Eleven years ago Pepe Alva could not get to Miami fast enough. When the singer was seventeen years old, his father moved the family from northern Peru to southern Ohio. After a month in Cincinnati, Alva was itching for the highway. I went to the map with a highlighter, he laughs, and drew a line along I-95. A year later the independent eighteen-year-old installed a radar detector in his Plymouth Colt and headed south at 110 miles per hour.
Already a paradise for tropical music, Miami was virgin territory for Spanish-language rock a decade ago. A growing South American population with a long tradition of homegrown rock, however, made the time seem right to launch something new. We thought that we were conquering the world, says Alva of UREP, the band he joined in 1990, because in Miami we had an audience, automatically, of 1000 people for every show. We opened up for Charly Garcia and every other big rock en español act, because we were the only band [playing Spanish-language rock] for at least two years. Although the number of groups has grown since then, gigs and airplay remain limited. So Alva is packing up once again, heading south of the border with a record contract from Warner-Mexico.
Alva announces his departure over a plate of ceviche at the Peruvian restaurant Delicias del Mar on Biscayne Boulevard. Chunky space-age shades wrap about his brow, giving his dark eyes an otherworldly blue cast that contrasts with the ancient Incan effect of the beads circling his neck. We went about as high as a local unsigned band could, he says, stabbing a squid tentacle with his fork. We packed venues; we released two independent CDs. The market [for Latin rock] here is short, he complains. It will get big, but for now it's still short. Mexico is the biggest market there is for Latin music right now.
As he speaks band members and managers from Fulano, another veteran outfit that happens to be lunching nearby, stop by the table to say hello. Although the musicians are friendly, like all local rockeros who have come up since Alva's arrival, they have had to scrabble among themselves for scarce venues and scant radio play. A recent flurry of conflicting announcements had first one band then the other opening for an upcoming concert scheduled by Argentine rock legend Fito Paez. In the end Fito postponed the concert, leaving everybody out of work that Saturday night.
I got a little sad sometimes, says Alva of his years on the Miami scene. When you sit down and you realize three or four years have passed and you're still playing the same venues. And you still have a day job. The most sad moments of my career are when I have to get up after I played all night. Why did I play? he asks.
Later in the conversation, he answers his own question: The inspiration for everything I do is my father, because he wanted his children to be Peruvian -- to know ourselves as Incan. With his master's in business administration completed, Alva's father took his young family back to the Peruvian coastal town of Trujillo. My father did not want us to be raised in the United States. I love the United States, but if you have a strong culture you better try to find out about it, and I thank my dad for giving me the chance.
His father's business travel, however, kept his kids in constant contact with popular music in the United States. I grew up listening to the music that my dad brought home, recalls the singer. Paul Simon. Santana. Peter, Paul & and Mary. The Carpenters. My dad would listen to the Carpenters all day. And Jethro Tull. Add to that grab bag of influences the traditional Peruvian songs his family performed at home. My dad plays guitar and sings better than anybody, Alva brags, better than me. My dad has six brothers, and they all play instruments. You hear criollo music everywhere in Peru.
In this atmosphere of audible fusion, Alva joined his first band, called Straps -- pronounced Es-traps -- at age fifteen. (I don't know why, Alva says about the meaningless English name.) He played lead guitar whenever the group practiced on a friend's rooftop. When I left everyone was happy for me, he recalls, because the United States is the land of the music industry. Everyone thought I was going to be the next Eddie Van Halen.
Migration made the young Peruvian conscious of his national folklore. The Andean roots have a kind of magic that is so marvelous because it was born in the mountains, he says. You don't feel it as much when you're there, because you have it all the time. When you come and live in a place like Cincinnati, Ohio, you appreciate your music because you don't have it any more.
Although breathless about the big-name artists who have worked with his new studio musicians and producer Oscar Lopez, Alva maintains: What fulfills me most is the folkloric flavor I've always had. I don't care what the musical producers do as long as they don't take away that essence. This is the style I will bring to Mexico.
Just to make sure, Alva will be joined in Mexico by his long-time guitarist Carlos Ochoa. There are very few folk musicians, explains Alva. Generally folk musicians either play everything that you blow or everything that you scratch. He does both. But the most important thing about Carlos is that he knows how to approach the music I'm doing. He's not a pure folklorist. He also plays rock.
It's been three years since Alva's last independent release, Pa' Mostrarte Mi Amor (To Show You My Love), a love letter to that Andean blowing and scratching set to upbeat, if not always memorable, altrock melodies. The treatment of Alva's happy fusion of memory and migration in a first-rate production should do better to capture what the singer calls the magic from the mountains. Too bad he will have to leave Miami to bring that magic back to us.
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