More peace signs dangle from the ceiling and microphone stands on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on May 15 than from the rearview mirrors of a caravan of hippies. A woman is singing with her eyes closed, straight hair framing her face like a medieval Madonna. Tall and angular, she is engulfed in a caftan identical to those worn in the Sixties by Mama Cass. She is not wearing the enormous dress so much as standing in it, stock-still. She sings: "If things get hairy, remember life is rose-colored." Her voice, as soothing as sand slipping through fingers, is buoyed by a surf guitar and accented by an occasional psychedelic strum. This could be The Ed Sullivan Show circa 1967, except the woman is singing in Spanish, the band is from Colombia, and the kitschy back-up vocals have been programmed into a sequencer.
This is not a Sixties flashback with a Latin accent. This is the first Latin rock band ever to appear on the most popular late-night show in the nation. And if two industry mights have their way, this may be the future of pop music in the United States.
Right now two major record labels are waging a guerrilla marketing campaign to sell the U.S. public on an Andean rock band with an unpronounceable name that sings exclusively in Spanish and bears no resemblance whatsoever to Ricky Martin or Jennifer Lopez. Through a "joint strategic marketing venture" called No Fronteras! (No Borders!), BMG U.S. Latin and Arista Records have combined forces to take Aterciopelados, a band whose previous two releases sold fewer than 20,000 copies each in the United States, all the way to platinum.
Aterciopelados perform with Volumen Cero
Bongos Cuban Cafe in the American Airlines Arena, 601 Biscayne Blvd.
7:00 p.m. Sunday, July 1. 305-358-8858. Tickets cost $25.
On the eve of Aterciopelados' Tonight Show appearance, Arista executive vice president Jerry Blair and his counterpart Leslie José Zigel, the vice president for business and legal affairs at BMG Latin Region (the corporation that oversees BMG U.S. Latin), e-mailed a pep talk to key players at both labels. "The mission of No Fronteras!" the missive declares, "is nothing less than to topple the traditional stereotype of what popular music in the U.S. ought to be." Rather than peddle the bananas-on-the-head tropical pop that U.S. audiences have eaten up since the days of Carmen Miranda, No Fronteras! aims to introduce English speakers to the rock, electronic, and hip-hop music made by Latin musicians for Latin audiences.
"Our positions make us the custodians of culture, and this is something we should all take very seriously," Blair and Zigel write. "Help us in breaking down the barriers and thanks for helping us prove the pundits wrong." The executives implore their colleagues to buck corporate forecasts. "If we sit and follow conventional wisdom, it is easy to say, Based on previous sales patterns, this is all the clients will order.' This argument is fine if we are selling Pringles, but we are selling passion." Ignoring previous sales patterns altogether, the pair from Arista and BMG are trying to open English-only wallets and ears to Latin alternative music. Precisely why the execs feel so passionate about Aterciopelados -- a band by all accounts unlikely to break big in the United States -- is part will to history, part belief in magic.
Two months before The Tonight Show, the Living Room on Sixth Street in Austin, Texas, is packed with the most famous of the almost famous. Of the hundreds of music writers who flock to the South by Southwest music conference every year (where nearly 1000 bands play at 50 different venues over the course of five nights in March), the tastemakers have turned up here: The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, Spin, Rolling Stone. Even the truly famous David Byrne has pushed through the long line on the sidewalk and climbed the narrow staircase to the second-floor club. The buzz that the next big thing is a band from Bogotá spread around the Austin Convention Center faster than the English-language media could say "Ah-tare-see-oh-pey-la-dos."
Across the Living Room's long wooden floor, critics and celebrities fight for space with a legion of young Latin rock fans who couldn't care less about SXSW. These kids bought tickets at the door for this show only, eager to hear the latest songs from one of the most influential Latin-American bands of the past decade.
