Alt- America

There was no more mosh pit. At the Watcha Tour Showcase for the Latin Alternative Music Conference (LAMC) held in New York City August 12 through 14, the entire first floor of Manhattan's Irving Plaza churned in a tidal wave of human bodies that crashed above the heads of still more bodies being tossed and pushed against the current below. The Mexican rap-core band Molotov led the roiling mass in a lung-wrenching chant: “PU-TO, PU-TO, PU-TO.”

At stage right stood Beto Cuevas, the Ziggy Stardust look-alike, Big Eighties sound-alike lead singer of the Chilean trio La Ley, butched up at a back-up mike with a hood pulled over his tousled rust-color hair and rose-tinted shades. Half-stomping, half-slinking from stage left in a white sequined T-shirt and ivory brocade pants, Emmanuel Horvilleur of the insane Argentine funk posse Illya Kuryaki and the Valderramas wove a shimmery streak around Molotov's thrashing guitars and dual overdrive basses.

At the sonic epicenter of the show's climax, Gustavo Santaolalla, the 49-year-old producer and Latin alternative crusader, quaked before the mike. The mike stand shaking in his right hand and the gray hairs in his ponytail aquiver, Santaolalla seemed to channel all the energy of hip-hop and rock en español through his compact frame into a collective euphoria. “C' mon everybody,” screamed Molotov rapero and bass player Mickey Huidobro over the veteran producer's shoulder. “Let me hear you say puto!”

“Puto” is an anthem for hip-hop rockeros who would be more likely to shout down Ricky Martin than sing along with his “Livin' La Vida Loca.” Literally “male prostitute,” puto can mean “womanizer,” “fag,” or “wimp,” depending on where you are and what mood you're in. In a public-relations moment, Molotovians will swear they're down on wimps and have nothing against gays. Whatever their target, crying puto is just the kind of bad behavior that gets Molotov into trouble with feminists, gay activists, the Mexican government, and the Catholic Church -- and that has helped them sell more than a million copies of their naughty 1998 debut disc Donde Jugarán Las Niñas? (Where Will the Little Girls Play?) and the followup Apocalypshit worldwide.

Molotov headlines Watcha Tour 2000, a late-summer, eighteen-city trek across the United States, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic by a shifting roster of bands thrown together mainly because of what they are not: They do not sing in English and they do not play Spanish-language radio's favorite Mexican and tropical pop. Add to Molotov's trash-talk the socially conscious fury of Argentine hardcore A.N.I.M.A.L., the experimental eclecticism of the Mexican foursome Café Tacuba, the tripped-out folklore of the Colombian Aterciopelados (The Velvets), and the soothing balladry of Argentine pop mainstays Enanitos Verdes. Introducing U.S. Latinos and adventurous non-Latino youth to the edge of Latin music, the Watcha Tour is part of a crossover formula set up to let Latin boyz be boyz and Latin girls be singer-songwriters.

Molotov's U.S.-born drummer, 23-year-old Randy “El Gringo Loco” Ebright, could be a poster child for the Latin alternative cause. Rather than wait for the music to cross over, the blond-haired Anglophone crossed the Mexican border with his engineer father, got mixed up with Molotov's band of noisemakers, and played rap-core in Spanish long after his father had finished his assignment and gone home.

For his part the young expatriate believes the record industry's search for Latin alternative gold might be as elusive as the conquistadors' quest for El Dorado, and he likes it like that. Sipping a beer in the dressing room after the show, Ebright explains that the obstacles to commercial success in Latin America “keep the rock scene a lot fresher. Here it seems like it's all one big Nike commercial.”

With Latin alternative discs selling like stale tortillas, the industry seems safe from stultifying success. The LAMC organizers, promoter Josh Norek and artist-manager Tomas Cookman, hope to change all that. The LAMC goal, they say, is “to help make the market grow for Latin rock and hip-hop.” It's no mistake that the event took place far from Miami, our self-styled capital of Latin music. Making the market grow for the LAMC means wrenching the music out of the Latin category and making it music for the (English-speaking) world.

More than 700 producers, label execs, promoters, music writers, photographers, dot-com bilinguals, border superstars, and unsigned wannabes showed up at the LAMC to swap business cards, trade CDs, and shore up one another's morale. In between parties and music showcases, two days of panel discussions highlighted the challenges to breaking Latin alternative into the global pop market.

Latin rock and hip-hop reach a large audience throughout Latin America, especially in Mexico, Argentina, and Colombia. The regional economy leaves consumers without the cash to snap up mass quantities of CDs, however, leading the LAMC to focus on the lucrative U.S. market, full of music-hungry teens flush with dollars. Turning those teens into fans can be hard, since Latin alternative music is rarely heard on Spanish-language radio, locked up by tried-and-true programs of salsa, merengue, Mexican regional, and innocuous pop, and not heard at all on English-language rock and hip-hop stations. Spanish-language video music programs, such as the Miami-based MTV-S and H-TV, do feature alternative music, but U.S. audiences can only access these stations via satellite. English-language video programs such as MTV and VH1 stay away.