For a Spanglish-speaking guy like me, one of the most shocking developments in pop music this year has been seeing the mainstream media celebrate Ricky Martin as the second com ing of George Michael. But even though the video for “Livin’ la Vida Loca” has him swinging like Brian Setzer with Andy Gibb’s buzz cut, the tune’s stylish commercial potential owes everything to Latin ska underpinnings. Sure, the music is transparently modeled on his Bahia-bop-based ’98 World Cup single “La Copa de la Vida,” but the shrewdest thing about this (T)Ricky blitz is his appropriation of a rudeboy genre vastly removed from his hugely successful post-Menudo Spanish-language pop career.
The Latino influence helped make ska a major subculture in Anglo L.A. proper, catapulting bands from No Doubt to Sublime. Although not as centrally important now as it was for the first wave of Rock en Español bands, ska is a loose organizing principle that unites bands from California to Panama and throughout the Caribbean archipelago. As documented on 1997–98 compilations on the Aztlan (Puro Eskañol) and Grita! (Skaliente) labels, Cali Rock en Español bands like Voodoo Glow Skulls, Los Skarnales, and Las 15 Letras are attracted to reggae and punk, two genres that when combined can sound like nor teño, cumbia, and, at breakneck velocity, ska itself. The same musical logic can be applied to recent releases by L.A.’s Viva Malpache and Panama’s Los Rabanes.
Malpache grew directly out of the same multiculti, hybrid-happy music scene that produced Ozomatli, a Chicano-Black-Asian-Jewish band that plays basic Latin beats like merengue, cumbia, and norteño for the salsa-oriented Chicano mosh pit. A native of the Dominican Republic with roots in the New York area, Malpache lead singer Giovanny Blanco experienced culture shock when he crashed an East L.A. new wave Chicano party where the DJ spun the Cure as easily as Los Tigres del Norte.
Malpache’s jokingly titled debut CD, Los Greatest Hits de ¡Viva Mal pache!, came together when Blanco, who intended to sing in English when he got to L.A., answered an ad in the legendary local zine La Banda Elastica. His bandmates are Chicano and Nicaraguan, and his bass player, Alan Lee, polished his chops in Hong Kong. The CD has the feel of a bar band trying to bring its Mexican wrestler mask cum
bohemian barrio lover persona into the studio. “Hey Santera” is a drunken ska encounter with a mystic priestess; “El Mandamas” a classic “we may be busboys and gardeners now, but our day will come” Chicano punk snarl. The undisguised punk-ska reworking of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” riff doesn’t detract from “Pan con Mayonesa” as a gangster love song.
Malpache reach their peak on the rock-reggae ballad “Ella,” a paean to a flowery punk chica explicitly com pared in the lyrics to rock goddess Andrea Echeverri of Colombia’s Atercio pelados. Not the sort of woman Latin love songs usually lionize—though a similar thriftshop babe gets serenaded in Los Rabanes All Star’s “Oh! mi Raquel,” a three-chord ‘banger with a rub-a-dub break. Sarcastic about sex, flaunting a full-bore horn section, and barreling along at a Ramones-like pace, the Panamanian punks’ second effort Volumen II is more raucously sure of itself than Malpache. Rabanes is a pet project of Ruben Bladés, who adds harmonic depth and star credibility to the chorus of “De Colores,” a loud-fast-rules merengue-rock version of “La Bamba.”
Latin-American ska, first manifested by Mexican bands like Maldita Vecindad and Café Tacuba, as well as Venezuela’s Desorden Publico and Argentina’s Los Fabulosos Cadillacs (whose bassist Flavio Cianciarulo produced Volumen II), is kind of a second coming of London’s early ’80s. Its legacy of political protest appeals to Latin youth, who have a lot to complain about, from police brutality in American cities to corrupt, ineffectual governments in de facto colonies across Central and South America. Even a project as seemingly innocuous as Outlandos D’Americas, a Spanish-language tribute to the Police, takes on an almost militant tone, though the strife embedded in this compilation is most manifested in its musical at tack—Outlandos‘s biggest kicks come from the crackling power guitars on Ekhymosis’s “Message in a Bottle,” the infectious momentum of Brazilian skameisters Skank on “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” and Plastilina Mosh’s post-Tropicália “The Bed’s Too Big Without You.”
New York residents King Chango, represented on Outlandos by “Venezuelan in New York,” pick up on themes from immigration rights to the Zapatistas in a track whose defiance of the INS and overzealous cops serves as a salsafied reggae sound track for these Diallo-shrouded days. King Chango have a new album due out later this summer that, like the recent work of Tacuba and Maldita, expands its ska base into a more pan-Caribbean polyglot of Afro-Cuban syncopations like merengue and soca. Ska began on an island, in this case Jamaica. But like islanders it continues to reach outward, to the surrounding sea.