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Rock en Español

By Melissa Sattley

NOVEMBER 15, 1999:  It's a Monday evening at La Zona Rosa, and Gabriel Fernandez Capello -- Gabby," lead singer of Argentina's Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, is moonwalking backstage. Joining him, guitarist Ariel Sanzo breaks into what looks like a slightly rusty version of the robot. "We used to do this in Argentina back in the Eighties," laughs Sanzo, pivoting and slicing his hands through the air. The other band members pass by, looking amused but not at all surprised by the sudden outbreak of breakdance fever afflicting their bandmates. The two bandmates profess their admiration for the classic breakdancing movie Beat Street, then move on to their love for bad TV music.

"I really like that theme song from Charlie's Angels," confesses the guitarist, while the singer ticks off his musical influences: Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, and Mexican boleros. Sanzo counts Frank Zappa as one of his musical heroes.

In Austin to support their new album, La Marcha del Golazo Solitario ("March of the Solitary Goal"), Los Cadillacs are traveling down a mellower and jazzier avenue than on their last release, Fabulosos Calaveras, which resulted in last year's riotous show at Liberty Lunch. Maybe it's the new songs, or the fact that it's a Monday night, but tonight, things at La Zona Rosa are somewhat more low-key. Then Gabriel shouts those three magic words, "t'estan buscando matador," and the audience erupts as the band starts hammering out their galvanizing, samba-inflected 1994 hit, "El Matador." Suddenly, Argentineans are surfing on a sea of hands and outstretched arms, Mexicanos are moshing, and audience members from just about every other Latin American country under el sol are locked into a frenzied mix of salsa slam dancing.

Afterward, their evening's work finished, the boys in the band just want to breakdance like it's 1982, which is my fault. Earlier, Capello had asked what the locals did for fun. "Breakdance," was the post-cocktail reply. The lame attempt at moonwalking that follows isn't much better. When Capello and Sanzo join in, it becomes all too clear that the Argentineans know all about breakdancing. Who knew? As a matter of fact, who would've thought that a rock & roll band from Argentina would list Beat Street, Charlie's Angels, and Frank Zappa as musical influences?

And yet increasingly, bands from all over Latin America's wide expanse are creating new hybrids of music by marrying their traditional rhythms to rock rebellion and the rolled eyes of American pop culture. Muddy Waters summed up rock music by saying, "Jazz and blues had a baby and they called it rock & roll." Well, muy macho American rock & roll had a fling with a sultry Latin sounds, and the result was "Rock en Español." A loose umbrella term for bands that sing in Spanish while mixing rock, rap, R&B, thrash -- you name it -- Rock en Español may be the most exciting movement in rock music currently, despite radio stations ignoring it for the most part (what else is new?), and record labels across the United States only recently developing departments to promote this emerging genre. And still, Rock en Español bands are winning over listeners and breaking through language barriers with little or no mainstream exposure.

One exception is Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, who have been spreading the Latin rock gospel through a diverse mixture of ska, salsa, reggae, and rock & roll since 1985, and who won the first-ever Grammy for a Latin rock/alternative band last year for Fabulosos Calaveras. They've sold over 250,000 units in the U.S. alone, and they took home MTV's Latin Video of the Year Award for "El Matador." And they're not the only Rock en Español band making waves in North America.

Maña, on tour with Santana and Ozomatli last summer, sold out every concert they played, including their July 31 show at the Alamodome in San Antonio. The Mexican quartet was the first Rock en Español act to sell 500,000 units in this this country, earning a gold record for Donde Jugaran los Niños? in 1995. Three years later, the band's Suenos Liquidos went gold and won a 1999 Grammy in the Latin rock/alternative category. Maña was also the first Rock en Español act to top Billboard's Top 100 pop album chart.

