Fulano de Tal

Pepe Alva y Alma Raymi
Pa' Mostrarte Mi Amor
(Alma Raymi Music)

Over the past year, the mainstream media discovered rock en espanol, with wide-eyed items about Latin American bands appearing in Spin, Newsweek, and even USA Today. Of course, this was old news in Miami, where a rock group singing in Spanish is about as novel as a plate of rice and beans. Pepe Alva y Alma Raymi and Fulano de Tal, two leaders of the local Latin rock scene, make vibrant music that expresses the cultural dualism of their young fans.

Elsten Torres, a.k.a. Fulano, excels at unsentimental commentary on the immigrant experience, articulating the disillusion of first-generation American dreamers with throbbing guitars and rollicking percussion. There's a bit of a Latin swing to "Inquietud," but for the most part Fulano de Tal covers familiar alt-rock terrain with driving riffs, a psychedelic vibe, and manic-depressive vocals. Lest there be any doubt, the pounding rebel anthem "No Soy Gringo" makes clear that rock music is a worldwide cultural patrimony, not a yanqui franchise. These are real songs, not derivative blather. Fulano sings one song, "Complicated," in English, proving himself a pleasing vocalist in either language. The Beatles inhabit the swelling chords on "Afuera de Mi Cabeza," one of several sublime ballads.

While Fulano reinvents Latin identity in his lyrics, singer/songwriter Pepe Alva does so through the instruments and rhythms of his native Peru. Alva, age 27, has lived in Miami since he was in high school and started out playing in a hard rock band. His current group, Alma Raymi, punctuates bluesy rock rhythms with zampona (bamboo panpipes), quena (Andean flute), and charango (a small guitar). Guest musicians Jack Bluni and Wickly Nogueras add, respectively, harmonica and conga to the mix. The result is infectious folk rock rather than dense roots music. Alva's lyrical songwriting is influenced by that of Charly Garcia and other poetic pioneers of Latin American rock, and the tracks on Pa' Mostrarte Mi Amor shift between sweet ballads such as "No Se Que Decir" and whirling dance tunes, including "Mi Cholita," a crowd favorite at the band's live shows. The jaunty sound of the Andean pipes enriches the album's generally joyous tone.

Normal, Fulano de Tal's first major-label release, and Pa' Mostrarte Mi Amor, Pepe Alva's first full-length album, are notable examples of vital made-in-Miami music that tends to remain underground while the same old commercial Latin dreck rises to the top. Apparently local Spanish radio stations still haven't realized that rock en espanol is the next big thing.

-- Judy Cantor

Paul Simon
Songs from The Capeman
(Warner Bros. Records)

Forget Happy Days. Rock and roll and doo-wop pounded through the commercial and racial barriers of the Fifties because turmoil churned beneath America's placid surface. Racism, drugs, unemployment, and juvenile gangs plagued the life of urban teens as much as they do today, and that's the grist for Paul Simon's musical play, The Capeman.

With angelic doo-wop and Puerto Rican salsa as the primary colors, Simon paints a compelling musical picture of Salvador Agron, a Puerto Rican native who, at age sixteen, stabbed two white New York teens to death in a gang rumble. Lucy and Desi may have been the decade's favorite couple, but their interethnic romance must have seemed a fantasy on the streets of New York where Puerto Rican, black, and white gangs warred with each other. Agron ran with a gang called the Vampires and wore a cape as part of his hip wardrobe, which made it easy to identify him after the murders. Playing the role to the hilt, Agron showed no remorse after being captured. Sound bites (included on the album) of his interviews with Gabe Pressman, a bulldog New York TV reporter, show two worlds colliding. Agron flippantly refused to take Pressman's questions seriously, which made him the essence of evil to mainstream viewers. In the opening song, "Adiós Hermanos," Simon sums up the situation: "Well, the Spanish boys had their day in court/And now it was time for some fuckin' law and order." Agron was sentenced to death, the youngest person ever condemned in the Empire State, but Gov. Nelson Rockefeller commuted the sentence to life.

Simon's songs are arranged in a cycle that flashes back to Agron's life before the fatal rumble and then moves on to the relationships that develop after Rockefeller's act of mercy. "Killer Wants to Go to College" depicts Agron as a model prisoner seeking an education. In "Time Is an Ocean," Agron reflects on how becoming a writer saved his sanity in prison. He was released in 1979 and, according to Simon, was never again involved in violence (he died in 1986). Simon's lyrical reach occasionally exceeds his grasp here, and it takes a while to accept his vocal portrayal of Agron. But Capeman's authentic doo-wop and Latin fusion more than compensate for any awkward moments.

The new album feels like the capper in a trilogy that began with Graceland and continued with The Rhythm of the Saints, positioning Simon as a latter-day George Gershwin, cribbing musical styles from different places and eras. The difference between Gershwin and Simon is that, despite claims to the contrary, Simon credits his collaborators and inspirations; Gershwin left them unidentified. Nostalgia notwithstanding, Simon's last three albums beat anything he produced with Art Garfunkel. Songs from The Capeman confirms that he is one of the few baby-boomer musical icons to have actually improved with age.

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