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

Onstage the technicians continue to plug and unplug microphones. Concerned about the delay, marketing consultant Esteban Apraez briefs Blair and then rushes back to the sound board. A dot-com survivor and former intern at BMG U.S. Latin, Apraez's thin physique and smooth complexion shave about 8 years off his 26. The Cornell-educated Colombian American has been hired to coordinate the day-to-day operations of the Gozo Poderoso campaign. He too is wearing a bracelet given to him by Echeverri, this one bearing the word "poderoso" -- "powerful."

While Apraez sorts out the sound-system snafu, crossover consultant Deborah Castillero penetrates deep into the expectant crowd, gathering data on hard-core Aterciopelados fans for the street teams that will be employed by her company, Maracas Entertainment, in the top ten Hispanic markets across the nation. Meanwhile, wire-rim glasses perched on her nose like a college professor taking attendance, Los Angeles-based publicist Diana Baron notes which of the English-language journalists invited personally by her staff at d.baron media actually have shown up.

The go-to guy, the guerrilla marketer, and the power publicist are here tonight to enlist the support of the fourth estate. Trouble is, the Living Room has no raised stage; the only way for the media to see the artists is to stand on tiptoes and crane around shoulders. The seriously curious climb atop chairs, speakers, and windowsills only to be yanked back down by vigilant security. To make matters worse, Apraez continues to struggle desperately with the sound system. For the first half of the set, the levels are murky, forcing Echeverri's full-bodied vocals to compete with groovy samples, Afro-Colombian percussion, and down-tempo surf guitar.

Andrea Echeverri (top) gets ready for takeoff; Hector Buitrago rescues Latin-American rhythms
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
Andrea Echeverri (top) gets ready for takeoff; Hector Buitrago rescues Latin-American rhythms


7:00 p.m. Sunday, July 1. 305-358-8858. Tickets cost $25.
Bongos Cuban Cafe in the American Airlines Arena, 601 Biscayne Blvd.

Still, somehow, the singer's presence fills the room. She interprets the lyrics with gestures part sign language, part tai chi. Her hands swim across her shoulders, then frame her chiseled cheeks as she sings, "I unite what's mine and what's yours." Beside her Buitrago can barely be glimpsed at all, but the bass line that answers Echeverri's lyrical call rumbles through the bones of the tightly packed crowd. Then suddenly the sound clears up. Long-time fans cheer as they recognize a new electronic version of the band's 1995 breakthrough hit, "Florecita Rockera" ("Rock and Roll Flower Girl"). Echeverri seems to float over the heads of the euphoric crowd.

The press is smitten. The New York Times calls Aterciopelados "the closest thing to conference darlings" at SXSW, holding up the band as proof that "Latin America now holds many of rock's best impulses and best hopes." Time writes, "Language barriers don't stand a chance against this CD's powerful joy." Alternative Press Magazine crows, "You haven't heard sounds this vibrantly special since whales developed courtship songs." Rolling Stone predicts, "Aterciopelados are on the verge of worldwide huge."

One year ago Aterciopelados were so far from worldwide huge they were in danger of falling off the map. In the summer of 2000, the Colombian economy was in a shambles and BMG Colombia, the label that bankrolled the band's first four albums, was in crisis. Unemployment hit twenty percent, the peso plummeted to half its value, and gas prices soared to two dollars per gallon. Fans did not have a lot of cash on hand to buy CDs.

As part of a general reorganization, BMG Latin Region moved its regional headquarters from Madrid to Miami and shut down a number of subsidiary labels in South America. Aterciopelados manager Julio Correal began calling the Colombia office every day to ask what was happening with the group's recording budget. Then one afternoon there was no one to take his call. Poof! BMG Colombia had shut its doors, leaving Aterciopelados with a contract worth even less than a Colombian peso.

With no label and no budget, Echeverri and Buitrago were back where they started more than ten years ago, when they met through a mutual friend and formed the punk outfit Delia and the Aminoacidos.

But then, no Colombian had ever been a rock star.

Delia and the Aminoacidos had been a lark, a wild love affair. "We come from very different worlds," says Echeverri of her partnership with Buitrago. Although educated at the same bilingual high school that graduated current Colombian president Andres Pastrana, the bass player was raised in the working-class Barrio Restrepo and thrashed about in a hardcore band called La Pestilencia. The daughter of a conservative family who learned traditional ballads and boleros on her mother's lap, Echeverri saw in Buitrago the rough-and-tumble world she longed for beyond the tall gates and manicured lawns of the tony University of the Andes, where she studied fine arts. He taught her how to scream. She tattooed his name on her arm. The young lovers left their parents' homes to live together in a rented house in the colonial sector known as La Candelaria. "My family was hysterical," Echeverri laughs.

In the Eighties artists and students turned the narrow cobblestone streets and riotously colored quarters of the 500-year-old neighborhood into a bohemian playground. By the end of the decade, when Buitrago and Echeverri opened a small rock club inside their residence, El Baro quickly became the center of Bogotá's nascent rock scene. Covered with paintings by Echeverri's art-school friends, the tables and walls of El Baro formed a cosmic backdrop to Delia and the Aminoacidos' shouted covers of the Pixies and Jane's Addiction. "We were very amateur," admits Buitrago.

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