Of course, these are just two bands currently leading the way for Spanish rock's crossover success. There are hundreds more. Bands like Plastalina Mosh, El Gran Silencio, Control Machete, Molotov, Bloque, Maldita Vecindad, Ilya Kuryaki & the Valderamas, Café Tacuba, and Manu Chao have all raised their fists in the classic rebellious style of rock & roll, thrown away the big hair and wanking guitar solos, and are now creating a new musical animal for the 21st century. The Next Wave.


Radio-Free Zone

Like the early rap scene, Rock en Español's success is funneling up from the streets and has been virtually ignored by mainstream radio. Out of the five commercial Spanish radio stations in Austin, only Planeta Radio 1560AM and La Nueva 92.1FM occasionally play Rock en Español in their music formats. Gerardo Sandoval, assistant program director at Planeta Radio, says this lack of exposure is due to the enormous popularity of Tejano and regional music (Norteño, cumbia, banda, etc.) in Texas.

"The commercial stations are playing it safe -- they're making money," says Sandoval. "They figure if it's not broke then why fix it?"

The large gaps left by commercial radio have instead been filled by independent radio shows such as Gilbert Guerrero's Spanish Rock Radio on KOOP 91.7FM. The show, which started in 1996, airs weekly, noon-1pm, Tuesdays. Guerrero, 28, says he became a Rock en Español convert after buying Maldita Vecindad's El Circo CD; he wasn't the only one to have a spiritual conversion after hearing the Mexican band's unique fusion of ska and rock on their 1991 release. Spin magazine listed it among the 90 greatest albums of the Nineties.

"I was living in the Valley, and there was nothing to listen to on the radio," says Guerrero. "At the time, I'd go into record stores and have to pick out CDs by their covers. I thought the artwork was interesting, so I bought the Maldita Vecindad CD. It was everything I had been listening to -- only in Spanish -- and I fell in love with it. It spoke to me like no other music had.

"I haven't been the same since."

Guerrero says that at first he was surprised by the broad spectrum of listeners tuning into his radio show.

"There's Chicanos, Mexicanos, and Tejanos listening. But I was really surprised by the number of Anglo listeners. I think a lot of Anglos are realizing now that Latinos are capable of more than just mariachi music," he says.


Molotov

Because Rock en Español's audience is so diverse, Guerrero says he mixes in more traditional rock acts such as the legendary Mexican rockeros El Tri with newer, more alternative groups like the Beck-inspired thrash masters Plastalina Mosh.

"Latino rockeros are very loyal. They don't want to hear Plastalina Mosh. They want to hear El Tri. So you have to keep a balance and slowly introduce the newer stuff along with the older favorites."

Even in Los Angeles, the largest Latino market in the U.S., Rock en Español has had difficulty making it on mainstream radio. Emilio Morales, who along with wife Maria Madrigal publishes the L.A.-based La Banda Elastica magazine, which has been called the Rolling Stone of Rock en Español, says that deejays have been trying for years to carve out a niche for the genre on mainstream radio.

"The top two Spanish stations in Los Angeles play regional music, Tejano, and romantic ballads," explains Morales. "For years, deejays have been trying to get a block of time -- even with sponsors -- but they say they don't want to alienate their core listeners, who are very traditional."

Lack of acceptance for the music, according to Morales, is in part thanks to the same old music industry scenario: Radio programmers and executives are working with outdated marketing concepts. Elena Quezada, 28, program director of Austin's La Nueva 92.1FM, says that a younger generation of programmers are changing the traditional ways of formatting for Spanish radio.

"Young Hispanics, like me, who were exposed to Rock en Español as teenagers are now able to make decisions about what gets played on the air," says Quezada.

