purveys sophisticated electronica with sounds and samples
culled from his massive music collection (45,000 LPs, 25,000 CDs). On top, he
hustles and flows en Español. [RH]

 

Monte Negro (Venice
Beach, Calif.)

www.montenegrorocks.com

After years of deliberating over
their sound, brothers Kinski and Rodax, along with pals, have found it:
melancholic guitar and bass melodies reminiscent of Brit mope rock with a need
to scratch that reggae itch. [MO]

 

Nortec Collective (Tijuana,
Mexico)

www.norteccollective.com

DJs Bostich, Clorofila, Fussible,
Hiperboreal and Panoptica come together like Voltron to form a dance-inducing
machine whose elephantastic, blasting brassy Norteño music stitched with
incessant, irresistible break beats will make it impossible for you to remain
seated. [MO]

 

Pacha Massive (New York, New York)

www.pacha.us

Pacha’s trippy drum
‘n’ bass is so sneaky-smooth you don’t even know you’re dancing until somebody
laughs. And whether the vocals are sultry female crooning or suave male raps,
it’s all a siren song. [RH]

 

The Pinker Tones (Barcelona,
Spain) 

www.thepinkertones.com

With electro-lounge beats
bordering on ‘70s porn funk, Mister Furia and Professor Manso serve a sonic
cocktail that’s kitsch, modernist and undeniably hip-notic. And that’s before
intoxicating you with their live audio-visual concoction. [MO]

 

Súperaquello (San Juan, Puerto Rico)

www.myspace.com/superaquello

Súperaquello’s synth-pop, neo-new
wave sound, and penchant for soothing male-female vocals over gushy, pillow-soft
melodies will have you dancing in your sleep and wondering whatever happened to
OMD. [MO]

 

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