The crowd grows restless as sound technicians fiddle endlessly with cords. In a backroom on the other side of the stairwell, Aterciopelados singer Andrea Echeverri is tying a bracelet around Jerry Blair's wrist. Hunching over the Arista exec to tighten the strings, knees bent and elbows at odd angles, the gangly 35-year-old is strangely beautiful. Bathed in the light of her beatific smile, Blair, an energetic man on the verge of turning 40, looks for the moment like a child blessed by the Virgin. "I feel protected," he would later say of wearing the bracelet. "She's an angel." Woven into the thin strip of cloth now circling the executive's wrist is the word "Amor."
Hanging back beside Echeverri, his hands in his pockets, Hector Buitrago smiles shyly as Blair is inducted into the cult of Aterciopelados. For eleven years Echeverri and Buitrago have made music together, the charismatic vocalist drawing the limelight while the self-effacing bass player remains almost behind the scenes, shaping their sound from knock-off punk to an original fusion of rock, Latin rhythms, and electronica. The SXSW showcase is the beginning of a two-month campaign to prepare the U.S. market for the May 15 release of Gozo Poderoso (Powerful Joy), the band's fifth and most ambitious album. Here to rally the troops, Blair slips on to a chair in the corner, alternately examining the talisman around his wrist and speed-dialing his cell phone. Buitrago and Echeverri sink into a dilapidated couch against the wall, awaiting the cue for their show to begin.
Onstage the technicians continue to plug and unplug microphones. Concerned about the delay, marketing consultant Esteban Apraez briefs Blair and then rushes back to the sound board. A dot-com survivor and former intern at BMG U.S. Latin, Apraez's thin physique and smooth complexion shave about 8 years off his 26. The Cornell-educated Colombian American has been hired to coordinate the day-to-day operations of the Gozo Poderoso campaign. He too is wearing a bracelet given to him by Echeverri, this one bearing the word "poderoso" -- "powerful."
While Apraez sorts out the sound-system snafu, crossover consultant Deborah Castillero penetrates deep into the expectant crowd, gathering data on hard-core Aterciopelados fans for the street teams that will be employed by her company, Maracas Entertainment, in the top ten Hispanic markets across the nation. Meanwhile, wire-rim glasses perched on her nose like a college professor taking attendance, Los Angeles-based publicist Diana Baron notes which of the English-language journalists invited personally by her staff at d.baron media actually have shown up.
The go-to guy, the guerrilla marketer, and the power publicist are here tonight to enlist the support of the fourth estate. Trouble is, the Living Room has no raised stage; the only way for the media to see the artists is to stand on tiptoes and crane around shoulders. The seriously curious climb atop chairs, speakers, and windowsills only to be yanked back down by vigilant security. To make matters worse, Apraez continues to struggle desperately with the sound system. For the first half of the set, the levels are murky, forcing Echeverri's full-bodied vocals to compete with groovy samples, Afro-Colombian percussion, and down-tempo surf guitar.
Still, somehow, the singer's presence fills the room. She interprets the lyrics with gestures part sign language, part tai chi. Her hands swim across her shoulders, then frame her chiseled cheeks as she sings, "I unite what's mine and what's yours." Beside her Buitrago can barely be glimpsed at all, but the bass line that answers Echeverri's lyrical call rumbles through the bones of the tightly packed crowd. Then suddenly the sound clears up. Long-time fans cheer as they recognize a new electronic version of the band's 1995 breakthrough hit, "Florecita Rockera" ("Rock and Roll Flower Girl"). Echeverri seems to float over the heads of the euphoric crowd.
The press is smitten. The New York Times calls Aterciopelados "the closest thing to conference darlings" at SXSW, holding up the band as proof that "Latin America now holds many of rock's best impulses and best hopes." Time writes, "Language barriers don't stand a chance against this CD's powerful joy." Alternative Press Magazine crows, "You haven't heard sounds this vibrantly special since whales developed courtship songs." Rolling Stone predicts, "Aterciopelados are on the verge of worldwide huge."
One year ago Aterciopelados were so far from worldwide huge they were in danger of falling off the map. In the summer of 2000, the Colombian economy was in a shambles and BMG Colombia, the label that bankrolled the band's first four albums, was in crisis. Unemployment hit twenty percent, the peso plummeted to half its value, and gas prices soared to two dollars per gallon. Fans did not have a lot of cash on hand to buy CDs.
