¡LATIN INVASION! Latin Alternative Music (Pt. 2)

As Latino musicians continue to
cross musical borders, Latin alternative becomes less “alternative” and more
Latin Invasion.

 

By RANDY
HARWARD

 

In 2007 BLURT,
in our original incarnation, Harp
Magazine,
visited the Latin alternative music scene via a well-received
article by Mario I. Oña titled “Border Radio” (reprinted last week on our
website
, along with a sidebar guide to notable artists then-currently
operative). At the time, that scene was just heating up. Multiculti,
multi-lingual musician/producer Manu
Chao was poised to release La Radiolina,
and make a noteworthy appearance at Coachella. Electro-traditional acts like
Mexican Institute of Sound (M.I.S.) and Nortec Collective were soaking up fans
as they toured the coasts and made return appearances at Austin’s annual music conference South By Southwest.
Tomás Cookman and Josh Norek’s nascent label Nacional
Records and the Latin Alternative Music Conference (happening
again this year on July 6-9 in NYC, www.latinalternative.com),
via digital distribution and ardent marketing, were exposing international audiences
to the aural delights of other acts like Spanish rapper La Mala Rodriguez, Mexican
dub-rock band El Gran Silencio and Spanish laptop rockers The Pinker Tones. Latin
alternative, for all intents and purposes, had arrived.

 

Four
years later, Latin alternative has even more momentum. In that time, Chao’s
six-years-in-the-waiting album saw him become less a cult legend and more a
rock star as, according to Nacional’s Cookman, he played for “a couple million
people on his last tour.” At SXSW that year, The Pinker Tones played five shows
in 36 hours, then every date of the 2008 Vans Warped Tour – and landed songs in
the video games Forza Motorsport 2, Project
Gotham Racing 4, FIFA ’09
and FIFA
’11
. M.I.S. music founds its way into FIFA
’08
and FIFA Soccer 2010 as well
as TV shows (Californication, Ugly Betty), feature films (the 2008
Edward Norton flick Pride and Glory)
and a commercial for Dos Equis beer. Nortec Collective expanded its touring
presence deeper into the U.S.
and performed a night-stealing set at the MoogFest 2010 in North Carolina. Nacional
Records now releases 30-40 new albums per year. (Nortec
deejays Bostich and Fussible are pictured above.)

 

BLURT editor
Fred Mills, in fact, came away from a Nortec Collective Presents: Bostich &
Fussible show last year raving about the group’s “intergalactic Tex-Mex norteño
and Mariachi, with a dose of spaghetti western garage rock for rave culture” –
an improbable mashup of live (guitar, accordion, trumpet, tuba) and electronic
(laptop plus a pair of iPad-looking devices) instrumentation, all delivered
with a devilish, subversive glee. As Mills puts it, “Those guys cross more
borders in a single evening than most folks do in a lifetime of travels.
They’re accessible on so many musical levels and to so many different types of
musical sensibilities, it’s borderline folly to try to categorize them with any label.”

 

Nortec’s
Pepe “Fussible” Mogt explains the appeal of these genre-blending bands simply:
“Just one genre, like punk or rock, gets boring.”

 

But
lately a slew of new bands have popped up that put a new face, and perhaps
name, on Latin alternative. Arts & Crafts, the noteworthy Canadian label
that brought us Broken Social Scene, Feist and Stars, opened Arts & Crafts
México (www.arts-crafts.com.mx) in
2008 in order to mine the country’s burgeoning independent music scene – both
the consumers and creators. The satellite label handles Mexican releases from
its North American roster as well as non-A&C artists like Bright Eyes, M.
Ward, Sonic Youth and Metric, but also snatches up bands like lo-fi indie pop
groups Chikita Violenta and Bam Bam,
and dance-rocker Rey Pila. “I see ourselves as a cutting-edge indie
record label and concert promoter sourcing Mexican and international content
that has no representation in Mexico,”
says the A&C MX’s Humberto Carmona. “We like to think we sign only the
highest quality, most creative and forward-thinking music from Mexico and
overseas.”

 

Even Mou Ortiz,
from Bam Bam, has an indie label, NENE Records (www.nenerecords.net), which has released
music by Hypnomango, Inservibles, Ratas del Vaticano and XYX (a duo featuring
Ortiz and Anhelo Escalante) since 2006. “I’m always looking for new and
exciting bands to publish on my label,” says Ortiz, who notes an abundance of
them in his Monterrey
backyard. “I’ve been lucky to find great bands or have friends with the best
bands around… bands doing their own thing despite the awful musical trends of
today.”

