Spacious International

This past March, National Public Radio presented a four-part series defining what reporter Felix Contreras called the "Latin alternative" genre. "It represents a sonic shift away from regionalism and points to a new global Latin identity," he said, adding that record executives began coining the term "as a way to sell music that was — literally — all over the map."

But in Miami, affectionately known as "the capital of Latin America" for its broad ethnographic representation and its proximity to the region, locals cling to a spicier name: Latin funk. The title was borrowed from the Latin Funk Festival, sponsored by locals Lizzie Easton and Tanya Bravo, who saw a need for showcasing the new movement of alternative sounds emerging from America's hotbed of bubblegum salsa and Spanish-language R&B. The second annual festival takes place this weekend and will feature Mexican singer Lila Downs, Cuban-Spanish-American rocker Javier Garcia, Latin fusion band Locos por Juana, and many other up-and-coming artists.

"In ten years, people are going to go to the record stores and ask for the Latin funk section," said Easton. "I don't think there's any other way to describe the music."

For her, calling this kind of festival anything other than funky would make it a hard sell in Miami, because none of the artists headlining the Latin Funk shows wants to be identified with the likes of J.Lo and Marc Anthony, or Willy Chirino for that matter.

"I hate it when people see my flyers and feel alienated because they don't feel Latin. It's a sound that I don't have to define like that," Easton said. "It's a new sound coming out of Miami kind of the way grunge came out of Seattle."

That may be true, except that sunny Miami Sound Machine stereotypes are a bit harder to break than those of Seattle. For Easton, the term funk is all about cultural fusion. "Both Latin and funk roots stem from African tribal sounds which allow us to experiment with the boundaries. The Latin funk genre encompasses reggae, ska, hip-hop, cumbia, salsa, rock, soul, funk, DJ culture, and Afro-beats," Easton said.

It's a celebration of Hispanic roots in a globalized context. And that is what the Latin funk artists are all about.

Take for example Lila Downs, the product of a Mexican Mixteca Indian woman and a Anglo father. She's known for her Frida Kahlo aesthetics and a mysterious blend of folk-rock cumbia, sung in Spanish, English, Mixtec, Zapotec, Maya, and Nahuatl.

A mix of instruments — from cello, piano, trumpet, and electric guitar to percussion tools like guiros, djembes, and even turtle shells — accompanies Downs's multi-octave voice, transporting listeners to workdays in the vineyards of California or to grandmothers telling spiritual legends in Oaxaca.

Downs is one hep cat, yet her American audiences tend to comprise the older, sit-down variety who order their fair-trade coffee decaf. "She's trying to change her image for younger, hipper crowds, so this is a big opportunity for her," Easton noted.

Meanwhile Javier Garcia is already a success story. His album 13 has exploded into the big time by making Latin fusion accessible to the pop crowd. It even made the list of "alternative Latin" artists featured on the NPR series. Following his lead is rock band Don Juan, headed by frontman Nacho. His Hardy Boy looks and the charisma with which he presents his Spanish-language rock and hip-hop make for a badder-ass version of Juanes.

For many of these artists, an element of social consciousness pervades their synchronized grooves. Bravo says fusion band Locos por Juana has adopted a tighter sound, and lead singer Itagui's lyrics are deeper, conveying the difficulties of immigrating to the United States. "He's writing an experience which is very relevant now, even for artists. It used to be a lot easier to get an artist visa," Bravo said.

The Colombian ska-punk bandmates of Skampida have channeled their hyperactive musicality into an expression of anger over the war in their homeland, while pumping messages of peace into every downbeat.

"You don't have a choice but to like them, because they exude energy on the stage. They represent a group of migrants who came to the U.S. and made it. Within a year they're playing at the Knitting Factory in New York and now going on tour," said Bravo.

The members of the all-female dance and percussion troupe Venus Rising bring out the roots of Latin rhythm by incorporating movement into their West African and Middle Eastern drumming. In this way, they pay tribute to the contributions of African slaves in the New World and the Middle Eastern heritage that influenced the Iberian Peninsula before the Spaniards ever embarked on their journey across the Atlantic.

No region of Latin America or the Caribbean is forgotten in the show. Cuban Javy Rodríguez of Otrolado blends samba with contemporary Latin jazz as his singing alternates between Spanish, English, Portuguese, and Kreyol. Representing Brazil is Prato Principal, whose own bio couldn't sum up the band's sound better: "Poetic lyrics and street concepts create a battle between drunken-love punk-ska and rebel bossa nova reggae with a funky Latin-Brazilian spice."

On the heels of last month's Winter Music Conference, DJ Cooltura and DJ Ras-Tael will incorporate video collages and world music into electronica, but the master of turntables at this event is Mexican DJ Toy Selectah. The founder of the platinum-selling hip-hop band Control Machete will keep audiences trance-dancing long into the night.

Pushing the boundaries at the Latin Funk Festival also means stretching the limits of Latin-ness. For example, aside from a tinge of nostalgic tango, English-language reggae band Kayak Man is hardly Latin in sound but very Latin in ethnic makeup. The playful rock-steady trio hails from Argentina and has a world-beat sensibility that stems from its nation's love affair with rock and reggae and frontman "Tato" Leonardo Seoane Vega's earlier days as a guitarist for Manu Chau.

Artist Michelle Forman isn't Hispanic at all, but as Easton said, "She's holding down the funk." The singer made a local name for herself as a back-up singer for Latin fusion band Suenalo Sound System, and she used to take part in the musical experiments of the legendary Monkey Village, a now-defunct community house in Little Havana where many of Miami's Latin funk artists developed their sound back in 1999.

That in-house movement gave birth to seven compilation CDs, the latest of which will be released at a prefestival party Friday, April 7, at Transit Lounge.

"Monkey Village along with Spam Allstars (in our eyes) were the pebble thrown in the pond that began this wake of beautiful music now going on in Miami," Easton said.

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Julienne Gage is a Miami-based anthropologist and journalist who has worked as a reporter and as a civil rights and international aid communications specialist in the United States, Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe. Her fieldwork has exposed her to many forms of cultural expression, and during her master’s in anthropology, she studied at Cuba’s Center for the Investigation and Development of Cuban Music.
Contact: Julienne Gage