As part of a general reorganization, BMG Latin Region moved its regional headquarters from Madrid to Miami and shut down a number of subsidiary labels in South America. Aterciopelados manager Julio Correal began calling the Colombia office every day to ask what was happening with the group's recording budget. Then one afternoon there was no one to take his call. Poof! BMG Colombia had shut its doors, leaving Aterciopelados with a contract worth even less than a Colombian peso.
With no label and no budget, Echeverri and Buitrago were back where they started more than ten years ago, when they met through a mutual friend and formed the punk outfit Delia and the Aminoacidos.
But then, no Colombian had ever been a rock star.
Delia and the Aminoacidos had been a lark, a wild love affair. "We come from very different worlds," says Echeverri of her partnership with Buitrago. Although educated at the same bilingual high school that graduated current Colombian president Andres Pastrana, the bass player was raised in the working-class Barrio Restrepo and thrashed about in a hardcore band called La Pestilencia. The daughter of a conservative family who learned traditional ballads and boleros on her mother's lap, Echeverri saw in Buitrago the rough-and-tumble world she longed for beyond the tall gates and manicured lawns of the tony University of the Andes, where she studied fine arts. He taught her how to scream. She tattooed his name on her arm. The young lovers left their parents' homes to live together in a rented house in the colonial sector known as La Candelaria. "My family was hysterical," Echeverri laughs.
In the Eighties artists and students turned the narrow cobblestone streets and riotously colored quarters of the 500-year-old neighborhood into a bohemian playground. By the end of the decade, when Buitrago and Echeverri opened a small rock club inside their residence, El Baro quickly became the center of Bogotá's nascent rock scene. Covered with paintings by Echeverri's art-school friends, the tables and walls of El Baro formed a cosmic backdrop to Delia and the Aminoacidos' shouted covers of the Pixies and Jane's Addiction. "We were very amateur," admits Buitrago.
Perhaps. But as more and more musicians dropped by every weekend, the little club became the place to try out original material in Spanish. Echeverri remembers fondly: "El Baro gave us the chance to have a very strong identity and a great feeling of liberty."
As the Colombian rock scene grew stronger, Echeverri and Buitrago grew apart. "There was a period of healing," says Buitrago quietly. "We didn't work together for nearly a year." By 1993 the band reformed with a new guitarist, a new drummer, and a new name taken from a phrase Echeverri read in a book by French feminist Simone de Beauvoir: "the velvet flower of passion." Shortened to The Velvets, Aterciopelados captured at once the rich texture of Echeverri's voice, the feminist vision of the group's lyrics, and the legacy of that other art-world pop nexus built around Andy Warhol's Factory in New York City, the Velvet Underground.
It's a long way from the Factory to La Candelaria. In 1993, when the program director at the Javeriana University radio station where Buitrago worked wanted to put together a show featuring local rock bands, none of the Bogotá groups had any recorded material. The station set up a rudimentary studio, and Aterciopelados recorded their first two songs. Looking to publicize upcoming gigs, the couple took the crude demo to commercial radio stations. No one was more surprised than the band when the one-minute-thirty-second punk attack "Mujer Gala" became a hit. "They put on this really poorly recorded song," muses Echeverri, "and it went to number one."
The success of "Mujer Gala" caught the attention of BMG Colombia, which had itself only been founded in 1990. "Back then they didn't even have a rock expert," Buitrago points out. "No one knew what to do with us." Sign a contract, for starters. When BMG Colombia released Aterciopelados' first album, Con el Corazon en la Mano (With Your Heart in Your Hand) in 1993, it topped the Colombian charts and catalyzed the national rock movement. Andean youth had long listened to English-language rock and rock from Argentina and Mexico, but Aterciopelados was the first band to break nationwide by making rock and roll its own.
