Velvet Offensive

Forget crossover: Selling a Colombian rock band in the United States is a mission for the custodians of culture -- or a very powerful magician

More peace signs dangle from the ceiling and microphone stands on The Tonight Show with Jay Lenoon May 15 than from the rearview mirrors of a caravan of hippies. A woman is singing with her eyes closed, straight hair framing her face like a medieval Madonna. Tall and angular, she is engulfed in a caftan identical to those worn in the Sixties by Mama Cass. She is not wearing the enormous dress so much as standing in it, stock-still. She sings: "If things get hairy, remember life is rose-colored." Her voice, as soothing as sand slipping through fingers, is buoyed by a surf guitar and accented by an occasional psychedelic strum. This could be The Ed Sullivan Show circa 1967, except the woman is singing in Spanish, the band is from Colombia, and the kitschy back-up vocals have been programmed into a sequencer.

This is not a Sixties flashback with a Latin accent. This is the first Latin rock band ever to appear on the most popular late-night show in the nation. And if two industry mights have their way, this may be the future of pop music in the United States.

Right now two major record labels are waging a guerrilla marketing campaign to sell the U.S. public on an Andean rock band with an unpronounceable name that sings exclusively in Spanish and bears no resemblance whatsoever to Ricky Martin or Jennifer Lopez. Through a "joint strategic marketing venture" called No Fronteras! (No Borders!), BMG U.S. Latin and Arista Recordshave combined forces to take Aterciopelados, a band whose previous two releases sold fewer than 20,000 copies each in the United States, all the way to platinum.

On the eve of Aterciopelados' Tonight Show appearance, Arista executive vice president Jerry Blair and his counterpart Leslie José Zigel, the vice president for business and legal affairs at BMG Latin Region (the corporation that oversees BMG U.S. Latin), e-mailed a pep talk to key players at both labels. "The mission of No Fronteras!" the missive declares, "is nothing less than to topple the traditional stereotype of what popular music in the U.S. ought to be." Rather than peddle the bananas-on-the-head tropical pop that U.S. audiences have eaten up since the days of Carmen Miranda, No Fronteras! aims to introduce English speakers to the rock, electronic, and hip-hop music made by Latin musicians for Latin audiences.

"Our positions make us the custodians of culture, and this is something we should all take very seriously," Blair and Zigel write. "Help us in breaking down the barriers and thanks for helping us prove the pundits wrong." The executives implore their colleagues to buck corporate forecasts. "If we sit and follow conventional wisdom, it is easy to say, “Based on previous sales patterns, this is all the clients will order.' This argument is fine if we are selling Pringles, but we are selling passion." Ignoring previous sales patterns altogether, the pair from Arista and BMG are trying to open English-only wallets and ears to Latin alternative music. Precisely why the execs feel so passionate about Aterciopelados -- a band by all accounts unlikely to break big in the United States -- is part will to history, part belief in magic.


Two months before The Tonight Show, the Living Room on Sixth Street in Austin, Texas, is packed with the most famous of the almost famous. Of the hundreds of music writers who flock to the South by Southwest music conference every year (where nearly 1000 bands play at 50 different venues over the course of five nights in March), the tastemakers have turned up here: The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, Spin, Rolling Stone.Even the truly famous David Byrne has pushed through the long line on the sidewalk and climbed the narrow staircase to the second-floor club. The buzz that the next big thing is a band from Bogotá spread around the Austin Convention Center faster than the English-language media could say "Ah-tare-see-oh-pey-la-dos."

Across the Living Room's long wooden floor, critics and celebrities fight for space with a legion of young Latin rock fans who couldn't care less about SXSW. These kids bought tickets at the door for this show only, eager to hear the latest songs from one of the most influential Latin-American bands of the past decade.

The crowd grows restless as sound technicians fiddle endlessly with cords. In a backroom on the other side of the stairwell, Aterciopelados singer Andrea Echeverri is tying a bracelet around Jerry Blair's wrist. Hunching over the Arista exec to tighten the strings, knees bent and elbows at odd angles, the gangly 35-year-old is strangely beautiful. Bathed in the light of her beatific smile, Blair, an energetic man on the verge of turning 40, looks for the moment like a child blessed by the Virgin. "I feel protected," he would later say of wearing the bracelet. "She's an angel." Woven into the thin strip of cloth now circling the executive's wrist is the word "Amor."

Hanging back beside Echeverri, his hands in his pockets, Hector Buitrago smiles shyly as Blair is inducted into the cult of Aterciopelados. For eleven years Echeverri and Buitrago have made music together, the charismatic vocalist drawing the limelight while the self-effacing bass player remains almost behind the scenes, shaping their sound from knock-off punk to an original fusion of rock, Latin rhythms, and electronica. The SXSW showcase is the beginning of a two-month campaign to prepare the U.S. market for the May 15 release of Gozo Poderoso (Powerful Joy), the band's fifth and most ambitious album. Here to rally the troops, Blair slips on to a chair in the corner, alternately examining the talisman around his wrist and speed-dialing his cell phone. Buitrago and Echeverri sink into a dilapidated couch against the wall, awaiting the cue for their show to begin.

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