By Jacob Katel
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By Nate "Igor" Smith
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Riding atop a crafty indie dream, Babasonicos finally had its own Miami experience -- with the usual elements, good, bad, and ugly -- on December 16 at Lola. The Argentine experimental alt-rock group performed an almost unannounced gig dominated by the sense of general relief that comes with the last show of every tour.
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.
The poses Babasonicos has approximated have worked, even if they haven't amounted to record sales. For the last two years Babasonicos has been one of the few active bands in the Argentine market, and the loyal 2000 soldiers of the early alternative years have become surrounded by a bigger wave of fans. And for the first time the band members are being treated as artists with things to say, even though they still hear people calling them "new Argentinean rock" just like it was 1992.
Babasonicos sold out a 10,000-seat arena last November 1 in Buenos Aires, right after an encouraging double set of shows in Los Angeles and Anaheim as headliners of the Rock en Ñ fest on October 18 and 19. The U.S. Latino audience has developed a relationship with the band that owes more to its albums and cult status than to infrequent U.S. shows -- reflecting perhaps the same doubts Babasonicos generated in Argentina, where it was often passed over as weird or snobbish. The band toured Miami and New York in the East and some cities on the West Coast in the mid-Nineties, then disappeared off the U.S. radar. "It was cold, we were too new for the audience, but the good thing was that our fans were not necessarily Argentines; actually most of them were Mexican," remembers Rodriguez.
"Our coming to the U.S. now is not related to the situation in Argentina. It has to do with the maturity of the band. We're ready for other conversations, for other people mixing with our songs, to be picked in different catalogs, to do other kinds of shows," enumerates the singer. "Today in Argentina money doesn't solve anything, and the state will hold it if you made some. I don't want money -- I want to do better albums, better shows, that's all."
The band members won't forget some nice surprises experienced last August, after their first Central Park SummerStage show at the Latin Alternative Music Conference. They couldn't understand why American fans had driven from Philadelphia to New York just to see them play.
In L.A., CBS News followed the band for six hours to cover the backstage action of the show at 1650 Club, which basically attracted all the Latin alternative cameras and radio stations in town. "The fact that we couldn't afford to come here in the last five years has created a myth around the band," laughs the singer.
But what would make them appealing to trained American ears? "We are not contaminated by mainstream music," says Rodriguez. "We have managed to maintain the idea that rock is chaos, and from that chaos, Babasonicos can offer a different landscape." The singer likes to be deep. Concluding the idea, he says, "Babasonicos offers what people want from a rock show: a cathartic effect, the same thing that Indians looked for in shamanism, or what was pursued in the Greek theater."
Such catharsis can be found in the last three albums the band released with Sony in the United States: Dopadromo (1996), Babasonica (1997), and Miami (1999). The concepts swerve from Nineties hip-hop to Seventies bossa nova, and from Italian balladry to dark and gloomy heavy metal. Frantic lovers of kitsch and junk culture, the musicians started speaking a more accessible language -- even adding strings to the mix -- with the release of Miami, an album where they mocked the love-hate relationship people in Argentina have with the United States.
The album's cover rotates Argentina's map horizontally to resemble a U.S. map. "Miami divides the Argentine bourgeoisie into two groups: those who have been in Miami and those who haven't," says Rodriguez of the irony on the album, such as in the dark song "La Roncha": Everything's on sale here/Life don't cost a thing. "For some middle-class Argentines, Miami has been a paradise where people used to be able to buy all kinds of things. For us, it was our way to anticipate the end of the Menemismo [President Carlos Menem ruled from 1989-1999]."
Rodriguez doesn't look down on those who dream of Miami; in fact he almost ended up living here himself. His father, Hugo Rodriguez, had an opportunity to sell the family store in Lanus -- a city located just a few kilometers from downtown Buenos Aires --and move to Miami in 1979.
His father didn't want to sell, complains Rodriguez, pointing out that as a double-language student, he was ready to move up north 23 years ago. He knows that he would have had a better future here, and more important, a better present. Beck's multimillion-selling debut album proves Rodriguez's theory; he thinks hitting big just once in the States is enough for a musician to forget his worries for the rest of his life, with money in the bank and time to do all kinds of musical experiments.
"I would have been a Florida rocker, like Marilyn Manson," Rodriguez jokes, "but my father rejected all plans for only one simple reason: Lanus -- the soccer team of that city -- only plays there!"