The Next Wave

A dedicated group of Latin Americans breaks the sound barrier with rock en espanol

Although Latin rock parties have been taking place on Key Biscayne for several years, they've recently spread to South Beach (Saturday at Nick's Miami Beach, Thursday at both Bar 609 and at the Euro-disco Pacha, and Sunday at the new Loco Mia club at the Seville Hotel on Collins Avenue), Northwest Dade (Sunday at La Covacha), and Kendall (Sunday at Marsbar). At all of these venues, a substantial crowd shows up to dance to the music.

For these Latin Generation Xers who have come to Miami from South and Central America, rock recorded in Spanish by bands from their native countries is as much a part of their shared musical history as Madonna. Rock groups have existed in countries such as Argentina and Mexico -- and even in revolutionary Cuba -- since the Sixties. In the Eighties, encouraged by a more democratic climate in some nations in the region, virtually every multinational label opened divisions in Latin America to support the so-called rock nacional. Not merely the sound of a generation, rock and pop in Spanish has become an enormous commercial enterprise -- and it has started to spread northward.

Currently Latin rock's most lucrative U.S. market is Los Angeles, where a number of clubs host local Spanish-speaking bands and all manner of touring Mexican rock and pop groups. To a lesser extent, Chicago, Boston, and New York have become stops for bands from Argentina and Spain, playing both to those cities' Hispanic populations and a college radio audience. The latest place for Latin rock to hit hard is Puerto Rico, where, reportedly, a vital underground scene and concerts by popular South American and Mexican groups are supported by local radio. But despite some inroads being made by Spanish-language rock here, Latin Miami remains a stronghold of salsa, merengue, and romantic ballads.

"If Miami is going to be a gateway to Latin America, it makes sense we should be listening to Latin rock here," says Radio Vox's Gustavo Menendez. "There should be at least one big concert here a month; there should be a regular venue for this music, and there has to be radio support for it."

When MTV Latino began broadcasting from its studios on Lincoln Road in 1993 (the Spanish-language channel now reaches 5,000,000 homes, 500,000 of them in the United States), it created a consciousness of Latin rock among local radio and record executives. The existence of a rock and pop music video channel for young Latins paved the way for Kike Posada's program, Boom, which started its weekend broadcast on Radio Ritmo shortly after MTV Latino signed on the air.

Another milestone came when Menendez brought in the Argentine megaband Los Fabulosos Cadillacs for a concert at the now-defunct Club One on Fifth Street last year. The ska-samba-rock group has been on the charts in Argentina and other Latin American countries for about a decade, but the Cadillacs really created an international buzz when they won the MTV Latin Video of the Year award in 1994. Recently the group was featured in Rolling Stone.

"Last year the sales people at Sony thought Los Fabulosos Cadillacs were some Tejano act," recalls Menendez. "This year, months prior to their new album's release, the same people were dying to get their hands on it."

At companies such as Sony Discos, which, like other major-label Latin divisions, is headquartered in Miami, Latin rock traditionally has been considered a poor relation of their big-selling tropical and ballad acts. Bands that sell hundreds of thousands of records in Latin America have been underpromoted in favor of a cookie-cutter production line of young, Latin-lover-type salsa singers.

"We're just beginning to tap into a market that's been lying dormant for years," acknowledges Tony Sabornin, director of promotions for Sony Discos International (SDI), a recently created Sony division dedicated to what Sabornin calls "alternative Latin sounds."

No matter how much they've downplayed the existence of the genre in the past, however, it now seems clear that Sony and other companies have identified Latin rock as the next big thing for the American bilingual market. Even Rudy Sarzo, former bassist for the popular Eighties hair band Whitesnake, is getting in on the act. His new record label (modestly called Sarzo) will feature recordings by Latin rock bands.

"All of the record companies are getting into this now," says Luana Pagani, who as SDI's marketing director for Latin America has witnessed the growth of Latin rock in that region. "They'd be stupid not to."

Record company representatives admit they've been slow to target an obvious market of young Latins in South Florida and other areas of the U.S., and they unanimously blame radio for their collective foot-dragging. "It's like you have to be from Jurassic Park to get played on Latin radio here," complains Sabornin.

"It's taken a long, long time to convince the radio stations that there's youth out there that we're losing," adds Mari Mondelo, promotions manager for WEA Latina, the record company that most strongly has supported Latin rock in the U.S. (the label has sold 400,000 units in the U.S. of an album by Mana). "Those kids are not going to listen to Julio Iglesias." WEA Latina moved its offices from L.A. to Miami earlier this year to, as Mondelo puts it, "be closer to everything. I think something's going to be happening now here," she predicts. "And it's exciting to be in the middle of it."

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