In 1995 two events catapulted Aterciopelados and Colombian rock on to the continental stage. The single "Bolero Falaz" became an anthem for rockeros across the hemisphere. Coauthored by Buitrago and Echeverri, the false-love song tells of the end of an affair not unlike the musicians' own breakup. More significant to the history of Latin-American music, "Bolero Falaz" crosses the traditional bolero with contemporary rock and belies the oft-voiced criticism that Spanish-language rock is derivative of rock in English. Helped along by heavy rotation of the "Bolero Falaz" video on MTV Latin America, Aterciopelados' sophomore effort, El Dorado, sold 200,000 copies -- a small number relative to U.S. supergroups but impressive for a Latin-American band.
That same year Aterciopelados headlined Colombia's first rock festival. Organized by the group's manager, Julio Correal, with the office of the mayor of Bogotá, Rock al Parque drew 100 bands and 50,000 fans the first year. Now the largest rock festival in the Americas, attracting nearly 300,000 fans and more than 300 bands from across the continent each year, Rock al Parque leaves no doubt: Colombia rocks.
For all the gathering force, the movement stayed strictly south of the border. Although BMG Colombia invested more in the next two albums -- La Pipa de la Paz (1997) was produced in London by Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music and Caribe Atomico (1998) in New York City with important Latin alternative producer Andres Levin -- neither sold as well as El Dorado in Latin America. In the United States, record sales flatlined around 20,000 units. A series of tours designed to make a dent in the U.S. market, such as the 1998 Rockinvasión tour and the Watcha Tour 2000, drew uneven crowds across the nation. If Latin-American kids were willing to wrap their lips around incomprehensible English lyrics, Anglo-American youth were not ready to do the same with Spanish. The British invasion this was not.
Distressed by the flagging momentum, Correal corralled Leslie Zigel at the top of the escalators in the Miami Beach Convention Center during the MIDEM Latin American and Caribbean Music Market in 1998. "Help me, please," the Bogotano begged the lawyer. At that time, Zigel was in charge of legal and business affairs for BMG U.S. Latin -- that is, in the United States alone -- so he could offer the Colombian little more than sympathy.
"When you have other acts, like [pop balladeer] Christian Castro, selling over a million copies," Zigel explains, "to put it bluntly, that pays a lot of salaries. You have to pay attention to that." His interest in the earnest band from Bogotá was always bigger than the balance sheet, however. "I was a fan," he says. "I always kept them in mind, and whenever I could do something to help them, I did." For the time being, that was not much.
By November 1999 Aterciopelados had retreated back to Colombia to begin preproduction of Gozo Poderoso on Buitrago's home computer. The bass player produced the album himself. The recording was done at Audiovision, the same Bogotá studio where they laid down El Dorado, almost exclusively with Colombian musicians. "Let's say that we had to go through this process of working with the great producers in foreign studios," Buitrago offers. "For this album we wanted a particular sound. We decided we were the best people to achieve the sound we wanted." A listen to Gozo Poderoso proves the point. But with BMG Colombia out of business, Aterciopelados had their best album all but mastered and nowhere to go.
There is no evil that does not come to some good. On the very day turmoil beset BMG's operations in Latin America -- the first day of the fiscal year for Bertelsmann, the media giant that owns both BMG and Arista -- a change of guard at Arista Records in New York City would reverse Aterciopelados' misfortune. The German parent company edged legendary record executive Clive Davis out of the label he had founded 25 years before and appointed in his place Antonio "LA" Reid, hip-hop producer and cofounder with R&B singer Baby Face of LaFace records in Atlanta. Reid, in turn, recruited Jerry Blair for the post of executive vice president.
The burden of history weighed heavy on the new Arista executives. The outgoing Davis had blazed a trail over three decades, establishing the careers of superstars such as Barry Manilow, Billy Joel, Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen, Pink Floyd, and Santana (twice). Before founding Arista in 1974, he helped usher in a new era of rock and roll as president of Columbia Records, when he signed Janis Joplin after being captivated by her performance at the First Annual Monterey International Pop Music Festival in June 1967. Joining Reid at the helm of Arista, Blair was poised to make his own contribution to the future of the industry. But with what music?
