“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.
“The last thing I wanted was another Nashville,” says Cookman; he didn’t want L.A. ghettoized like the home of country music. “I wanted New York [for the conference] because I thought it was closer for people in Argentina, Spain, and Colombia. More so, on the Anglo side, I think a lot of the industry people in L.A. already get it. How could it be that every month there’s a sold-out show? Latin groups play the House of Blues and there’s a line down the block—people know about these things. I knew I could get all those Anglos to fly to New York. I could never get the ones in New York, who are not yet into it, to fly to L.A.”
The LAMC and Watcha tour aim to demonstrate the diversity coming from Latin quarters. “In Seattle you had the grunge movement,” says Enrique Lavin. “The same thing is happening with Latin alternative, but you have pockets springing up around the world. Not particular sounds, but particular scenes.” Tijuana, for example, has long sported a ska-punk scene (politically charged Tijuana No! is the prime proponent) but now, along with Ensenada, is home to the emerging “nortec” movement, in which techno is combined with traditional Mexican instrumentation and rhythms such as banda and norteño. Argentina, Venezuela, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, and L.A. itself are all hotbeds for other fusions of hip-hop, rock, and techno.
Started last year by Lyman and other industry heavies, Watcha alone illustrates how preposterous it is to group all this music under one umbrella. In addition to Molotov and Aterciopelados, the lineup includes Tacuba, who opened the West Coast dates of Beck’s last tour but will miss the East Coast Watcha dates, guttural Argentinian hardcore-metal group A.N.I.M.A.L., who are currently playing the Warped tour, and L.A.’s “it” band Ozomatli, groovers who blend tropical music with funk, soul, and hip-hop.
But how effective the LAMC will be in its endeavor to promote a crossover remains to be seen. Latin alternative music faces hurdles beyond the obvious language barriers. Much like techno, the genre already has a global culture and following in place. The stateside music industry still needs to decide whether the music can be commercially viable and, if so, how to make it happen. At a panel discussion at the Rock en Ñ festival, talk swirled around the sloppy way this music is disseminated; radio stations say record labels do a poor job servicing them, commercial radio still largely ignores anything remotely edgy, tours are haphazardly promoted.
Anglo media in America, commercial radio and MTV included, generally won’t touch anything in Spanish. But Spanish language stations stick to tropical music and pop. So sister NYC stations La Mega (97.9) and Amor (93.1) might play Shakira or Enrique Iglesias, but relegate more adventurous stuff to the occasional specialty show. La Mega declined to return repeated phone calls, and even the publicist at MTV refused to speak on the record about the station’s policy regarding Spanish language acts. “We have MTV Latin America,” she offered, before saying she’d get back to me (she didn’t).
Latin alternative bands may actually be at a disadvantage on a major label’s Latin subsidiary, where their albums will be worked by the same people working ballads, Tejano, and pop to Latin radio stations. “My analogy is DMX on Windham Hill,” says Cookman. “It obviously wouldn’t work, but that wouldn’t mean DMX is a bad musician, or Windham Hill a bad label. Would you ask a jazz or classical department to work a rock or hip-hop artist?”
Josh Kun hosts the Red Zone, a Latin L.A. alternative radio show produced by Cookman, and writes frequently about the music (occasionally in the Voice). The English professor at UC Riverside will host the LAMC. “I think the Latin industry has done an absolutely terrible job of marketing this stuff in the U.S.,” he says. “We do this radio show and barely get sent anything. We have to beg for it, twist people’s arms. Plastilina Mosh, Titan, Sergent Garcia—these are bands being released that have nothing to do with Latin labels. And guess what? Look how much better they are being publicized. Sergent Garcia shouldn’t be playing with a Mexican metal band; they should be touring with a salsa band, or a Jamaican MC. This music has a chance, once people start getting that Titan has more to do with Kraftwerk or Bauhaus than they do with a rock band that grew up on the same street as they did.”
The bands that have done the best in America—Molotov and Puerto Rican salsa metal stars Puya—both succeeded in crossover environments. Puya played at last year’s Ozzfest and are playing with this Summer’s Tattoo the Earth tour, where Slipknot and Nashville Pussy fans are likely to appreciate them, and Molotov rocked last year’s ska-and-punk-happy Warped tour.
Not coincidentally, both bands also record for Universal Records’ Surco imprint. Surco is run by Gustavo Santaolalla, the Latin Phil Spector who produced Puya and Molotov, as well as Café Tacuba, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, and others. This marriage of major-label clout with a Latin alternative guru is a model that’s already being duplicated. Maverick recently started a Latin division under the guidance of Bruno Del Granado, who helped launch MTV Latin America. And Cookman weeks ago inked a deal with Arista to start his own label, but only after dining with almost every major-company bigwig. “I had dinner with Tommy Mottola. It was a very Mottola-like experience,” he laughs. “And Chris Blackwell left a message on my office voice mail the other day. I’m saving that one until my kids are old enough to understand who Chris Blackwell is.”
Introductory conferences, fledgling labels, Lavin’s new chart at CMJ providing a map—it all points to Latin alternative getting its shot, if Americans can handle the language of Latino culture and not just its mass-marketed sex appeal. Supporters are quick to point to the U.S. gold record of German pyrotechnic rockers Rammstein, but does any industry really want to pin its chances of success on the long-term potential of men who wear forks in their mouths and spank each other onstage? Ultimately, the question might come down to which Americans you’re looking at. It’s no irrelevant detail that California will soon be the first large state in the U.S. with an Anglo minority. In a country with a 12 percent (and growing) Latino population, Latin alternative may “cross over” in terms of American record sales and tour receipts without fully broaching an Anglo market.
Kun hosted his radio show in English until his station was purchased by a conglomerate of Spanish-speaking stations. He was ordered to switch to Spanish. “When we started our show in English,” he says, “I thought the best feedback we’d get would be from white kids, saying, ‘Hey, this is pretty cool.’ But that wasn’t it. The best feedback we got was from third- and fourth-generation Mexican American kids in L.A., who were calling us and saying, ‘Thank God you guys are breaking it down like this. Thank God you’re taking it out of the marketing ghettos of Spanish language radio that mix it up with all this pop crap, and putting it in a fully alternative contemporary setting.’ The realities of these kids’ lives in L.A. is not listening to [Latin pop], because it’s not on K-ROQ. They listen to Limp Bizkit and Korn and try to navigate that with their support of the Zapatistas. This music gives them the bridge to do that.”