This month, La Nueva is starting a new nightly Rock en Español show from 8-9pm, hosted by Gilbert Guerrero from KOOP's Spanish Rock Radio. Nevertheless, Quezada says La Nueva can't risk playing the music on a round-the-clock rotation for fear that it might alienate their older and more traditional listeners. La Nueva's owner, Buddy Cardonez McGregor, who incidentally once spent 40 days on top of a flagpole in Dallas to make his radio station No.1, says the station currently generates $1 million in ad revenues, but could risk losing up to half of its revenues if people tuned out because of this passionate, direct music. McGregor likens what's going on now in Spanish radio with the early Top 40 days of the Fifties when he and other deejays were introducing black acts to the white mainstream for the first time.

"We had to play the nicer romantic songs like Fats Domino, some Jackie Wilson," he says, "so that the audience would accept it. We couldn't play the Chuck Berry songs, because it was too heavy for them."

Not that a segment of the more traditional listeners of Tejano and Mexican regional music have not had the same sort of visceral reactions to Rock en Español. They have. Still, La Nueva has to be careful about not alienating its audience with the heavier, more aggressive alternative rape-metal Rock en Español acts, such as Control Machete and Molotov.

"A lot of the Rock en Español songs aren't about love or nice things," says Quezada. "They're songs against the government and about being rebellious."

While Rock en Español groups certainly know how to kick out the jams, they often have even stronger political agendas. This isn't your garden variety of urban Sturm und Drang.

A majority of Rock en Español bands formed out of the rubble of toppled dictatorships and corrupt political governments of Eighties Latin America. While the U.S. was getting over its disco hangover, Latin Americans were dealing with a crushing military junta in Argentina, responsible for 30,000 "disappearances," and Pinochet's equally deadly regime in Chile. Argentina's other leading punk/rap/reggae band, Todos Tus Muertos, named themselves after los desaparecidos -- victims of brutally repressive government that reigned for nearly a decade, 1976-1983.


El Gran Silencio at Scholz Garten, SXSW 99

photo by John Carrico

Colombia's critically acclaimed Rock en Español group, Bloque, signed to David Byrne's Luaka Bop label, named themselves after the government commando unit sent to hunt down cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar. Besides cranking out an infectious mix of African, Latin, and rock rhythms, Bloque also deals with the frustrations of decades of civil war raging in their country. In "El Hedor" ("The Stench"), off their self-titled 1998 album, singer Ivan Benavides declares in his native tongue, "We want no plastic surgery. We want no mental hygiene. We want no racial prejudice. We want no social cleaning."

Quezada says that when La Nueva plays songs by Mexican rap group Control Machete, whose lyrics concentrate on political corruption and oppression, the station often receives complaints.

"Callers say it's crap," she states. "Others say they can't understand what the heck they're singing about, even though they're Spanish speakers."

Most of the complaints have come from the station's older listeners, says Quezada.

"Right now we can't risk playing Rock en Español on a daily rotation," she explains. "In five or six years, I think things will be different."

Proving that language is not necessarily a barrier to the genre's success, a few mainstream Anglo stations are picking up on the music's growing popularity. Recently, Y107FM radio, a competitor with L.A.'s alternative rock monolith, KROQ, started a Rock en Español show called The Red Zone. According to Emilio Morales, Anglo stations playing Spanish rock will be key in broadening the music's audience.

"The newest bands are universal -- they appeal to everyone," explains Morales. "Once you have commercial Anglo radio stations with Anglo deejays playing Rock en Español on a regular basis, you'll see real crossover success."


The New Frontier

In the past decade, independent music labels like Grita, Aztlan, and Ark 21 have been carrying the Rock en Español torch. Former Talking Heads singer David Byrne's Luaka Bop label has also had success introducing genre acts like Bloque and Los Amigos Invisibles to a mainstream Anglo audience. Jeff Kaye, head of publicity at Luaka Bop, says the label's success in breaking acts into the mainstream comes from avoiding categorizations like "Rock en Español."

"We come at the music as, "These are just bands' and we deal with the national Anglo press first, then the Latino press. We always have a diverse lineup, and we tour our bands -- whether they are from Venezuela or Colombia. We had Bloque playing places like Crested Butte, Colorado," says Kaye.

