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The Boston Phoenix Caliente or Crapola?

Separating hot from hype with rock en Español

By Elijah Wald

AUGUST 21, 2000:  If you're an English-speaker, the first question you doubtless have about the whole rock en español craze is, "If I don't speak Spanish, why should I care?" And of course unless you hear an outfit that knocks you out, you shouldn't, and you won't. For those who don't understand the words, rock en español -- like rock in English, Arabic, or Chinese -- lives or dies on its ability to transcend the linguistic barrier.

There is no such thing as a rock en español sound or style, which makes it kind of strange to push ReE as a movement outside the Spanish-speaking community. The bands are as different as Eminem, Alanis Morissette, and Metallica, or punk, hip-hop, ska, and techno; they share nothing but Spanish lyrics. This is not a problem for the beer companies that have been sponsoring tours; their idea is to sell lots of six-packs to young Latinos, and lots of young Latinos are buying.

"Corporations, booking agents, what have you, have found out that they can make money on it," says Wil-Dog, bassist for the Los Angeles band Ozomatli. "So that's where we get into the whole phenomenon, the 'new big thing,' you know?" When it comes to announcing that ReE is going to be the next rage in the Anglo market, though, as some boosters have been doing, they've got to be kidding.

There are plenty of great ReE bands, and plenty of mediocre ones. I treasure my LP of Los Teen Tops, a 1960s Mexican band whose "Quién Pusó el Bomp (en el Bomp, Bomp, Bomp)" has to be heard to be believed, but they were no threat even to Barry Mann, much less to Chuck Berry or the Coasters. It's the same today: the most popular ReE bands provide decent rock for Spanish speakers but have nothing special to offer Anglos.

This should apply in reverse, of course: English-language rock has more than its share of mediocrities, so why should it dominate airwaves around the world? If Argentines are going to listen to Hootie and the Blowfish, why shouldn't gringos listen to Maná? Unfortunately, the success of Anglo-American culture has to do with economic power, not merit: we have Hollywood, Coca-Cola, and the almighty dollar, and Argentina doesn't. It's true that some of the most exciting rockers of the last two decades have sung in Spanish. Mano Negra, Maldita Vecindad, Ozomatli, Aterciopelados, and the accordion-driven rappers of El Gran Silencio, to name a few, should be able to attract intelligent music listeners anywhere on the planet. The bottom line, however, is that the lowest common denominator makes for the highest profit, and as with English-language bands, the most innovative musicians are rarely the ones who get the big marketing push.

That's why MTV is hyping Maná rather than a dozen more interesting Mexican bands. If the station hopes to do more than attract a Latino audience, though, it's betting on the wrong horse. The US's growing Latino population may buy middle-of-the-road rockers, but there's no reason those acts should cross over to Anglos. Ricky Martin, like Ricky Ricardo before him, is a perky, hip-swiveling personification of the Latin stereotype Middle America loves, but his audience has no need for a Latino Limp Bizkit, much less a Latino Aerosmith.

Most of the hype surrounding ReE misses this vital distinction. Take the Watcha tour, the Spanish-language cousin of the Warped tour, which touches down at the Worcester Palladium on Tuesday. (Watcha comes from the spanglish slang word "wátchale," or "check it out!") Watcha/Warped founder Kevin Lyman is a genuine fan, and he is not booking the most boring dinosaurs of Spanish rock. Still, of the four featured bands, only the Colombian duo Aterciopelados transcend the language barrier in any significant way. Enanitos Verdes (the grand old men of Argentine rock), their heavy-metal compatriots A.N.I.M.A.L., and the Mexican rap group Molotov (one of the biggest-selling ReE acts in the US) will all bring their audiences, but they have little to offer Anglos in search of new musical ideas.

It's not that these bands don't match up against their English-language peers. Enanitos Verdes are expert, 1980s-style big rockers; A.N.I.M.A.L. are a tough, driving heavy-metal band; and Molotov are a good-time, frat-boy rap outfit à la the early Beastie Boys. In their native Argentina and Mexico, they are very popular, and they will undoubtedly put on a good show. To non-Spanish-speaking audiences, though, all that sets them apart from hundreds of Anglo bands is unintelligibility (arguably no small blessing when you consider the state of rock lyrics -- if more rockers started singing in indecipherable languages, it could be the best thing to happen to Anglo pop since Cat Stevens became a Moslem).

