This Independence Day weekend Miami will experience an invasion that could be as explosive and energetic as last year's blockbuster action flick. Instead of ugly tentacled creatures bent on blasting the planet, the city will be overrun by a clutch of Latin rock musicians who bring messages not from another galaxy but from another culture. Armed with powerful guitars, red-hot horn sections, and impassioned vocals, these young rockeros are backed by a legion of fans who hope that Latin rock's uphill battle for financial and critical success in this country may finally be paying off.
The Pepsi-sponsored Rockinvasion! tour, which closes its seven-city run tonight at the James L. Knight Center, is doubly significant for fans of Latin rock. Rockinvasion not only assembles the most significant lineup of Latin rock talent yet seen in the U.S., but it also marks the first time that a major American corporation has backed an American tour of Latin rock artists. The Rockinvasion bill includes renowned Argentine rockers Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Colombian folk-punk band Aterciopelados, Mexican alternative outfit Maldita Vecindad y los Hijos del Quinto Patio, and the venerable Spanish group La Union. As in the other cities, a local artist -- in this case Miami's own Pepe Alva and his band Alma Raymi, who fuse rock rhythms with traditional Andean music -- will open the show.
Miami is the final stop on the tour, which has already packed arenas in San Diego, Los Angeles, El Paso, Houston, Chicago, and New York. Local Latin music boosters are pleased to see it come. "The really exciting thing about this tour, besides the music, is the corporate sponsorship," says Jesus Lara, a partner in Matt Entertainment, the local company that manages Alva and Afro-Cuban rock sensation (and Jesus's cousin) Nil Lara. "The movement is slowly gaining ground here, and it means a lot that a company like Pepsi recognizes that the movement is important and puts a lot of money into it. No single show will make things happen, but this is a step forward."
Before celebrating the step forward, it's worth taking a step backward to review the history of the Latin rock genre. While rock music has been an underground force in countries such as Mexico and Argentina since the Sixties, the Latin rock movement began to catch fire in the mid- to late-Eighties, when multinational record labels signed and promoted bands across the Spanish-speaking world. In the hands of its Latin practitioners, rock returned to its roots, reasserting itself as a defiant, energetic, radically democratic music that assimilates a number of different musical traditions. Just as American rock and roll stirred up a gumbo of blues, country, bluegrass, and gospel, Latin rock has spiced traditional rock sounds (guitar-bass-drums) with Caribbean, Andean, or Mexican elements. But Latin rock differs from its American cousin in at least one important respect: While American rock was at its heart an apolitical expression of teen angst, Latin rock artists tend to inspect the wounds of history, addressing issues of indigenous struggle, political repression, and the search for racial, cultural, and personal identity.
The Buenos Aires-based Fabulosos Cadillacs are perhaps the best-known of the Rockinvasion bands. The nine-piece outfit, which formed in 1985, drew raves from the U.S. press for its eclectic, electric fusion of rock, ska, funk, rap, samba, jazz, punk, tropical, and reggae. The band's last album, 1996's Rey Azucar, was produced by Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads and featured guest artists Deborah Harry, Big Youth, and Mick Jones, whose former band the Clash remains an abiding influence on Latin bands, both for its catholic tastes and hard-hitting political rhetoric. Los Cadillacs recently left Sony to sign with BMG Latino after ten gold and platinum albums; the band's forthcoming album, Fabulosos Calavera, is due out this summer and features a song with Ruben Blades.
While Los Fabulosos Cadillacs are arguably the most famous Latin rock band in the world, the other Rockinvasion acts have used this same formula -- varied music, socially conscious lyrics, and passionate playing -- to carve out niches for themselves. Here's a brief tour through the balance of the lineup:
*Mexico City's five-member Maldita Vecindad y los Hijos del Quinto Patio has been around since 1987, when they first committed their blend of funk, punk, ska, and traditional Mexican musics to wax. Known to fans as the Malditos, the band has toured the U.S. three times prior to Rockinvasion, and last year's Baile de Mascaras featured contributions by two former associates of the Artist Formerly Known as Prince (David Z produced, and Sheila E. supplied percussion).
*Bogota's Aterciopelados, led by charismatic wild woman Andrea Echeverri, has single-handedly put Colombian rock on the map. Though the band has been recording only since 1993, its irresistible mix of punk, folk, and traditional Colombian rhythms has earned a loyal following. Aterciopelados's latest album, La Pipa de la Paz, was produced by Phil Manzanero of Roxy Music fame.
*Spain's La Union is one of the oldest Latin rock outfits still recording; the band began its career in 1984 with rootsy conceptual work that gave way to rich, cinematic pop-rock with overtly autobiographical lyrics. In the last few years, La Union has explored psychedelia with American producer Stephan Galfas (Stryper, Savatage, Southside Johnny); 1993's Psychofunkster au Lait broadened its lyrical scope to covered everything from ecology to erotica. The band's latest album, Hiperespacio, journeys into the heart of Seventies funk and soul, paying homage to the likes of Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, and Earth, Wind, and Fire.