Luaka Bop also makes a practice of touring their bands with acts that have large mainstream followings. For instance, Venezuela's Los Amigos Invisibles toured last year with the NY-based, existential rap outfit Soul Coughing. Another strong pairing, Los Amigos Invisibles, Plastalina Mosh, and the Anglo-Indian band Cornershop went down like the proverbial melting pot boiling over at San Francisco's Warfield Theatre a few years back. With Los Amigos cranking out their whacked-out bossa nova lounge, singer Julio Briceno greeted the crowd with, "Hello sexy bitches!" then proceeded to pound the crowd with a raucous brand of dirty-boy funk for more than an hour. No one seemed to care that all three bands were polar opposites when it came to musical style -- they all rocked, and that's all that mattered.

Smelling money, major record labels are also jumping on the bandwagon and starting their own Rock en Español departments. Most of these newly formed departments consist of three or four dedicated souls, working on a tight budget, trying to convince U.S. listeners that Rock en Español is here to stay.

Elena Rodrigo, 33, is one of those dedicated souls. A native of Morelia, Mexico, she was often grounded for sneaking out to see rock shows on school nights. As a teenager in the Eighties, she combed record stores for Spanish rock records, which were still difficult to find in Mexico at the time.

Guillotina, SXSW 99

"I'd buy anything if it looked interesting, whether I'd heard it before or not, " she says.

Now Rodrigo is the head of Universal's Latino Alternative department, which launched February 1999. The department consists of three people, including Rodrigo. She says it's difficult to publicize her bands on only half the budget and staff that the other Latin music departments are typically granted at Universal.

"It's hard," she says. "There's so much to do. For instance, no one could leave to travel with our band Molotov on the Warped Tour, because it was 40 dates, and no one could leave the office for that long."

Rodrigo must also contend with the fact that her bands get hardly any mainstream exposure through the radio or press. As a result, her department has to resort to what she calls "street marketing."

"We have to invent new ways of attracting publicity," she says. "Internet radio is helping to open up new avenues for us."

Despite the virtual lack of radio support, Rodrigo says it's not uncommon anymore for Latin rock bands to go gold in the U.S. Latin market -- selling 50,000 or more units. Mexico's Molotov, rapping b-boy style ô la The Beastie Boys, received a stellar review in Rolling Stone and sold 130,000 units of its 1997 release, Donde Jugaron las Niñas? (a play on Maña's similarly-titled album) in two weeks in the U.S. The LP went on to sell 1 million units worldwide.

The numbers surprised even Rodrigo.

"I remember this guy at Universal asking me how many units did I think Molotov could sell in the United States? I told him I thought about 50,000, though this was probably three times the amount I really expected in sales, because we had no radio play. In two weeks they sold 130,000 units."

Because of the genre's increased sales, Rodrigo says Universal has become increasingly confident in its new Latino Alternative department.

"This is totally new for Universal, because we have no radio support, and they focus everything on airplay. The more radio play they get, the more sales they make," says Rodrigo. "At the first meeting with them, they wanted to know how we were going to get sales. Now, they're becoming more confident in us. They realize there are alternatives to radio -- there's street marketing and the Internet."


Rock en Español Is Dead

One barrier to marketing this genre of music in the U.S. is the title itself. Most agree that "Rock en Español" is a misnomer for a diverse range of bands that seem to have only one thing in common -- they sing in Spanish.

""Rock en Español' is an umbrella term that tries to define music as diverse as rap, alternative rock, punk, and a wide variety of rhythm and styles," states Morales.


Los Fabulosos Cadillacs

Morales claims BMG Latin coined the term in the mid-Eighties to sell bands from Argentina and Spain to a Mexican audience. The term got picked up by the press and has stuck ever since. Ask just about any band being marketed under this moniker, and they'll immediately take issue with it.

