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THE NEW NEW YORKER / La Kueva's Spanish Rock Scene / Astoria bar rises as center of underground musical movement

Marc Ferris

May 1, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Newsday. All Rights Reserved.

Though Queens is rarely thought of as a hip music destination, Spanish rock aficionados in the metropolitan area are abuzz about La Kueva, an Astoria bar where bands perform six nights a week and the energy level is akin to CBGB's during punk rock's heyday.

La Kueva owner Margot Aziz took a risk three years ago when she transformed an Irish neighborhood bar named Cagney's into a veritable "La Casa De Rock en Espaol," replete with a skull and gargoyle motif, glass-partitioned lounge and walls decorated with autographed photos of Spanish rock n' rollers and musical instruments.

The club is at the epicenter of an underground musical movement that is on the edge of the mainstream. "I did some research and figured that Spanish rock needed a place to thrive," said Aziz, of Colombian heritage.

In the late 1990s, Latino artists Ricky Martin, Enrique Iglesias and Jennifer Lopez scored several crossover hits in English, introducing Spanish-influenced popular music to a wider audience.

Spanish rock bands, however, typically sing in Spanish, have a harder edge than their Latino pop cousins, and incorporate indigenous elements such as timbales, a percussive instrument, or the Dominican-influenced rock n' roll style known as bachata. Jamaican ska and reggae are also used, while others play solely heavy metal or classic rock.

"Spanish rock is more experimental," said Fabio Larocka, founder and publisher of Rock Clandestino, a monthly newspaper devoted to the city's Spanish Rock scene since 1999. "It has a lot of different feelings in the music and incorporates more influences."

Spanish rock, which dates to the 1960s in Spain, Mexico and Argentina, arrived in New York a decade ago with immigrants from Central and South America, where the music attracts a youthful audience frustrated by eons of economic and political unrest, like the punk rock movement that hit the United States and England in the late 1970s.

For years, prejudice against Spanish rock, along with the dominance of merengue from the Dominican Republic and salsa from Puerto Rico, kept it off local radio for the most part, experts say.

"A lot of people thought that Spanish rock meant heavy metal and they got scared off," said Ronald Zerpa, 22, one of La Kueva's disc jockeys, who moved to Astoria from Venezuela in the early 1990s.

"Then in the last two years or so, Latino Mix [a New York radio station, 105.9] began playing some Spanish rock and they did well against La Mega," the city's salsa stalwart, he added.

La Kueva's fortunes have reflected the style's newfound status . Its DJs are the first to spin the latest hits from abroad, and bands come from as far as Washington, D.C., to play on the small stage. "I used to come here in the beginning when nobody showed up on the weekends," said Carolina Rivero, 22, a restaurant hostess from Astoria. "Now, the place gets packed after midnight."

When the homegrown, popular Spanish rock band El Leon performed there last month, bedlam reigned. Based in Queens the last five years, the group has since decided to move to Los Angeles. That was its farewell concert.

"The movement is good in Queens, but if you want to get to the next level, you have to go to California," said the drummer, Joao Sanchez, 23, a Peruvian native who has lived in Woodside since 1992.

Like most bands that play La Kueva, El Leon sings original compositions in Spanish. The floorboards bend under the weight of a hundred or so fans bouncing to an infectious rhythm and bellowing out the group's catchy choruses.

"Anyone can appreciate Spanish rock, I think," said Beatriz Conenna, 33, who lives in Kew Gardens, sings in a band called Bea Va, and attended El Leon's loud farewell. "It doesn't matter what language people sing in. It's about the sounds, the movement, and staying true to your heart."

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