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

Perhaps. But as more and more musicians dropped by every weekend, the little club became the place to try out original material in Spanish. Echeverri remembers fondly: "El Baro gave us the chance to have a very strong identity and a great feeling of liberty."

As the Colombian rock scene grew stronger, Echeverri and Buitrago grew apart. "There was a period of healing," says Buitrago quietly. "We didn't work together for nearly a year." By 1993 the band reformed with a new guitarist, a new drummer, and a new name taken from a phrase Echeverri read in a book by French feminist Simone de Beauvoir: "the velvet flower of passion." Shortened to The Velvets, Aterciopelados captured at once the rich texture of Echeverri's voice, the feminist vision of the group's lyrics, and the legacy of that other art-world pop nexus built around Andy Warhol's Factory in New York City, the Velvet Underground.

It's a long way from the Factory to La Candelaria. In 1993, when the program director at the Javeriana University radio station where Buitrago worked wanted to put together a show featuring local rock bands, none of the Bogotá groups had any recorded material. The station set up a rudimentary studio, and Aterciopelados recorded their first two songs. Looking to publicize upcoming gigs, the couple took the crude demo to commercial radio stations. No one was more surprised than the band when the one-minute-thirty-second punk attack "Mujer Gala" became a hit. "They put on this really poorly recorded song," muses Echeverri, "and it went to number one."

Echeverri, with guitarist Alejandro Gomezc√°ceres, casts a spell on the music industry
Cynthia Carris Alonso
Echeverri, with guitarist Alejandro Gomezc√°ceres, casts a spell on the music industry
Whisper campaign: Esteban Apraez and Julio Correal plot strategy
Steve Satterwhite
Whisper campaign: Esteban Apraez and Julio Correal plot strategy

The success of "Mujer Gala" caught the attention of BMG Colombia, which had itself only been founded in 1990. "Back then they didn't even have a rock expert," Buitrago points out. "No one knew what to do with us." Sign a contract, for starters. When BMG Colombia released Aterciopelados' first album, Con el Corazon en la Mano (With Your Heart in Your Hand) in 1993, it topped the Colombian charts and catalyzed the national rock movement. Andean youth had long listened to English-language rock and rock from Argentina and Mexico, but Aterciopelados was the first band to break nationwide by making rock and roll its own.

In 1995 two events catapulted Aterciopelados and Colombian rock on to the continental stage. The single "Bolero Falaz" became an anthem for rockeros across the hemisphere. Coauthored by Buitrago and Echeverri, the false-love song tells of the end of an affair not unlike the musicians' own breakup. More significant to the history of Latin-American music, "Bolero Falaz" crosses the traditional bolero with contemporary rock and belies the oft-voiced criticism that Spanish-language rock is derivative of rock in English. Helped along by heavy rotation of the "Bolero Falaz" video on MTV Latin America, Aterciopelados' sophomore effort, El Dorado, sold 200,000 copies -- a small number relative to U.S. supergroups but impressive for a Latin-American band.

That same year Aterciopelados headlined Colombia's first rock festival. Organized by the group's manager, Julio Correal, with the office of the mayor of Bogotá, Rock al Parque drew 100 bands and 50,000 fans the first year. Now the largest rock festival in the Americas, attracting nearly 300,000 fans and more than 300 bands from across the continent each year, Rock al Parque leaves no doubt: Colombia rocks.

For all the gathering force, the movement stayed strictly south of the border. Although BMG Colombia invested more in the next two albums -- La Pipa de la Paz (1997) was produced in London by Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music and Caribe Atomico (1998) in New York City with important Latin alternative producer Andres Levin -- neither sold as well as El Dorado in Latin America. In the United States, record sales flatlined around 20,000 units. A series of tours designed to make a dent in the U.S. market, such as the 1998 Rockinvasión tour and the Watcha Tour 2000, drew uneven crowds across the nation. If Latin-American kids were willing to wrap their lips around incomprehensible English lyrics, Anglo-American youth were not ready to do the same with Spanish. The British invasion this was not.

Distressed by the flagging momentum, Correal corralled Leslie Zigel at the top of the escalators in the Miami Beach Convention Center during the MIDEM Latin American and Caribbean Music Market in 1998. "Help me, please," the Bogotano begged the lawyer. At that time, Zigel was in charge of legal and business affairs for BMG U.S. Latin -- that is, in the United States alone -- so he could offer the Colombian little more than sympathy.

"When you have other acts, like [pop balladeer] Christian Castro, selling over a million copies," Zigel explains, "to put it bluntly, that pays a lot of salaries. You have to pay attention to that." His interest in the earnest band from Bogotá was always bigger than the balance sheet, however. "I was a fan," he says. "I always kept them in mind, and whenever I could do something to help them, I did." For the time being, that was not much.

By November 1999 Aterciopelados had retreated back to Colombia to begin preproduction of Gozo Poderoso on Buitrago's home computer. The bass player produced the album himself. The recording was done at Audiovision, the same Bogotá studio where they laid down El Dorado, almost exclusively with Colombian musicians. "Let's say that we had to go through this process of working with the great producers in foreign studios," Buitrago offers. "For this album we wanted a particular sound. We decided we were the best people to achieve the sound we wanted." A listen to Gozo Poderoso proves the point. But with BMG Colombia out of business, Aterciopelados had their best album all but mastered and nowhere to go.

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