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

By February the impassioned execs had assembled their team, and the setup, Phase One, began. Blair tapped Deborah Castillero, who played an important role early in the Ricky Martin crossover campaign. "With Aterciopelados we knew from the outset that we were not going to get [commercial] radio," says Castillero. "We would have to have grassroots marketing and massive street promotion, massive club promotion, and a really intensive press initiative."

Aterciopelados stipulated in the BMG contract that the press be handled by Diana Baron, who publicized the group during the Watcha Tour 2000. Baron herself believes she was drawn to Latin alternative by a higher power. "It was like an epiphany," she reveals. "A couple of years ago a voice came from above that said maybe I could put what I had learned [at Anglo agencies] in the service of this great music. Having worked with top Anglo stars lets me know what's possible."

Zigel selected Esteban Apraez to coordinate the unorthodox undertaking for exactly the opposite reason. The eager young man, says the BMG lawyer, "is too young to know what is impossible."


Five days after the South by Southwest showcase, the two Colombian rock stars are helping a little old lady cross Fifth Street on South Beach. Since leaving Austin, Aterciopelados have jetted to Caracas for a concert tour and then back to Miami for another industry showcase at the 6000-person-strong DJ- and dance-oriented Winter Music Conference -- taking all interviews, Internet chats, and television appearances along the way. This good deed, however, is not one of their promotional duties. In fact Buitrago and Echeverri are holding up an interview as they inch along on either side of a wizened woman with oversize sunglasses and a Bride of Frankenstein streak up the middle of her black beehive.

The shiny steel surface of the woman's walker reflects Echeverri's orange pants and hand-painted work shoes as the singer supports the woman's left arm. The art-school chic makes sense of Echeverri's awkward frame, and her severe features are softened by uproarious laughter. Subdued in a plain T-shirt and jeans, Buitrago grips the woman's right arm gently. A BMG artist handler trails behind. When the four reach the opposite corner, Echeverri kisses the elderly woman several times on each cheek and gives her a hug that nearly squeezes the air out of her.

"We didn't know her before," exclaims a jubilant Echeverri, as though describing the band's big break or a holy vision. "She just asked if we would help! Her name is Esmeralda!"

"Esmeralda" ("Emerald") also happens to be the name of a song on Gozo Poderoso. As a drum machine imitates the hand claps and percussion of the buyerengue, a fertility dance from the Atlantic coast, Echeverri sings of finding serenity in silence. "Me elevo yo," she croons, "I levitate."

All the sudden attention stateside strikes the band as just as serendipitous as the apparition of this street-corner sprite. In the air-conditioned chill of the China Grill, Buitrago shrugs. "The person I know is the lawyer Leslie Zigel," he says. "He's been following us for a number of years. He wants to put together a marketing plan that will make us known all throughout the United States. He is very enthusiastic, but that really didn't have anything to do with anything that we did."

With a self-deprecating grin, he quips: "He was seduced by our charms."

Echeverri intervenes. "It's clear that none of this is going to change our attitude or our music. The only thing that we like is that people will hear the music. It legitimates our culture."

"If we grew up singing in English without understanding it, I think that they can do the same thing," adds Buitrago. "That would be the real crossover."

Just then manager Julio Correal joins the table. At Echeverri's request he roots around in his bag for a woven bracelet to present to the reporter. "There are no more," he grimaces.

"But we have to give her something," Echeverri insists. Suddenly Correal smiles. Reaching under his collar, he draws out a scapular bearing a tiny photo of the Virgin from around his own neck and places it over the journalist's head.

In the weeks that follow, the cult of Aterciopelados grows. At the end of Phase One, Gozo Poderoso debuts at number ten on Billboard's Latin music chart and is the first Spanish-language band ever to make Billboard's alternative music chart, with sales stabilizing at roughly 2000 copies per week. Phase Two begins in July. At each new landmark, the publicist and the manager perform a ritual they created when Baron informed Correal of The Tonight Show booking.

"The big animal is near," reports Correal.

"The elephant is coming, Julio," Diana Baron adds. "Boom, boom, boom. Hear the footsteps. There's a lot of noise. We're going to see what happens.

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