By Jacob Katel
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By Nate "Igor" Smith
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It was the fifth show Babasonicos played in a row, getting in and out of airplanes to cover the distance between San Diego and Tucson and Tijuana and Hermosillo, Mexico before the last gig of the year in Miami. Smiles stuck on their faces, the six boys in the band spoke at length to the fans, and played like it didn't matter that the show wasn't the best culmination of what should have been (but wasn't) the best year of their decade-long career.
To Babasonicos' credit, it must be said that even without radio, print, or posters to promote the show, more than a hundred vampirelike rockers showed up at midnight on a cold Monday to see firsthand why everybody's talking about this band. Hours before splitting onto six different flights to six different vacation destinations, taking a break for the first time in the last four months, singer Adrian Rodriguez, bassist Gabriel "Gabo" Manelli, guitarist Mariano "Roger" Dominguez, and drummer Diego "C" Castellanos sat down to dish about the tour that brought them back to Mexico and the United States for the first time in five years.
"If we compare the reaction we got to our first visit, things have changed big time," says Dominguez. "Back in 1997 we felt like tourists, not as professional musicians, even though back then we tried to play as much as possible around the 'Unplugged' show we did for MTV Latin America." Five years ago they didn't even dare to imagine that they could pack a club in Tucson on a Sunday night, like they did this time. Or that people would approach them to say, "Thanks for coming, we never thought it would be possible to see you live."
Similar exchanges took place in Dallas, Houston, and San Diego, almost certainly paving the way for a prompt return around April 2003 with all the lessons learned. Although some critics claim that the category rock en español is nothing more than a marketing ploy, the actual promoters of the genre in the United States are not savvy marketers but still-inexperienced enthusiasts hoping to grow a local scene with very few of the elements necessary to make it work.
And it's working ever so slowly. We're not talking about Latin pop crossovers here. There is no Shakira or Ricky Martin shaking their bon-bons onstage, surrounded by pyrotechnics while the audience sings along (thank God). Babasonicos is not Juanes, either. There's no Argentine folk music thrown in for flavor. With Babasonicos, there's just the strong determination to make its music different from the rest or just plain unexpected. That's what sets the band apart from the rest of the recent Argentine exports.
The group broke into the Rio Plata music scene with the album Pasto (Grass), released by Sony in 1992, drawing a small but very loyal number of followers and public support from superstars Soda Stereo. Several Sony albums later, Babasonicos has been in record-label limbo, condemned by that imaginary tag engraved with the indelible words: alternative band.
On the other hand, the rest of Latin America perceived Babasonicos --through the lens of MTV -- as a well-established institution with a taste for cut-and-paste culture, its videos played as heavily as those few conceived by older Argentine bands. From the start of the music channel's history in Latin America, the band was seen as being -- at least to its young viewers -- already there when they turned on the TV.
While the industry, the media, and music fans in Argentina were still trying to decide how much faith to place in the new band, Babasonicos wasn't waiting for anybody's approval. The band kept releasing albums that didn't reach a bigger audience, but certainly stretched musical horizons. The group went from alt-rock to skate-rock, from hip-hop to heavy metal, from funky instrumentals to trippy beats. It tried almost everything.
Babasonicos took nine years to jump from best new band to best album of the year in the Argentine polls. It had released five very different albums with Sony Argentina and a double compilation as part of that label's series Obras Cumbres (Masterpieces), but ironically didn't get recognition until 2001, with the release of the semi-independent and Latin Grammy-nominated Jessico, distributed in the United States by Delanuca Records.
Singer Rodriguez explains that in today's Argentina the major labels are not releasing any rock bands at all. Only small local outlets keep the flame alive. There is a paradox, he says, in having the best album of 2001 in one of the worst economic years Argentines can remember for decades.
"What kind of rock language can exist in a country where 56 percent of people live in poverty, and 28 percent are unemployed?" grieves the singer, who onstage wears all kind of glam-rock outfits, but takes the makeup off to talk about the place where he lives. "What rock pose can I adopt when 70 percent of Argentinean teenagers are poor, authentic system's outsiders?" Rodriguez wonders.