Two decades ago, Latin America began to export its own take on rock `n’ roll, reggae and hip-hop, infusing them with an identifiably Hispanic sensibility and making a point to sing them in Spanish. Dubbed rock en espanol, the scene attracted fans in the English-speaking world, making at least two of the most popular acts—Mexico’s Mana and Colombia’s Juanes—headliners across North America and Europe.
|MEXICAN BANDS AT SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST If you’re going down to Austin for the festival, here are some of the notable Mexican showcases: Los Dynamite, Descartes a Kant, Sussie 4, Fobia and others 7 p.m. Wednesday Opal Divine’s Freehouse 700 W. Sixth St. Ceci Bastida and Elis Paprika 8 p.m. Wednesday The Continental Club 1315 S. Congress Ave. Chikita Violenta, Ceci Bastida, Elis Paprika, and Bam Bam 8 p.m. Thursday Flaming Cantina 515 E. Sixth St. Hey Besala, Album, Thermo, Nina, Panda and La Gusana Ciega 8 p.m. Friday Dirty Dog Bar 505 E. Sixth St. Chikita Violenta, Juan Son, and Gustavo Alberto 9 p.m. Saturday Maggie Mae’s Gibson Room 512 Trinity St. Allison, Delux, Lipstick Terror 8 p.m. Saturday Spiro’s Amphitheater 611 Red River|
Flash-forward to today, and a backlash is under way. Mexican bands raised on American and British indie-rock of the `90s—with such names as Hong Kong Blood Opera, Hummersqueal, Descartes a Kant, Six Million Dollar Weirdo, Motel, Allison, Los Dynamite, and Sussie 4 (pronounced like the `70s American singer-actress Suzi Quatro)—are making music that doesn’t wear much Hispanic heritage on its hipster sleeve. In fact, members of this new breed sing mostly in ingles, and several of these bands will be showcased this week at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, making the first steps into an English-language market of which they’ve dreamed.
“We’re just being honest with what we like and what we’ve listened to,” says Andres Velasco, lead singer with Chikita Violenta, one of the most talked-about of the new bands.
He says he was always more into the moody atmospherics of England’s Radiohead and the buzzsaw noise of New York’s Sonic Youth than the Mexico uber alles style of an older band like Maldita Vecindad or the proudly Chilango (Mexico City) punk-folklorico of Cafe Tacuba.
“Ninety percent of the music we’ve heard is rock music made outside of Mexico. And a couple of us come from American backgrounds, so it’s always been natural to us,” Velasco continues. “I don’t think that I have to learn traditional music blended with rock. Hey, if I go to Sweden, does it have to be traditional Viking music blended with metal? Rock ‘n’ roll is a global thing.”
So global, in fact, that Chikita Violenta’s latest album, “The Stars and Suns Sessions,” was recorded in Toronto under the tutelage of producer David Newfeld, best-known for his work with Broken Social Scene, the Canadian band that includes Grammy nominee Feist.
Los Dynamite singer Diego Solorzano tells a similar story. A fan of Iggy Pop and Marvin Gaye, he’d like to relocate his group to the U.S. “We’re actually thinking of next year moving to New York—or Detroit,” he explains. “We love the Detroit music scene, Motown and the White Stripes.”
South by Southwest booker Alicia Zertuche is not at all surprised by this changing mindset. “It’s something that’s been going on for several years,” she says. “A lot of these kids attended schools that are either American or British schools so they have this influence. ... It’s finally surfaced and reached the attention of media outlets here in the United States and the UK (as) they’ve finally reached a certain level of maturity in their sound.”
All these people point to other reasons, as well, for the new wave: the upsurge in use of MySpace (allowing users easy access to bands from all over the world); touring by American and European acts (once a rarity in Mexico); and the popularity of a couple of alt-rock Mexico City radio stations.
“Now there’s huge indie scene here and it’s growing,” Velasco says. “Things are cooking up well in Mexico City.”
But controversy has also been on the menu.
Agustin Gurza, who writes about Latin culture for the Los Angeles Times, last summer castigated the new kids in print for abandoning their culture. “Today’s Mexican bands reject the concept of fusing rock with native forms of Latin American folk music ... the upstarts don’t care to incorporate Mexican music or reflect Mexican reality in their songs,” he wrote. “The desire to be something other than Mexican has long been the cultural curse of the Mexican middle and upper classes ... Many slavishly follow American and European fashion, hairdos, and dances, while looking down on their own culture. But self-hatred makes for lousy music.”
Velasco dismisses such criticism. “It’s much less of a problem now but, in the `90s with the rock en espanol movement, singing in a language other than Spanish was frowned on,” he says, noting that it’s part of the “love-hate relationship” many in Mexico have with American culture. “A lot of people here are very down-to-the-roots; if you’re from Mexico, you have to sing in Spanish ... People say, `You should sing in Spanish and talk about politicians.’ And we’re like, `We’re just doing old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll music, the kind we’ve always loved since we were 12.’”
That Velasco and his compatriots do sing in English might open doors globally that remained closed to most of their rock en espanol predecessors. “Most of them are seeking crossover potential. They want to travel the world, play the States,” says South by Southwest’s Zertuche.
“The ability for Mexican acts to have larger audience in the U.S. is one we’ve believed in for some time,” concurs Brent Grulke, South by Southwest’s creative director. “There is an increasing viability of this music throughout the U.S. and worldwide ... I’m very confident that some of these bands are going to be huge, huge bands.”
Even if they do crossover, Zertuche says that doesn’t mean these guys are jettisoning their heritage.
“I don’t think you’re turning your back on your culture just because you’re singing in another language,” she says. “You carry your culture wherever you go.”
“We love it down here. We love Mexico City,” Velasco emphasizes. “But it would be an interesting experience to relocate and try to play in a different league and see how that works out.”