 

“Here,
it’s frightening,” says Mogt, of the growing Mexican music scene. He notes
Mexican rock bands started making music despite knowing that until the
mid-2000s “there wasn’t really a huge scene here. [They] were doing music,
thinking to be here or maybe moving around Latin America or certain cities in
the U.S. where they can have
more of a Latin audience like Los Angeles or Chicago or Miami.
But the majority were doing that because they know they have an audience over
there.”

 

The thing
about many of these bands – the ones on Arts & Crafts México, Nene, and even
Nacional, is they’re not so much Latin alternative bands as they are Latino indie
rockers staging a Latin Invasion.

 

Before Latin
alternative, any rock music by Latinos was called “rock en Español.” In “Border Radio,” the original Latin alternative
feature in Harp, Ernesto Lechner, author of Rock en Español: The Latin Alternative Rock Explosion (Chicago
Review Press), said that rock en Español “was born of imitation – from aping
the much better stuff being made in England and the U.S.” Also in the story,
Los Lobos’ Louie Pérez said “bands from Mexico were very derivative-they
all sounded like the Police.”

 

Today, Cookman echoes the sentiment, calling rock en Español an
unfortunate tag as well as ethos. Even in the early days, it bothered Cookman
that so many Latino bands sounded exactly alike, and derivative of The Police,
“with the major difference being [they sang] in Spanish. What the hell
difference is that?”

 

The difference Cookman wanted to see is what fuels Latin
alternative music: the incorporation of traditional Mesoamerican and Latino
rhythms, instrumentation and, naturally, language. Seeing how seamlessly a
merengue or cumbia rhythm blends with house and techno elements, or how
traditional Mexican music sounded through conventional rock instrumentation,
enhances the artistic and cultural contributions of the Latin world, and
underscores its relevance. “I almost imagine the day when young Latino rockers
found a stack of their parents’ LPs and began fusing it with their rock,” Lechner
told Harp, conceiving of a possible
flashpoint for Latin alternative when rock en Español “took on its own, very
seductive personality.”

 

But what
does a word like “alternative” mean anymore? So many of the artists from the
alt-rock explosion of the 1990s now qualify as indie rockers – whether they
were weirdo alt-folkies like Beck, squalling rockers like Dinosaur Jr or grungy
like Nirvana. So perhaps Latin alternative isn’t so “alternative,” and we
should consider how these Latino musicians are simply taking their rightful
place among the music world at large.

 

I live in Mexico City,” says M.I.S. mainman and EMI
México president Camilo Lara. “Whatever ‘Latin alternative’ is, here it is
simply indie music. There has been a big indie scene in Mexico City for the last 10 years or so.
Every day there are more independent labels, more clubs and [it gets] a little  more respect from mainstream media.”

 

Chikita
Violenta’s Andrés Velasco says the Latin alternative/indie scene has “grown
exponentially” in recent years and “there was a boom of new bands” that caused
Mexican media to prick up its ears, and several new venues to open. “It became
quite trendy to go out to the rock shows. Nowadays you have a packed music
agenda here in Mexico City,
with concerts by local and international acts almost every day. In the last
month, for example, besides all the local indie bands’ shows, we had shows by
LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip, Arcade Fire, Interpol, Pixies, Broken Social Scene, HEALTH, Ra Ra Riot, Cocorosie, Blonde Redhead – just
to name a few.”

 

So as something
of an exchange program goes on, where Mexico opens its doors to American
indie rock and Mexican and South American bands flow into the States, even the
word ‘indie’ is too restrictive. What do we call Rodrigo y Gabriela’s wild
flamenco metal? How do we classify the Mesoamerican Aztec-pride black metal of
Yaotl Mictlan? How does a Puerto Rican-led prog rock band like Coheed and Cambria fit in at the LAMC? Or rappers like La Mala
Rodriguez and Ana Tijoux? They’re simply Latinos playing great rock ‘n’ roll.

 

 “There
is so much richness in our culture and history and bands really do not think
much about revisiting it because it could be cheesy and this is the proof it
that is absurd,” says A&C MX’s Carmona. “The clue here is not to make a
Mexican version of the American indie flavor of the month but to find your own
sound, whatever that is, and wear it with pride. Then kids will follow you
because you are not a knockoff.”

 

Carmona figures it’s a long road ahead “and lots
of work to do” for Latin rock bands to fully assimilate and lose the demographic
tag.

 

“I don’t like when the artists I work with are
tagged with the Latin alternative label because they are from Mexico…
[because] they are making alternative or rock music for the world and not only
for Hispanics or people who like Latin alternative music. Of course there is
nothing wrong with playing for the Hispanic demographic, but why pigeonhole
yourself with one demographic when you can play for the world?”

 

 

To be
continued tomorrow, when we present our guide to nearly two dozen bands
from Mexico, Spain, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Colombia and everywhere
else in Latin America, along with YouTube and MySpace links to what may be some
of your new favorite
songs.

Leave a Reply