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The Boston Phoenix Double Talk

Pastilla's bi-lingo rock

By Josh Kun

MAY 17, 1999:  If you listen to "Bi" on Vox Electra -- the new album from cute-and-snide LA alterna-rockeros Pastilla -- with your speaker balance set in the middle, you're bombarded with a linguistic mess. Verses in Spanish and English fly past each other. You can make out a "when I'm alone" here and a "cierra tus ojos" ("close your eyes") there, but it's hard to follow the individual threads for long. They form a sort of word-twisted audio helix. You trace one trail only to find yourself headed down another.

"Bi" unravels like a first-generation immigrant's brain juggling two languages at once, then speaking them both at the same time. Its lexicon is like a Spanglish that won't congeal -- not some code-switching Cypress Hillian "Latin Lingo" hybrid, but two different languages clashing against each other, fighting for audibility.

Adjust the balance to one monolinguistic side or the other, though, and the picture gets clearer. Pastilla have mixed "Bi" with two separate and diverging vocal tracks panned to opposite sides -- English on the right, Spanish on the left. And though they've never been a political band in the "free Mumia" sense, the result feels political, especially when Vox Electra is available courtesy of BMG's US Latin branch and not on, say, BMG Mexico. Pastilla offer US listeners the very bilingual choice that English-only bum's rushes like California State Proposition 227 have shut down.

"Bi," the only song on Vox Electra with any English on it, would be doing only half the work if its two languages were just translated versions of the same text, if the Spanish were perfectly re-created in the English and vice versa. Instead, Pastilla foil immersion fantasies and make the two languages mistranslate each other. The same fuzzy-pop romantic longings are present in both, but the individual lines don't match up at all. As you move from Spanish to English and back again, from one speaker to the other, meanings change completely, images disappear entirely, and you realize that you're listening to two different songs.

When I interviewed Pastilla frontman Victor Monroy a few years ago, we talked about how important he felt it was, since he grew up in Mexico City and landed in Pomona when he was 13, to sing in Spanish. He stressed that if he made it onto radio station Live 105 or KROQ, it would be with a song in Spanish. But when I brought up the possibility of doing a bi-lingual record or taking the road most notoriously traveled by the Voodoo Glow Skulls, recording English and Spanish versions of the same album (which Colombian it-girl Shakira is about to do with her Sony Discos album Donde Están los Ladrones), he winced. "It's either apples or oranges," he said. "You're either gonna take a shit or you're gonna piss."

It's a logic that both U.S. and Latin industries agree with -- just look at poor Selena, who didn't live to see her English-language crossover, or the quiet death of María Conchita Alonso's bi-lingual Telemundo talk show last year. With a few notable exceptions (think Gloria Estefan), your language determines your market, so it'll be a while before Pastilla end up on heavy rotation anywhere in the US mainstream. Take a crossover shoo-in like boricua popster Ricky Martin, who went platinum in the US with the Spanish-language album Vuelve (Sony Discos) and was a General Hospital heartthrob but still couldn't become a Total Request Live poster boy on MTV until he recorded "Livin' La Vida Loca" for the forthcoming Ricky Martin (SONY), a gringo-geared hot-and-spicy Latin-stud rave-up that's all in English save for the hackneyed title phrase.

If Pastilla make a split-screen video for "Bi," maybe with two different sets of subtitles streaming across the bottom, chances are it will air only on MTV Latin America and not on the station's domestic channel, where its intervention is needed most. Worst of all, unless Monroy's got a fancy satellite dish, he'll have to go back to Mexico to watch it.

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