Latin Explosion versus Latin Continuity: Nights in the Life of the LAMC

From 11-14 August 2004, the Latin Alternative Music Conference (LAMC) treated scores of artists and industry professionals as well as a legion of fans to a fine prize. It presented what conference organizer Tomas Cookman, of entertainment management company Cookman International, described as the “lifestyle” of this musical form, and some lifestyle it is!

LAMC featured performances by over a dozen artists. Many of these took place at free, public venues or as with the conference’s Acoustic Writers Showcase, televised courtesy of multi-lingual LATV. At the conference headquarters in the Beverly Hilton, exhibitors from a range of publications, sponsors, and related resources (e.g. Latin Style, La Banda Elastica, Boom!, LARAS — The Latin Recording Academy®) met with attendees to discuss and initiate growth opportunities within the category of Latin alternative. Noted experts such as Gustavo Fernandez (President, DLN/Distribution/Delanuca) and Danny Crowe (President, LATV) convened during four panels to share their insights into topics like the role of technology in contemporary music distribution, and recent changes to the record business. These workday events were helpful and informative, sometimes even inspirational for a musical form that has sustained amazing momentum despite relatively little support from established channels of distribution and promotion.

Evenings, on the other hand, were given over to music. Highlights included: the Conga Room presentation of independents like B-Side Players, Curanderos, and Yerba Tribe (winner of the LAMC Battle of the Bands contest); a show of “Women Who Rock” at the Santa Monica Pier, featuring the likes of Mexican rock marvel Ely Guerra (in her first live performance in California), along with new solo music from Andrea Echeverri of the now well-established Aterciopelados; the extraordinary machinations of Bajofondo Tango Club; and outstanding performances by Latin Grammy nominated performers Superlitio from Colombia and Argentinian-Alaskan Kevin Johansen, all of which took place in downtown LA’s California Plaza. Complementary performances were also staged in New York and Toronto to celebrate innovations in Latin alternative across North America.

Marking the fifth anniversary of the LAMC, this year’s event confirms that the institution is going strong and poised to advance Latin alternative even further. Leila Cobo (Latin America/Miami bureau chief for Billboard) asserts that the LAMC “is the big event for Latin alternative… If LAMC were not there, the movement would suffer” (quoted in “Latin Alternative Building Diverse Fan Base”, Associated Press, 6 August 2004). The movement is also helped along by a shift in production and promotion. This shift responds to a downturn in the music industry that has brought about significant restructuring of major labels’ Latin music divisions. Cobo’s “Latin Music Biz Reacts to Warner Cuts” (Billboard 27 March 2004) indicates that Warner Music Latina and Warner Music Latin America, which supervise the company’s operations in the US and Latin America, cut its staff in half from 45 to 23. The void generated by such downsizing is being filled. As Agustin Gurza of the Los Angeles Times writes in Anarchy breeds creativity (12 August 2004), indie labels like Miami’s Delanuca, Argentina’ Pop Art, and LA’s immanent Nacional Records (an expansion of Cookman International that will launch with the release of Andrea Echeverri’s solo project) “are taking up the slack from recession-shocked multinationals that helped establish the genre of rock in español during the heady ’80s and ’90s.”

The upside of such severe restructuring is that Latin alternative cannot replicate the patterns which characterized major labels’ attention to Latin music in the largely defunct Latin Explosion that gave English-speaking audiences a taste for “skin like mocha”. For Gurza, the Latin Explosion was “a marketing mirage… [that] no more represented Latin music than Harry Belafonte’s 1957 Top 10 hit ‘Banana Boat (Day-O)’ represented real Jamaican music” (“Echoes of the Boom”, Los Angeles Times 15 August 2004, E40). That Gurza is right, which seems likely, does not necessarily bring us any closer to grasping what Latin music actually is or where Latin alternative fits within it.

Before touching on the intricacies of Latin alternative, I need to make a confession. I have a long-standing aversion to the category of “alternative music”. Why such antipathy to the ascription of alternative? Snobbery. When alternative music (successor to college rock) took off in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it seemed that people who claimed to be “into alternative” were just too lazy to learn to distinguish between and commit to a real subculture: punk, rockabilly, goth, industrial, grunge, techno, or whatever. On another level, there was always something a little too white bread about alternative music. Gangsta rap was arguably an alternative to mainstream pop as well as R&B during its early days, though as far as I can recall, no one dubbed it “alternative.”

My experience at the LAMC has occasioned a new opinion of alternative not because kinder and gentler feelings toward alternative music have usurped my defenses, but because what has come to be known as Latin alternative actually redefines it. Configured along several axes, the alternative in LAMC is, one might say, a combination of alternatives. Naturally, any alternative represents a divergence from established or normative standards. Latin alternative bears a relation to, but represents a departure from older forms of Latin music such as son, norteño, bolero, and so on. Latin alternative also marks a departure from Latin pop; the now diminished explosion of superstars like Ricky Martin, J Lo, and Enrique Iglesias intimated earlier. But there is another alternative here: an alternative to music performed exclusively in English including, of course, alternative music.

Granted, not all Latin alternative is performed in Spanish. More often than not, one finds an interweaving of languages, styles, and rhythms that is nothing short of exciting. Understanding Latin alternative as an offshoot of more marketable mainstream Latin crossover acts or English-language alternative therefore severely diminishes its reach and the many tributaries that root it. Latin alternative is remarkable for its fundamental internationalism; an internationalism that I perceive at the core of Latin music, full stop. Many of the genres that now define traditional Latin sounds have hybrid genealogies that combine African, European and indigenous influences. Take Brazil for instance. Musicians there combined elements of jazz and samba to produce bossa nova. Salsa, a quintessential Latin musical form if ever there was, would not exist were it not for the migrations of already mixed Caribbean peoples to the US and back again.

Will the new hybrids — Bajofondo’s tango/electronica, Nortec Collective’s norteño/techno, or Ozomatli’s cumbia/hip hop/salsa-and-so-forth — be the Latin music of tomorrow, the once and future music of the Americas? If so, and the LAMC’s program dedicates an entire page titled “We Are The Future” to Census statistics on the rising number of Latinas, then the Latin alternative lifestyle may very well encapsulate how demographic, generational, and geographical shifts in the experience of Latinidad stand poised to counter the monolingual tide of popular culture that flows outward from the US.