At full strength, the Watcha tour is much better than it looks in Worcester. We are not getting Ozomatli or Cafe Tacuba, both of whom are appearing on other stops. This was probably a savvy choice on the promoters' part: New England's Latin population is largely made up of folks from the Caribbean, where ReE has made few inroads, and of poorer Central Americans, who are more likely to listen to ranchera and romantic pop than rock -- at least, until they get assimilated enough to switch over to English-language rap and R&B.

This is one of the least-discussed aspects of the ReE phenomenon: in Latin America, rock is city music, and its audience is more educated and middle-class than the audiences for local styles like salsa and merengue (in the Caribbean), cumbia and vallenato (in Colombia), and so on. The articles that describe ReE as the sound of the Latino underclass are way off base. Even the brilliant Maldita Vecindad, who are hailed as the voice of Mexico City's streets, have no lumpen fan base outside the city. This side of the border, their audience is Chicanos who want to get in touch with their linguistic roots and immigrants who came here to go to college. It's not even the mass of the Mexican-American population, much less the broader spectrum of Latinos.

In Boston, the large student population means that ReE club dates during the college year are a safe bet, but the larger immigrant population has shown little interest, and Maurice Rocha of Latin Concerts, who is co-sponsoring the Watcha date, is openly nervous. To judge from the phone calls so far, he may be saved not by Molotov, the tour's nominal headliner, but by Enanitos Verdes, whom cutting-edge ReE listeners consider old-timers. "They had a crossover in the Caribbean, like Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo, where nobody ever listened to rock," Rocha says. "Their big hit, 'Lamento Boliviano,' was made into salsa, merengue, bachata, everything." Molotov, meanwhile, will attract the Mexicans and Aterciopelados will bring the Colombians; in the end, Rocha hopes not to lose his shirt.

As Rocha's remarks suggest, the biggest crossover happening in ReE is not to the Anglo market but among Latinos. Kevin Lyman says that the signal victory of last year's Watcha premiere was the way it brought together Argentine and Mexican bands and audiences. "We opened doors that hadn't been opened. The bands hung out together, and now they are going to their managers and saying, 'We want to work with these guys.' " Within Latin America, bands are crossing national boundaries in a way they never did before, even if they're not getting anything resembling the pan-Latin penetration of Enrique Iglesias and his fellow romantic-pop idols.

And some Anglos are turning on. Lyman included A.N.I.M.A.L. on this year's Warped tour, and though his expectations for audience crossover are modest -- 150 Latinos coming to a Warped date, 150 Anglos to Watcha -- he says those few are reacting just as he'd hoped. A.N.I.M.A.L.'s Andrés Giménez sounds thrilled by the Warped experience: "People are responding very, but very well. They were very surprised; by the second song they were pushing forward, jumping, yelling. I think heavy metal is international music. It isn't American; no one can own an art. Music is music, and a Latin band that plays with its heart should have the same respect as an American band."

Emilio Morales, publisher of the LA-based magazine La Banda Elástica, sounds equally optimistic. He says that though the bands receiving the most attention are often unexciting, there is a wealth of talent below the surface of the ReE hype. "There are many interesting people doing music; it's just that in Latin America and Spain the indie [label] movement is almost nonexistent because of the economy, so many of them are either waiting for a recording contract or just putting out low-quality demos." Morales is currently pumped up about "nortec," a style pioneered by DJs in Tijuana that mixes techno with norteño accordion and banda sounds, though he advises that none of it is yet available on disc.

As for Watcha, whatever its faults, it's still by far the best ReE showcase to hit New England. Admitting that it's only natural for the tour to include acts like Molotov, who have received major-label support, Morales points out that "they are also trying to showcase some of the most interesting or exciting acts, along with the acts the labels would like to push." The bands are all solid, entertaining pros, and Aterciopelados should have come to Boston years ago. Listening to that outfit's Caribe Atómico (BMG/US Latin) for the dozenth time this week, I am still knocked out by the mix of styles, sounds, and instruments. I hope next year's Watcha will bring us more acts of this quality. For now, Aterciopelados are more than enough to justify the drive to Worcester.


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