Kickin' Brass

Argentina's Eighties transition from military dictatorship to democracy was sung by an army of balladeer poets, postpunk nihilists, and pop pretty boys. The national-rock scene roared with optimism at government-sponsored festivals, and multinational labels opened subsidiaries to commercialize the abundant local talent. (The newly "discovered" scene had been happening on some level since the Sixties.) Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, nine young novice musicians wearing slim suits and pork pies, pogoed onto the stage amidst what were seen as more serious groups, whose hits were already rotating on the new-rock-and-pop radio station in Buenos Aires. Avengers of fun and frivolity, the Cadillacs performed their brass-heavy, hyperactive ska to suddenly frenetic clubgoers.

"The conception of music in Argentina was really different then," explains guitarist Vaino Rigozzi. "Now we have three video channels, but back then, if you saw a video, it was because someone brought it back from abroad. We got ahold of clips by the Specials, Madness, the English Beat, and we liked them, so we started with that kind of music. There were no guys like us who played music that made everybody dance, and the public felt a real connection to us."

Among the exceptions were certain rock journalists who disdained dance music and thought the Cadillacs were amusing, but maybe just a little too festive. "They called us a 'summer-vacation band,'" Rigozzi said during a call to Buenos Aires, a few days before the group left on tour to Los Angeles, Tijuana, Miami, Puerto Rico, and Colombia. "They didn't think we'd make it through the season."

About ten years and eight albums later, the Cadillacs have become the consummate Latin rock-dance band. They've switched the tongue-in-cheek cool mystery of their early London influences for a shameless celebration of tropical sweat. The recently released Vasos vacios, a compilation of songs recorded since 1985, takes you on an amphetamine-fueled road trip of Caribbean and Mediterranean rhythms. The band moves from ska to samba, reggae, rumba, norte*a, son, tango, flamenco to psychedelic rock, all of it mixing indiscriminately into the musical anarchy that is the Cadillacs's sound.

Celia Cruz is a guest vocalist on the album's title track: the voice of the salsa queen with an accelerated reggae backbeat. Flaco Jimenez plays accordion on "Gitana" ("We're going to dance all night/We're going to dance until the place explodes"). The Guadalajara Children's Chorus sings on the satirical "V Centenario" ("Fifth Centennial"). The bluesy "Siguiendo la luna" combines reggae percussion, Mexican guitar, and flamenco vocals. "El matador" evokes a Carnaval parade. The driving beat on early tunes A like "Mi novia se cay cents en un pozo ciego" ("My Girlfriend Fell Down a Blind Hole") and "Yo te avise" ("I Warned You") A is about as subtle as a jackhammer. But the band has achieved a smoother sophistication on cuts from their 1993 release, El leon.

Lead vocalist Vicentico's bruised voice carries an echo of late flamenco master Cameron de la Isla A with Jim Morrison's attitude. And yeah, sounds like a monotone grunge mumble on the acoustic "Basta de llamarme asi" ("Enough of Calling Me That"), cut at midnight in Cold Creek Dry Canyon.

Vasos vacios, recorded for Sony, has topped the charts in Argentina, following the international success of El leon, given four stars by the Los Angeles Times and voted one of the five best Latin albums of 1993 by Billboard. The Cadillacs have toured the U.S. before, and their last two records were produced by K.C. Porter in Los Angeles. They've also attracted a non-Latin, mostly college following in this country.

"El Matador," the Cadillacs's new video, was number one on MTV Latino for three weeks, broadcast six times per day. The video depicts a street parade that is part Carnaval and part funeral procession through a lower-class neighborhood of Buenos Aires. Packed with sacrilegious surrealism and a lot of blood, it begins with a red chili pepper waving to a trumpet call of "tallyho" and ends with the sound of a flushing toilet.

Rigozzi says the band's success on the music channel is an indication of how things have changed in Argentina during the past decade.

"We used to make videos just to make them, because there was really nowhere to show them," he explains. "Now, everyone wants to make a good video, it's a good tool that can really help you get exposure. It's a good time for Argentine music. The amount of information that reaches here today is amazing. Bands are playing diverse sounds, diverse different styles. Still, we like to get out and investigate. In Argentina we couldn't have heard something like the Texas Tornadoes. We're always going to see other bands. We're not the kind to stay home."

Los Fabulosos Cadillacs perform at 9:00 p.m. tonight (Thursday) at Club One, 1045 Fifth St, Miami Beach, 534-4999. Tickets cost $10 and $12.