By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
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Throughout the Nineties, the wide-ranging music collectively known as rock en español, Latin rock, or more recently, alterlatino, has been the next big thing that wasn't. Bands playing rock, hip-hop, and the world beat dance fusions that fall helter-skelter into this category have remained the odd men out in the United States Latin music market, despite significant domestic record sales, consecration by the Grammys, a supportive American press, and solid followings in Miami and other heavily Hispanic cities. All manner of rock, dance, and alternative bands singing in Spanish have become staples on the rosters of the Latin divisions of multinational record labels based in Miami, but Latin rock is still ignored by radio formats devoted to salsa, merengue, and romance. Nor has rock music in Spanish been embraced by the same Anglo program directors who've lately gone gaga over the Spanglish pop music of Ricky Martin.
"There's a loss of confidence in rock en español bands on the part of record companies," says Gustavo Fernandez, a Miami-based music marketing consultant, whose company, delanuca, promotes Latin rock CDs for the major labels. "There's no traditional media to expose this music, so there's an assumption by the record companies that if you can't get the songs played on the radio, you're not going to sell it," he explains. "But if you look at groups like Maná, which sold almost a million units of their last album, or Café Tacuba, which is always hitting sales of over 100,000, the numbers speak for themselves.
"What I think the labels are not doing is hitting the street," asserts Fernandez, former national sales director for WEA Latina. "Rock and roll in any language should be performed onstage, and if you do that with rock en español, the market will be there." One significant acknowledgment of the music's U.S. audience potential is this Sunday's arrival in town of the Watcha Tour, a companion to the alt-rock Warped Tour. Sixteen Latin American and Latino bands have been confirmed for the debut daylong concert at the Pompano Beach Amphitheatre. The lineup then follows the Warped bands to other cities in Florida, Georgia, Texas, California, and Arizona.
Tour producer Kevin Lyman admits that "America's rediscovery of Latin music" was an impetus for organizing the Watcha Tour. But fans of the much-lauded "Latin pop explosion" of the past few months should not go to the concert hoping to be entertained by slinky hips, shapely booties, and trite lyrics.
"[Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez] are Latin America 'lite,' like presenting a pasteurized version of a culture," says Nru, lead singer of the Mexican rock group Café Tacuba, headliner of the Watcha Tour. "It's about the image that the Anglo has of Latins, not the real representation of the culture, the language, the environment. What they're presenting is indeed a part of Latin culture, but there are many other aspects of Latin reality that are more rooted in our traditions or idiosyncrasies."
Café Tacuba's own sonorous blend of guitar-driven rock, punk, ambient music, as well as popular and indigenous Mexican and pan-Latin rhythms, evokes the surreal synthesis of influences convergent in contemporary Latin American culture. Rather than put a happy face on a complex reality woven with violence, poverty, and a native tradition often in conflict with the frenzied pace of modern society, Tacuba mirrors it all in the alternately hyper and melancholy mood of its sophisticated music. The group's new double CD contains an instrumental album, Revés, and Yo Soy, an album of introspective, lyrical songs. Tacuba's previous effort, Re, was nominated for a Grammy and received considerable attention in the American press.
But the rock en español genre in general is more often maligned or ignored by critics here who perceive even the leading Latin American bands to be bad imitations of American rock bands. While those certainly exist, many of the current crop of what are now being called Latin alternative bands truly stand on their own with eclectic interpretations of rock, reggae, hip-hop, swing, and Latin styles. According to promoter Ken Lyman, the Watcha Tour is aimed at "Latino and culturally diverse Anglo youth" with the same extreme-sports teen demographics as the Warped Tour crowd. One band that the audience is sure to relate to is Los Mocosos, a Bay Area groove band that sings alternately in English and Spanish.The next generation of raza rockers, Los Mocosos take up where Santana left off, playing soulful funk and conscious hip-hop. Los Mocosos have a surprise hit on college radio stations with "Brown and Proud," an aggressively humorous Latino anthem inspired by the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 legislation in California, with a melody pilfered from the Talking Heads song "Life During Wartime."
"I hope by what we're doing people will be able to see that nobody lives in a vacuum and nothing exists in a vacuum," says Piero Ornelas, singer and leader of the band, whose members have also played with Primus, Tower of Power, and Prince. "Our message is to show how it's all connected. Latin is a culture and it's not a culture," he adds. "It's a group of people united by language yet divided by country. We tend to be as racist as anyone else. Here on the West Coast, Latin means Mexican or Chicano. In Miami it means Cuban. That's a divisionist thing. What we're doing with the music is changing that."
Ornelas notes that while the Watcha Tour will help Los Mocosos and the other bands reach new audiences, the most important part of the gig for him will be getting to hang out with bands from various Latin American countries.
"I think it's going to be a big open fiesta," Ornelas says. "By the time we get off the tour there's going to be all kinds of strong feelings all around. What we're dealing with here is cultural and social dynamite."