Formerly vice president of marketing at Columbia Records, the driven exec fostered a partnership between Columbia and Sony Discos that facilitated the crossover of Latin pop stars Ricky Martin, Elvis Crespo, MDO, and Son by Four. "Then [the Ricky Martin explosion] became the flavor of the day," observes Blair. "Salsa this,' hot that'-- every article had to be about la vida loca. It almost made Ricky become a caricature. It also opened up the world's eyes to the fact that the Hispanic or Latino market was so big. I believe that explosion showed marketers an incredible untapped market."
The trick would be to tap that market without falling into the Latin boom-and-bust cycle: hot and spicy today, gone tomorrow. On August 15, 2000, Blair found the Latin alternative he was searching for. Barely settled into their new offices, Reid and Blair stopped in at Irving Plaza in Manhattan for the annual awards ceremony hosted by Spanish-language rock magazine La Banda Elastica. The ceremony capped the first annual Latin Alternative Music Conference, a five-day event organized by publicist Josh Norek and artist manager Tomas Cookman, long-time crusaders on a quest to introduce Latin rock, hip-hop, and reggae to English-language audiences.
Even though the LAMC took place thousands of miles away from the sold-out stadiums of Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and Bogotá -- and even though the concert was organized more for the industry than for fans -- Irving Plaza throbbed with the aspirations and anguish of Latin-American youth that are expressed in their music. "There was an opportunity to sell a lot more records," says Blair. "You could see the passion of the kids. The energy was so incredible. I turned to LA and said, This is what it must have felt like to be at Monterey.'"
More than any other band onstage that night, Aterciopelados captured the spirit of the first rock festival ever. Monterey crystallized Sixties counterculture by rallying 200,000 hippies and 30 bands -- including the Who, the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, the Mamas and the Papas, and Jefferson Airplane -- around the antiwar slogan "music, love, and flowers."
By reviving those Sixties symbols, Aterciopelados protest the civil war raging in the band's homeland. Even without understanding the lyrics, Blair heard in this Spanish-language summer of love the outrage and hope of young people growing up in a nation under siege. Asked to describe Aterciopelados in three words during a recent chat on a Latin-American Website, Andrea Echeverri came up with four, adding Latin flavor to the Monterey slogan: "peace, love, music, and sabor."
The big question would be how to sell that sabor in the United States. Especially since the only thing "hot" or "spicy" about Aterciopelados' Latin flavor is Echeverri and Buitrago's opposition to U.S. policy in Colombia. The musicians object to the U.S. military action and fumigation of coca fields in their country. "A lot of Colombia's problems are due to external forces," observes Buitrago. "The big countries don't have a clear plan for reducing internal consumption [of cocaine], so instead they put pressure on the small producer countries." Describing the United States as "pro-atomic, pro-war, anti-cosmic, anti-natural" in the song "Fantasia," Aterciopelados prophesy that the empire's "black magic" is "on its way out."
Indeed one of the signs of the empire's fall might be that Aterciopelados' music is on its way in. If the marketing campaign is successful, it will reverse a century of world domination by U.S. pop music. Rarely getting up on a soapbox as they do in "Fantasia," the musicians instead oppose the ubiquitous reach of music made in the United States through their use of indigenous Latin-American rhythms. "We've had the opportunity to get to know other countries with other cultures that unfortunately, because of globalization, are being thrown away," explains Buitrago. "They are under attack by Western culture, so we are going to try to rescue them musically."
For Gozo Poderoso Aterciopelados borrow heavily from the indigenous people of southwestern Colombia, countering the black magic of the drug war with the curative magic of the Putumayo region. The powerful joy of the title is part yoga (a practice Echeverri has taken up in recent years) and part yagé, a hallucinogenic drink Echeverri and Buitrago take in ceremonies performed by Putumayo shaman Antonio Jacanamijoy. Traditionally yagé rituals allow the shaman to exorcise evils ranging from personal illness to social injustice by transmitting psychedelic visions of terrifying events through song. Pop shamans, Aterciopelados parlay the contemporary Colombian conflict into songs with healing power meant, says Echeverri, "to purify."
Unaware of the powerful forces at work, Jerry Blair fell under Aterciopelados' spell. Just as Clive Davis was struck by Joplin in 1967, the new Arista executive was bewitched by Echeverri. "She's mystical," he marvels. "When Andrea stands onstage, it's as if she levitates. When she holds out her arms, it's like she takes the audience in her hands."
