Crossover Dreams

Latin Alternative Rock Sets Its Sights on New York

"Peeeeeeeeerrrrrrrrooo!" . . . The heavily Latino crowd at Irving Plaza appears to be chanting for Spaniard rockabilly group Juan Perro, which is about to take the stage. The group is here for the July 10 Rock en Ñ festival—a relatively tiny, Spain-centric foreshadowing of the August 12-15 Latin Alternative Music Conference (LAMC). "Peeeeeeeeerrrrrrrrooo! Peeeeeeeeerrrrrrrrooo!"

Jeez—this band seems extraordinarily popular. No, laughs Enrique Lavin, a former L.A. Times reporter now in charge of the new Ñ Alternative column and chart at college music industry mag CMJ. "They are saying 'culero.' It literally means something like asshole, but in Mexico it's a popular way of asking for another song, or to start the show."

Viva la clueless gringo. In the wake of Enrique Iglesias, Jennifer Lopez, and yes, la boca de la vida loca, artists and industry insiders wonder: Could Anglos accept edgier Latin fare? * That is a question the LAMC will try to shed light on when it unfolds this weekend, at the New York city Hilton & Towers. Included in its breadth are the annual music awards for La Banda Elastica magazine and a specially scheduled visit by the Watcha Tour (think Warped en Español—Watcha is slang for "Watch out" or "Pay attention"), both at Irving. An August 12 SummerStage show in Central Park will feature stalwart acts like Chile's La Ley, Venezuela's Los Amigos Invisibles, and Argentina's Illya Kuryaki.

What the hell is "Latin alternative"—the genre formerly known as "rock en español"—anyway? The variety of music—not salsa and merengue, but a myriad fusion of hip-hop, electronic, and rock—stuffed so unseemly into so broad a market identity shares delightfully, ridiculously little. After a long, meandering history, SummerStage-headlining trio La Ley have settled on a sound hinting at a Latin Cure or—in their slow moments—Jack Wagner with a juiced-up backing band. Colombian group Aterciopelados's trip-pop supports frontwoman Andrea Echeverri's beautifully smoky wailing and will be heard at both the Banda Elastica awards and on the Watcha tour. Watcha headliners Molotov went platinum in Mexico and sold more than 100,000 records in America, thanks to their churning, aggressive mix of metal and rap. What singular English term—other than "music"—could include the tropically influenced electronic beats, the contemplative melodies, and the in-your-face rhymes and riffs that this mid-August conference pitches to us as "Latin alternative"? * The genre might provide a well-stocked musical fiesta, but it still leaves whitey largely without a road map. At the Rock en Ñ festival, Hijos del Sol opened the concert with an enthusiastic rock set; it was fun to watch, but without a translator, you'd never know they were singing about positivity and inner strength. Similarly, while the largely Latino crowd responded to the frequent, between-song banter, the smattering of Anglos was left in the dark. It doesn't mean they didn't enjoy the gig, but undeniably, something was lost in the lack of translation.

This matters more at some times than it does at others. If you're going to take in, say, a Brazilian folk band, you'll probably want to understand the songs. But as Warped and Watcha tour promoter Kevin Lyman says, "No one seemed bothered by a language barrier at last year's Warped tour. It might've been a little quiet when Molotov first took the stage, but ultimately, it's about the energy. Kids are there to jump around and get crazy, and Molotov gave them a soundtrack for it." Let's be frank: You probably still don't know the lyrics to Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and that song supposedly revolutionized the free world.

Latin alternative artists are sensitive to the issue. In their home countries, they are often viewed as sellouts if they record in English, and many are reticent, at best, to do so. "I think about singing in English sometimes," says Echeverri of Aterciopelados. "As a Colombian, I would love to tell Americans what I think of them dumping pesticides on our crops to kill cocaine. They kill everything." But she refrains, in large part because language is difficult to master. "I hate it when Bon Jovi or whoever sing in Spanish. It sounds horrible. It is very delicate to change your language. It's very subtle, the things that you say and the way you say them."

More frequently, it's an issue of pride. "We have something different to bring to the scene in the States, but it is not our language," says Emmanuel del Real, who plays keyboard for polyrhythmic Mexico City conceptualists Café Tacuba. "It's our musical language, the fusion. Our music has characteristics that you cannot find in rock, pop, or alternative Anglo music. It's an expression of what we are—the place where we live, the things that we live with. We dream in Spanish. I don't see how we could sing something that we don't feel as ours."

Tomas Cookman—bleached-blond L.A.-based über-manager to many major bands in the genre—orchestrated the LAMC with his partner, Josh Norek, a New York-based publicist, freelance writer, and law student. Visiting Argentina in '85, Cookman was turned on to the norteño-punk of then newly formed Los Fabulosos Cadillacs; he returned to the States in '90 as their manager. His roster grew quickly, and he became instrumental in establishing the scene in L.A. Latin rockers typically play to crowds 10 times larger there than anywhere else in the U.S.—not surprising, given the city's prodigious Mexican influence and population. Now the LAMC intends to let the rest of the country in on the secret.

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