Horse Race

Since it was established in 1998, the Grammy Awards category for Latin Rock Alternative Album of the Year has been a litmus test, deciding which of the genre's hottest artists is ready to break into the bigger and juicier U.S. market. Mexican rockers Maná won the award twice for its last two studio albums, 1997's Sueños Líquidos and 2002's Revolución de Amor. As such, it is one of the few pop-rock-with-a-conscience bands that can easily sell out an arena tour in the country. They probably don't need any more awards to sell tickets, given their popularity among Latin Americans for more than a decade, particularly the huge Mexican community that lives in the U.S.

Maná's success not only confirms the existence of an alternative to Latin pop or tropical, but also reveals another reality: Mexico's dominance over the rest of Latin America in the American record industry. Out of six nominees for the Latin Rock Alternative category, three hail from Mexico -- Café Tacuba, Molotov, and El Gran Silencio -- and the fourth band, L.A.'s Akwid, has its roots there. The other two come from opposite corners of the world: New York-based newcomers Yerba Buena, and Argentine rock star Gustavo Cerati, whose ex-band, Soda Stereo, once represented the best his country had to offer in the Eighties.

L.A.-based Latin rock producer Gustavo Santaolalla is behind Café Tacuba's Cuatro Caminos and Molotov's Dance and Dense Denso, two strong albums that also received multiple nominations at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards Latin America, held last fall at the Jackie Gleason Theater. To the channel's young viewers, Molotov's fierce music, led by its anti-border patrol hit "Frijolero," was stronger; the band won four awards that night and Tacuba left Miami empty-handed. The Grammy Awards will give Tacuba another chance in front of a wider and less demographically specific audience. It's also further proof that this year's battle of the bands is being fought among Mexicans, with the rest of Latin America's rock stars -- Argentine pioneer Charly García, Chilean trio La Ley, and Colombian band Aterciopelados, among others -- watching on the sidelines.

Bands that hail from Mexico represent the best this genre has to offer today. Many of the refreshing musical ideas and experiments that have flooded the continent over the last decade originated there. Plus the nominations are a way for the Grammy organization to acknowledge those who can really cross over. It's as simple as that.

But Santaolalla, who has been working with Mexican bands since the mid-Eighties, doesn't believe the nominations mean they are the sole repositories of the genre. In fact he doesn't think the new bands coming out of that country are really breaking any rules. "I don't see as flourishing a scene as in the late Eighties, with Maldita Vecindad, Caifanes, and Tacuba; or as in the early Nineties, with Molotov, Control Machete, and Plastilina Mosh," he says.

Akwid's Francisco Gomez doesn't even want to think they may play Cinderella and get away with the award, a distinct possibility considering the platinum sales of their Proyecto Akwid and the usually sales-sensitive Grammy voters. "To us it is an honor just to be nominated next to Café Tacuba -- they have a worldwide audience," he says. "But the other artists are already well known, I love El Gran Silencio's music, and Molotov has been an influence for us. I still can't believe we're there!" For him, though, Mexico's musical dominance has no meaning. "2003 was a good season for Mexican rock, that's all," he says. "It will be different next year."

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Javier Andrade