In September the ensorcelled executive convened the upper echelon at Arista and BMG U.S. Latin around the massive table installed by Davis in the Arista conference room. "All that was missing was the big fat cigars," jokes Leslie Zigel, who flew up for the meeting with several of his colleagues from Miami. Over cartons of Chinese food, the assembled executives explored the possibility of a joint venture that would promote the Latin-alternative catalogue of BMG with the marketing savvy of Arista. The objective: to infiltrate mainstream pop in the United States with Latin rock and hip-hop.
The conversation heated up over the specifics. What was the possibility that a band born and raised in a distant country, speaking a foreign language, could break in the United States? Wouldn't success be likelier with a U.S. Latino band that American kids could relate to? Could the group record exclusively in Spanish, or is it necessary for the music to be at least bilingual? On the other hand, if the music was translated, would it lose its essence?
With these big questions hanging in the air, three names from the BMG catalogue came up as most likely to reach a mass audience: Mexico City rock idols Jaguares; Tijuana singer-songwriter Julieta Venegas; and Colombian mystics Aterciopelados.
The Jaguares, whose neoclassic arena rock is most vulnerable to the critique of rock en español as derivative of U.S. and Anglo rock, had no new release in the offing. Venegas, a critical darling whose dark beauty, intelligent songcraft, and quirky delivery promise mass appeal, had just released her second album, Bueninvento. It was too late for the marketers to prepare the field and build up the buzz necessary for massive sales. Nothing, not even word of mouth, could be left to chance.
Ironically the closing of BMG Colombia put Aterciopelados in the best position. With Gozo Poderoso unreleased but nearly finished, the joint venture could get publicity ready, set street teams and Internet campaigns in place, and go for a marketing miracle.
Perhaps even more important, the corporate reorganization that closed BMG Colombia also promoted Aterciopelados fan Zigel to a position where he could be a powerful advocate. Like Blair, Zigel was in his late thirties, as new to his penthouse office at BMG Latin Region headquarters as Blair was to Arista, and just as eager to stake his claim to music-industry history.
Although the meeting adjourned without any firm commitments, the two men became fast friends. In the e-mail and phone calls that followed, each would champion Aterciopelados for his own reasons: Zigel out of loyalty, Blair out of mysticism.
Problem was, by that time Aterciopelados had lost faith in BMG. Other labels were making overtures, and the band was listening. "Hector and Andrea were getting desperate," says their manager Julio Correal. "Somebody had to fly up there and do something. I asked [BMG Latin Region head Rodolfo Negrete-Lopez], Do you want to release the disk or what?'" BMG flew the musicians three days later to meet with Zigel. Just before the lawyer entered the narrow gray conference room on the eighth floor of the First National Bank building in Coral Gables, his boss took him aside and said, "Don't lose this band."
Buitrago and Echeverri listened skeptically to the apologies and promises of redoubled support. But Correal remembered his conversation with his old friend years before. He believed. During a break he whispered to the musicians in the hallway: "I trust Leslie. If he says that they will support us, then they will."
With the band back on board, Blair and Zigel met for lunch in December at New York's Friar's Club, where the Arista exec recently had been inducted, to finalize plans for the joint venture. "Tony Bennett was in the room, and there we were, two makkers in the making," recalls Zigel, conveying his excitement with the Yiddish word that means both big shot and friend. "Somebody had to make a bold move," says Blair. "Somebody had to step forward."
Since neither label would dedicate staff to such a risky undertaking, the joint venture would depend entirely on marketing savvy and a team of consultants. The No Fronteras! strategy puts the music in the way of as many kinds of fans as possible: people who purchased earlier Aterciopelados releases, third- and fourth-generation Latinos, Latin-music fans, world-music fans, and, with a remix by Michael Moog, electronic-dance-music fans. "The great thing about Aterciopelados," says Blair, "is the diversity of their music. I think that's why a key marketing aspect to this whole project is to really foster the word of mouth. Their music just pervades your soul. To me, it doesn't matter what language it's in."
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.
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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.