By Jacob Katel
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Perched on overstuffed couches and leaning against the wood-paneled walls in the intimate nightclub Nell's, the crowd sat spellbound at the LAMC “s Acoustic Writers-in-the-Round Showcase. Singer Andrea Echeverri, of the Colombian alt-fusion group Aterciopelados, swayed atop the tiny stage, the orange-stacked high-tops at the end of her long legs knocking against her stool. Founding bandmate Hector Buitrago played guitar, diminutive beside her. The ups and downs of Aterciopelados' career gives an idea of what an international boom -- and bust -- might mean for Latin alternative bands.
Opening with the not-yet-released song, “Uno Lo Mio y Lo Tuyo” (“I Unite What's Mine and What's Yours”), Buitrago picked out a stripped-down version of the vallenato on the guitar, suggesting the popular Colombian rhythm with nothing but a steady suspended pulse. Echeverri sang, “Fluyo/me escabullo/huyo de este barullo/fluyo/me zambullo/en arrullos/me diluyo” (“I flow/I slip away/I flee from this confusion/I flow/I plunge/in murmurs/I dissolve”). The song could be a gentle anthem for a band that has ventured onto the global market only to retreat, at least for the moment, home. On a phone interview from Bogotá before the conference, Echeverri said of the song: “It's abstract but it's a way of asking people to think of what they can do together. Of what they can do for Colombia.”
Next the couple runs through the account of their own romantic breakup years ago, recorded in “Bolero Falaz.” Echeverri's eyes screwed shut and her mouth opened wide as she sang of “more days of hatred and melancholy.” This “Fallacious Love Song” on 1995's El Dorado introduced Aterciopelados, already popular in their native country, to ears across Latin America. Their subsequent two discs were recorded in London and New York City, by the British Richard Blair and Venezuelan Andres Levin. The alt-folk-rockers have come full circle from El Dorado, producing their current project themselves entirely in Bogotá, even doing the preproduction in Buitrago's house. The recent closing of their record label, BMG-Colombia, left them to their own devices. Making a virtue of necessity, the pair rallied friends and took several months to produce the still-unnamed disc according to their own specifications and with all Colombian musicians.
“Let's say that we had to pass through this process of going to the studios of the great producers out of curiosity,” said Buitrago. “We decided for this disc to have a very particular sound. On the other project, there were details missing, and that's what the producer put in, deciding what goes where. This time we knew really well what we wanted. And we decided that we were the best ones to achieve what we wanted.” Adds Echeverri: “We made it with a lot less money, but we made it here. This one is more rooted in Colombia, according to Hector's criteria. It's very truthful. There's a lot of honesty.”
There also was a lot of homegrown talent, sampling widely from Colombia's diverse musical traditions and adding folkloric flavor to the trip-hop vibes the group picked up from Levin. A bass player from the coast brought in an Afro-Colombian percussion instrument and set the whole band to dancing. A woman who played an Andean flute took several days to “interiorize” the music before she could perform. “In New York it's all session musicians,” said Buitrago in contrast. “Even though they're incredible musicians, you miss out on details.”
Global sound infused with local sentiment is typical not only of Aterciopelados but of many successful Latin alternative acts. “There's not really a genre,” said Echeverri. “It's like “the music of Aterciopelados,'” observed the singer. “Unlike some other rock groups, we don't reject the music of our parents. We let everything flow,” added Buitrago. “You take the [national and transnational] elements and you develop your own language.”
That language comes in part from the Latin-American context Santaolalla described. “There have been difficult moments for Colombia for as long as I remember,” observed the guitarist-cum-producer. “Lots of artists are trying to get out of the country. We feel like we belong here in a certain way, that they need us here. All day we're filled up with bad news. Music becomes a refuge.” The singer agreed: “Here we're important and there's a lot of press, so that people know what we do. They see that a person who has the possibility of going is staying. They see that we're here in the thick of the fight.”
Ironically Aterciopelado's international success heightens the band's importance at home. “There have been a number of magical moments for us,” Buitrago remembers. “The days after we were nominated for the Grammy [in 1998], we were coming back from New York. It was incredible. The people stopped their cars and shouted, “Bravo. Do it! Let's win it for Colombia!' After playing a lot of dates outside, you forget how much affection people feel just having you there. Then when the group is about to leave, there's kind of an energy loss. It makes your hair stand on end.”
Finishing with the cumbia-inflected “El Estuche” (“The Carrying Case”), from the 1998 Caribe Atomico, that warns listeners to “look at the essence, not the appearance,” Aterciopelados wove through the close-set tables at Nell's and the cramped knees of photographers sitting on the floor. The three young men from La Ley took up their instruments, three Chilean men adding to the night's national mix of Argentines, Mexicans, and Colombians -- a mix typical of Latin alternative shows.