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Despite their name's translation, Colombian band toughs it out

Jim Farber
New York Daily News

She doesn't bare her midriff, shimmy her hips or bounce her derriere. But Colombian singer Andrea Echeverri, of the terrific rock band Aterciopelados, exudes a female power and sexuality that stands in defiant contrast to the best known singer from her country: Shakira.

Though Echeverri says she admires that star's personality and strength, she dislikes "that whole sex object thing."

"In music, you almost feel like every woman has to go this way now," she says. "It's not even esthetically interesting at this point. It's boring."

Echeverri gives her frustration voice in a new song, "Oye Mujer" ("Hey Girl") on Aterciopelados' new album "Oye," out Oct. 24.

For aficionados of "rock-en-espanol" - that sprawling world of guitar-slamming bands from below the U.S. border - "Oye" represents nothing less than a major event. It's the first album in five years from what may be rock-en-espanol's most exciting band. Together with her writing partner, bassist Hector Buitrago, Echeverri has helped create her own brilliant mix of traditional Colombian and Latin genres (cumbia, bolero, banda, etc.) with rock, pop and electronica from up North.

The two musicians, who long ago were lovers, formed the band in their native Bogota after they ended their romantic relationship in the early `90s. The name they took for their band - which means "The Velvety Ones" - was a kitschy in-joke. In fact, the group's early music painted them as anything but smooth operators. Buitrago had spent time in a hard-core band as a teen, and on Aterciopelados' 1994 debut, "Con el Corazon en la Mano" ("Heart in Hand"), he retained some of that force. Echeverri's gorgeously mellifluous voice, meanwhile, always kept a hold on melody.

"On the same record, you could hear something sweet and then a howl," she explains. The group was considered angry rebels at the time, though the singer says "it wasn't so much anger as enthusiasm."

Aterciopelados began to generate enthusiasm of its own in Colombia with its second release, 1995's "El Dorado." But the breakthrough to the broader world of Latin rock fans came with 1996's "La Pipa de la Paz" ("The Pipe of Peace"). Blessed with a fuller, richer sound, the record was cut in London with producer Phil Manzanera, ace guitarist of Roxy Music.

In 2001, Aterciopelados began to earn attention in both America and Europe after taking influence from the then trendy trip-hop sound. But the new inspiration in no way watered down or simplified the band's complex and sensual configuration of Colombian styles.

For a minute, it seemed like Aterciopelados was on the brink of a genuine U.S. crossover. Their 2001 CD, "Gozo Poderoso," earned them a spot on "The Tonight Show," where they performed their irresistible hit "Luz Azul." While the disk sold a decent 70,000 copies in the States, that wasn't enough to pique the interest of major labels. (Their last release, on the mighty BMG Latin label, was their excellent compilation disk "The Best of Aterciopelados.")

In the meantime, Echeverri and Buitrago began to explore interests outside the band. Echeverri took time off in 2003 to have her first child at the age of 36. Ironically, the band had earlier performed a song called "La Culpable" ("The Guilty One") in which Echeverri pooh-poohed the idea of ever having a child. "I wanted to do things independently and have a career," she explains.

Time changed her view, as did meeting the right man, her husband, the historian Jose Manuel Jaramillo. In addition, the sometimes-spacey singer says, "An angel came to me and told me to have a baby."

The singer celebrated her child's arrival with a self-titled CD focusing on lullabies. Buitrago put out his own album this year, "Conector," but it went in a more experimental, instrumental direction. The solo albums fueled rumors of a breakup, though the pair actually performed on each other's CDs.

For the new album, on the indie label Nacional, Aterciopelados has come roaring back to full power. "Oye" extends the band's original mix of gorgeous melodies and roiling rhythms which swirl together styles ranging from ranchera to surf-rock. The lyrics also conform to the past, continuing the group's political bent. The cut "Paces" protests the government's use of poisonous liquids, meant to kill the cocaine crops of Colombia, but which also destroy large swaths of the country's national parks.

As always, none of the lyrics are in English. "We have so much cultural invasion from North America," Echeverri says. "You have to feel proud of where you are and build an identity from that."

While this may mean Aterciopelados never becomes a household word in the States, the singer says, "I'm fine with that."

She cares more about maintaining her hard-won credibility and sticking to her political views. Echeverri's idea of a career highlight was her recent invitation to sing at the inauguration of the Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet, the first woman to hold that position in Latin America. Not that the singer is naive about the limits of feminism ("Margaret Thatcher wasn't so good," she jokes). Yet, she maintains, "We need more feminine energy in the world. Not that sexual thing from women, but the listening part - the character who's forgiving, and loving and patient."

And most definitely strong.

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