"It's a depressing title," says Cadillacs singer Capello. "We think we are more than "Rock en Español.' We are more unusual and diverse than that."

Alex Lora, singer of the legendary Mexican rock band El Tri, is more pragmatic.

"In '69 it was called, "La Onda Chicana.' Now, they call it "Rock en Español,'" he shrugs.

Lora says he was amused, however, to have his band El Tri lumped in with four other 1999 Grammy nominees as disparate as the Colombian pop diva Shakira and the modern rock outfit from Argentina, Enanitos Verdes.

"We were nominated along with three pop bands and a salsa/modern rock band,"he chuckles. "That's not rock & roll at all. If it has shouts, loud guitars, and drums beating, and it's not telling you to drink soda or clean your feet with some kind of soap, then it's rock."

"You don't find the French band Air in the French music section," argues La Banda's Morales. "You don't find Pizzicato Five under the Japanese music section. It's like walking into a record store in Spain and going to the U.S. music section and seeing bluegrass, Rage Against the Machine, and country music all lumped together in one bin."

Last year's South by Southwest showcase of Rock en Español acts at Scholz Garten illustrates the diversity of music grouped together under one generic moniker. The night kicked off hard with Guillotina, a heavy metal band from Mexico City, followed by El Gran Silencio, who play a propulsive blend of Latin rhythms, rap, and rock & roll, followed by Viva Malpache's more punk-oriented ska-rock, and Houston's high-octane Los Skarnales. The healthy crowd was not the usual cell-phone-toting, badge-wearing SXSW mob, either. Instead, the majority of those in attendance seemed to be from Austin's East Side -- Mexicanos. When El Gran Silencio played, and the full-blown mosh pit meltdown was accompanied by a garbage can flying past my head, I and realized that for once I was finally in the right place at the right time.


A New Alliance

The U.S Census Bureau estimates that Latinos will soon make up the largest minority population in the U.S.; the 2000 census is expected to show that the Latino population has grown to 30 million, double the population in 1980. With these kinds of figures, it doesn't take a government study to figure out that if half of those Latinos are under the age of 25, there will be a serious slice of Latino demographic tuning in to Rock en Español for their rebellion. El Tri's Alex Lora, father of the rock movement in Mexico, sums it up perfectly.

"Four hundred million people in the world speak the language of Cervantes," he posits. "And the audience is growing for rock. It's a music of young people -- and it's a young people's world. It'd be a shame not to have our own rock & roll. Because if we didn't, it would be saying that we agree with everything that's happening in the world and the government. It would mean there was no soul left."

Currently, Rock en Español's biggest market is Los Angeles, followed by Chicago. Texas, with a Latino population of nearly 30% -- three times that of Chicago -- has been a notoriously hard market when it comes to fostering a sizable Rock en Español scene. Martin Chan, rock publicist for WEA Latina and guitarist for Volumen Cero, sums up the situation in Texas for Spanish rock bands simply.

"The promoters suck," he says. "All they're interested in is the money."


Business as usual. Yet, a new local concern, calling themselves the Latino Rock Alliance and consisting primarily of Austin promoter Luis Zapata, deejay Gilbert Guerrero, and Michael Hernandez, TV veejay of access Rock en Español show No Borders, hope to open up the market for the music in Austin.

"It's hard to get labels to realize we are here," complains Hernandez. "This kind of music has never been really promoted in Texas."

Last July, Latino Rock Alliance started showcasing bands monthly on Thursdays at the Black Cat on Sixth Street. The showcases had all the energy of a burgeoning scene, with cameras flashing and the DIY adrenaline of early punk shows. Bands like Moscas, de Sangre, and Seres Ocultos played while Gilbert Guerrero spun records in between sets, Hernandez emceed and aired Latino rock videos, and Zapata hit the pavement outside passing out flyers. One band in particular, Houston's de Sangre, stood out with their Rage Against the Machine stomp and politically charged lyrics. Having recently been chosen from a selection of 200 other bands to represent Texas in the Mars Music Battle of the Bands, de Sangre are generating well-deserved hype.

