A café in Mexico City where artists, writers, and political radicals gathered in the early 1900s, Café Tacuba also is the name of a band as committed to preserving Mexican history and culture as it is to turning the common places of its homeland upside down. “It's a game that we've been playing since we began playing music,” says guitarist Joselo Rangel in a phone interview from the cosmopolitan capital.
The fun-loving Rangel says he and his brother Enrique founded Café Tacuba back in 1989, along with friends Ruben Albarran and Emmanuel del Real, as a “place to experiment.” Over the years the group has released five albums. Each disc -- and nearly every song -- is radically different from the last. These musical shape-shifters constantly switch sonic identities: from the insouciant swing of Mexico City slang in “Chilanga Banda” and the avant-folk of the hyperbolic ranchera “Ungrateful Woman” (“La Ingrata”) to the machinelike instrumentals and minimalist existentialism of last year's critically acclaimed double CD Reves/Yo Soy(Backwards/I Am). The sounds could be a bit too heady if the band weren't always poking so much fun.
Their record label, Warner Bros., often finds it hard to keep up with the transformations. “They listened to [the instrumental Reves ],” laughs Rangel, “and one of them said, “This would be my favorite disc if I didn't have to sell it.' In the end they supported us. We never ask ourselves if we're going to sell. We have always had this desire to experiment with the music to the point of chaos.”
In return for tolerating turmoil, Warner Bros. asked Tacuba to introduce itself to a new audience by opening for experimental popster Beck during his recent West Coast tour. Pairing Latin bands with U.S. favorites is a new crossover strategy labels are trying with rockeros unwilling to relinquish their native tongue to break into the lucrative English-only market. “The record companies want to make some million- dollar video,” explains Rangel, “and they ask you, “Why don't you sing in English?' We're not willing to do that. We communicate in Spanish.”
Warming up the almost exclusively Anglo crowds was a strange job for the band, considered one of the most important forces in alternative Latin music. Rangel recounts how new fans would come backstage to ask if the twice Grammy-nominated group had a record deal yet, and how even Beck seemed surprised to learn how long Café Tacuba had been around. “It was kind of funny,” Rangel notes, “because everyone thought we were a really young group.” He adds with a laugh: “We feel really old.”
Being an unknown in the Anglo world does not particularly bother the Mexican veteran, however. “Like with the Grammy,” he says, referring to the controversy over the award for best Latin rock/alternative performance given this year to the unimaginative Texas-born rocker Chris Perez. “A lot of people get upset about us not winning. But maybe we don't need a Grammy,” he observes. “Maybe our music already has a place.”