Diverse in style but uniformly high in quality, the tour's lineup has Miami-area Latin rock fans itching to be invaded. Even a fan like Pepe Alva, who actually gets to play in the concert. "It's fantastic that they picked those bands," says Alva. "Their countries are the strongest markets in Latin rock, and all of the bands are great in their individual styles. I hope to warm up the crowd and pass the ball to them so that they can make a goal."
Alva and Alma Raymi may soon be headliners themselves. Earlier this year, the band won first place among 60 unsigned Latin rock acts in a national contest that culminated with a concert at Los Angeles's Universal Amphitheater, and an album, Asilo en el Cielo, is due in late July. "When we started, there was nobody, no local [Latin rock] bands, no shows, no promoters, no radio," he recalls. "No one would have thought in 1992 that five Latin rock bands would be playing at the James L. Knight Center. Now there are 35 Spanish-speaking rock bands [in Miami], and we are trying to get through to those who listen to salsa and ballads. We don't want to get rid of that, but we want them to open their ears to Spanish rock and fusion, because it's going to be strong."
How strong, of course, depends on more than just the artists; advocates of Latin rock have long felt that the key to success lies in converting reluctant media programmers. "I've always believed in Latin rock," says Kike Posada, the Colombian disc jockey and journalist who hosts Fuego Rock on WRTO-FM (98.3). (The show airs Monday through Friday, from midnight to 2:00 a.m.) "The only adversity has been in trying to convince radio and television people. I wish people like my bosses would come out to see some of these events so they can tell people everywhere -- radio, ad agencies, TV -- to make it happen." Posada, who also publishes the local Latin rock mag Boom, compares the current resistance to Latin rock to classic-rock radio stations' reluctance to play modern or alternative rock -- then referred to as college music -- in the late Eighties and early Nineties.
Latin rock boosters also point out that despite its large Caribbean and South American populations, Miami is a relatively weak market for Latin rock, at least compared to cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and El Paso, in part because of the paucity of live venues, and in part because of a more general East Coast conservatism with regard to Spanish-language rock. Los Angeles rock-music radio giant KROC has hosted Latin rock specials, and the Mexican rock band Jaguares drew a crowd of more than 4000 in L.A., as opposed to only 600 in New York. But most advocates agree that radio is the biggest problem. Angela Rodriguez, a Miami-based music consultant for Billboard magazine, has spent the last decade trying to raise the genre's visibility by organizing panel discussions and showcases related to Latin rock. She was also instrumental in creating the Best Rock Video category for the Billboard Latin Music Awards.
"There is something wrong with radio -- they feel safe playing salsa and regional Mexican," says Rodriguez. "It reminds me of many years ago when rap started breaking out. People thought it wasn't going to happen, this music about violence, drugs, people getting killed, people singing about life in the street. It started as a street thing. I think Latin rock could do the same thing, but no radio support will kill us." She also points out that the few acts in Latin rock making their way up the Latin charts are not so much rock but pop acts. "Mana has been a big success, but ask kids on the street; they'll tell you Mana is not a real rock band."
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Besides zero radio play in some cities, another problem Rodriguez sees is that many Latin labels won't push Latin rock in the U.S. "Some of the labels have great products, but they don't really know what to do with rock since they don't know anything about it. The Cadillacs can sell 300,000 copies here, but they sold many times more than that in Latin America. And while Latinos are becoming the largest minority group in the U.S., they buy English-language rock albums. We are trying to figure out how we can get them to buy Latin rock."
But the last few years have brightened the corners of this otherwise dark picture. The lack of radio support has forced companies to develop innovative marketing strategies. Mega, which is promoting Rockinvasion, dispatched a fleet of pick-up trucks filled with Mountain Dew products and other giveaways. And American record labels are starting to see the light, with two significant compilations appearing in record stores in the past few months. The first, Silencio=Muerte: Red, Hot, and Latin, is the tenth installment in the Red, Hot, and ... series, which benefits AIDS research, and it features collaborations between Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and Fishbone, Cuca and Youth Brigade, and Geggy Tah and King Changa, plus contributions by Aterciopelados, Laurie Anderson, Ruben Blades, Los Lobos, and David Byrne. The second is the Rhino Records release !Reconquista! The Latin Rock Invasion, which offers songs by Latin American luminaries like Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Maldita Vecindad, Tijuana No!, Cuca, Divididos, and Caifanes alongside European outfits like the French-Spanish band Mano Negra and the Basque rock combo Negu Gorriak.
"I'm so happy American labels are starting to invest in Latin rock, because I find it more interesting right now than anything going on in American rock," says Kike Posada. "Forget the language. It is a rich, healthy music, coming from so many sources. There is rock being made all over this world -- it's a universal thing, the music of the Twentieth Century. What about French rock, German rock, Italian and Japanese rock. Why think about where it's made?"
Rockinvasion! takes place tonight, July 3, at the James L. Knight Center, 400 SE 2nd Ave, 372-0920, featuring Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Maldita Vecindad y los Hijos del Quinto Patio, Aterciopelados, La Union, and Pepe Alva y Alma Raymi. Showtime is 7:00 p.m. Tickets cost $40.