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

For Gozo Poderoso Aterciopelados borrow heavily from the indigenous people of southwestern Colombia, countering the black magic of the drug war with the curative magic of the Putumayo region. The powerful joy of the title is part yoga (a practice Echeverri has taken up in recent years) and part yagé, a hallucinogenic drink Echeverri and Buitrago take in ceremonies performed by Putumayo shaman Antonio Jacanamijoy. Traditionally yagé rituals allow the shaman to exorcise evils ranging from personal illness to social injustice by transmitting psychedelic visions of terrifying events through song. Pop shamans, Aterciopelados parlay the contemporary Colombian conflict into songs with healing power meant, says Echeverri, "to purify."

Unaware of the powerful forces at work, Jerry Blair fell under Aterciopelados' spell. Just as Clive Davis was struck by Joplin in 1967, the new Arista executive was bewitched by Echeverri. "She's mystical," he marvels. "When Andrea stands onstage, it's as if she levitates. When she holds out her arms, it's like she takes the audience in her hands."


In September the ensorcelled executive convened the upper echelon at Arista and BMG U.S. Latin around the massive table installed by Davis in the Arista conference room. "All that was missing was the big fat cigars," jokes Leslie Zigel, who flew up for the meeting with several of his colleagues from Miami. Over cartons of Chinese food, the assembled executives explored the possibility of a joint venture that would promote the Latin-alternative catalogue of BMG with the marketing savvy of Arista. The objective: to infiltrate mainstream pop in the United States with Latin rock and hip-hop.

The conversation heated up over the specifics. What was the possibility that a band born and raised in a distant country, speaking a foreign language, could break in the United States? Wouldn't success be likelier with a U.S. Latino band that American kids could relate to? Could the group record exclusively in Spanish, or is it necessary for the music to be at least bilingual? On the other hand, if the music was translated, would it lose its essence?

With these big questions hanging in the air, three names from the BMG catalogue came up as most likely to reach a mass audience: Mexico City rock idols Jaguares; Tijuana singer-songwriter Julieta Venegas; and Colombian mystics Aterciopelados.

The Jaguares, whose neoclassic arena rock is most vulnerable to the critique of rock en español as derivative of U.S. and Anglo rock, had no new release in the offing. Venegas, a critical darling whose dark beauty, intelligent songcraft, and quirky delivery promise mass appeal, had just released her second album, Bueninvento. It was too late for the marketers to prepare the field and build up the buzz necessary for massive sales. Nothing, not even word of mouth, could be left to chance.

Ironically the closing of BMG Colombia put Aterciopelados in the best position. With Gozo Poderoso unreleased but nearly finished, the joint venture could get publicity ready, set street teams and Internet campaigns in place, and go for a marketing miracle.

Perhaps even more important, the corporate reorganization that closed BMG Colombia also promoted Aterciopelados fan Zigel to a position where he could be a powerful advocate. Like Blair, Zigel was in his late thirties, as new to his penthouse office at BMG Latin Region headquarters as Blair was to Arista, and just as eager to stake his claim to music-industry history.

Although the meeting adjourned without any firm commitments, the two men became fast friends. In the e-mail and phone calls that followed, each would champion Aterciopelados for his own reasons: Zigel out of loyalty, Blair out of mysticism.

Problem was, by that time Aterciopelados had lost faith in BMG. Other labels were making overtures, and the band was listening. "Hector and Andrea were getting desperate," says their manager Julio Correal. "Somebody had to fly up there and do something. I asked [BMG Latin Region head Rodolfo Negrete-Lopez], “Do you want to release the disk or what?'" BMG flew the musicians three days later to meet with Zigel. Just before the lawyer entered the narrow gray conference room on the eighth floor of the First National Bank building in Coral Gables, his boss took him aside and said, "Don't lose this band."

Buitrago and Echeverri listened skeptically to the apologies and promises of redoubled support. But Correal remembered his conversation with his old friend years before. He believed. During a break he whispered to the musicians in the hallway: "I trust Leslie. If he says that they will support us, then they will."

With the band back on board, Blair and Zigel met for lunch in December at New York's Friar's Club, where the Arista exec recently had been inducted, to finalize plans for the joint venture. "Tony Bennett was in the room, and there we were, two makkers in the making," recalls Zigel, conveying his excitement with the Yiddish word that means both big shot and friend. "Somebody had to make a bold move," says Blair. "Somebody had to step forward."

Since neither label would dedicate staff to such a risky undertaking, the joint venture would depend entirely on marketing savvy and a team of consultants. The No Fronteras! strategy puts the music in the way of as many kinds of fans as possible: people who purchased earlier Aterciopelados releases, third- and fourth-generation Latinos, Latin-music fans, world-music fans, and, with a remix by Michael Moog, electronic-dance-music fans. "The great thing about Aterciopelados," says Blair, "is the diversity of their music. I think that's why a key marketing aspect to this whole project is to really foster the word of mouth. Their music just pervades your soul. To me, it doesn't matter what language it's in."

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