"In Los Angeles, you can go to a club to see a Latino rock band and there's four or five flyers from other shows on your table in about 15 minutes," says Zapata. "I'd like to see something like that happen in Austin."

According to Zapata, right now most labels and bands bypass Texas, assuming that the only interest here is in Norteño and Tejano music.

"Bands aren't interested in playing in Austin because they think the clubs don't want them," says Zapata.

"Labels get money to distribute their music, and if there's no scene to send their music to they don't send it," agrees Hernandez. "It needs to be proven to them that we are here. There needs to be some waves reaching these labels."

So far, young Rock en Español acts from Houston such as Los Skarnales, Moscas, and de Sangre have been playing the Latino Rock Alliance's monthly showcases. Zapata hopes that new Latino bands will form in Austin so that they can promote shows on a weekly basis.

"We want bands to know that Austin is serious," stresses Zapata. "It's an honest, industrious place looking for new talent. We're serious about it. We're not going to fuck anyone over."


Music Sin Fronteras

With its mixture of languages, races, and rhythms, Rock en Español is a bright ray of hope in an era that has fostered anti-immigration Propositions 209 and 187 in California and the Hopwood ruling in Texas. Increasingly, Rock en Español is crossing borders, educating minds, and stirring up the melting pot in a way that political organizations have failed.

"This music came with immigrants into the United States," says Zapata, who grew up in Peru listening to the Rolling Stones and Ozzy Osbourne. "It's happening at the ghetto level where all the immigrants live together. Rock en Español is especially big in high schools where everybody is mixed together and the kids are more open-minded."

Many bands, like L.A.'s Ozomatli, not only have Latino band members but also African-American, Anglo, and Asian-American musicians in their ranks. More importantly, perhaps, while bands from Mexico and Latin America are making waves here, U.S.-based Rock en Español acts are also finding that their music is reaching listeners south of the border.

Houston's Los Skarnales, who play a mixture of ska and rockabilly and sing in both Spanish and English, were surprised to hear that they have a large group of fans in Mexico. Josh Mares, manager of Los Skarnales, first learned of the band's popularity when a friend returning from Monterrey said he had seen bootleg tapes for sale in a downtown market. A few weeks later, a well-known Mexican promoter called asking the band to play a music festival in Mexico City. He said he had become familiar with the band through their bootlegged tapes. Los Skarnales agreed to play. They would be the only U.S. band playing in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Mexico City. A neighborhood that was also notorious for its fierce loyalty to local Mexican bands.

"We were worried they'd think we weren't Mexican enough," says Jose Rodriguez, guitarist for the band.

The situation was tense at first, says singer Felipe Galvan. The locals eyed the band as they were setting up their instruments.

"There were 3,000 people there," says singer Felipe Galvan, "and all of their eyes were on us. But the minute we hit that first chord people started dancing."

The show turned out to be a great success, and the band has been back twice to play Mexico since. When this happens, when Los Skarnales plays across the border, Galvan says they feel a responsibility to represent not only Houston but also the U.S.

"After the show we were hanging out with the crowd, and people were asking us to sign autographs and they were saying they identified with our lyrics," says Galvan. "I was thinking that geographically, we were so far apart, but really we all have the same problems."

If Spanish rock acts like Los Skarnales and Los Fabulosos Cadillacs have their way, maybe the concept of "globalization" will someday mean more than just another Wal-Mart in Monterrey. This is, however, how a young boy growing up in Argentina -- Los Fabulosos guitarist Ariel Sanzo -- grew up listening to bands singing in English:

"I didn't understand the lyrics, but I felt what they were saying in the music anyway," he says. "I learned English to understand more. Who knows, maybe someone in the audience tonight will go home and learn Spanish to understand more about us."


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