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Bienvenidos, Bacilos…Latin Rock Group Living Busy Life

Bienvenidos, Bacilos

By Jim Abbott | Sentinel Pop Music Writer

September 2, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Orlando Sentinel Communications. All rights reserved. 


MIAMI BEACH -- Sometimes, it's better to be direct.

It didn't hurt Bacilos, a culturally diverse trio of singers and musicians from Colombia, Brazil and Puerto Rico who met eight years ago as students at the University of Miami.

The band's signature song, "Mi Primer Millón," has lifted Bacilos and its Caraluna album to three Latin Grammy nominations and a performing slot at tonight's ceremony in Miami (at 9 on CBS, WKMG-Channel 6).

The title translates to "My First Million," a newcomer's longing for riches and acceptance in the music business.

Leaning back in a swivel chair to prop his boots on a conference table at Warner Music Latina's headquarters on a rainy afternoon, lead singer Jorge Villamizar assesses the progress toward that elusive first million.

"We're on our way," he says.

A good showing in tonight's triumphant homecoming would be another step in the right direction for the Miami group, though the band faces formidable competition from Colombian über-star Juanes, with five nods, and veteran New York producer Sergio George, whose leading six nominations include recognition for work with Bacilos.

It was George who suggested the direct approach when the trio was writing material for Caraluna, up for best album and best pop album by a duo or group. Villamizar, the group's main songwriter, also is up individually for three more awards.

When the band convened to write songs and record, George asked what Villamizar, bassist André Lopes and percussionist José Javier Freire would have changed about Bacilos' 2001 self-titled debut.

"Jorge told me that the band was disappointed that it didn't have a hit on the radio," George says. "So I said, 'Why don't you write a song saying you want to be on the radio?' "

They did. The result is "Mi Primer Millón," which opens with the line "I just want to have a hit on the radio."

Now they do. There's also a Grammy Award for best Latin pop album, which Bacilos won in February for Caraluna, exceeding the modest expectations of a band that took years to gain a foothold in its own city.

"The objective was to fill up the bars in Miami," Villamizar says. "It was tough at the beginning, because Miami was Cuban and you had to have something Cuban about it or you wouldn't get a chance."

Now the band has outlived many of the trendy clubs that it once aspired to play. Along the way, the city changed too.

"The Colombians, the Brazilians, the Peruvians moved in, and the character of the audiences changed," Villamizar says. "Miami has become a melting pot. We're the new Miami Sound Machine, and we're not Cuban. That is the change."

Finding a sound

The members of Bacilos say that holding the Latin Grammys at last in South Florida is monumental, after the inaugural event was moved because of a county ban that would have prevented some Cuban acts from performing.

In 2001, the show was again moved to Los Angeles because of a controversy over where anti-Castro demonstrators would be permitted to protest. That show was canceled after the terrorist attacks in New York and at the Pentagon.

"Economically, this is very important for the city of Miami," Freier says, alluding to the hit that tourism has taken since Sept. 11.

It's also significant for a hometown band, which started playing at frat parties and keggers, survived a bad record deal and emerged with a sense of perspective that belies its short recording career.

At the root of that mind-set is the cultural diversity of musicians who blend Latin influences that historically haven't been mixed. Villamizar, 32, is a native Colombian, who met Puerto Rican-born Freire, 31, and Brazilian Lopes, 27, as classmates at UM.

Officially, Villamizar and Lopes were business majors, Freire a film student, but music passions sidelined those goals. Though the group was familiar with traditional Latin styles, the band started as a punk-flavored rock band.

"In Brazil, you listened to anything in English," Lopes says. "Prince, Guns N' Roses, the Rolling Stones, you didn't care. When you're young in Brazil, you want to be an American, like what you see in the movies. You want a Game Boy."

It wasn't until he arrived in Miami, Lopes says, that he started to become immersed in Brazilian sounds.

"I was bombarded by the Latin culture," he says. "I'm still digesting it."

Though Villamizar developed an early appreciation of the Beatles that is occasionally evident in his melodic songwriting, he also was indoctrinated into a variety of Latin styles by his mother, a guitar teacher who urged him to take up the instrument at a young age.

"Unlike a lot of folks, my mom wasn't nationalistic about her tastes. There was always Venezuelan, Peruvian, Colombian and Brazilian music playing in the house. She was always after me with a guitar. I liked painting, but that started to change when I was about 12, when I started to discover girls."

In Puerto Rico, Freire listened to the opera music that his father loved but was equally inspired by American rock stars ranging from Peter Frampton to Kiss.

"It was hard because my friends were all into salsa, not into rock. They would play me songs by Ruben Blades, and I would play them Led Zeppelin."

A balancing act

While the members of Bacilos were impatient to arrive in the States, the producer who would collaborate with them on Caraluna found his inspiration by traveling in the other direction. A native New Yorker who had developed an international reputation as a musician and arranger on tours with Celia Cruz and Tito Puente, George, 42, went to Colombia in 1987, where he immersed himself in traditional styles for a year.

"That's where I learned to become a producer and arranger," he says in a telephone interview from New York. "When I went there I was on a jazz trip, into playing a lot of notes and chords. In Colombia, I was hearing these cumbias with two chords all day long."

He hated it at first, but experienced a revelation: "The Latino market is not about notes and chords and what I wanted to hear. It's about what people want to hear. And you know what? It's hard to produce a song with two chords. It's easy to do a lot of notes and words; to make it simple is tougher."

George encouraged that kind of simplicity in his sessions on Caraluna, though he acknowledges that there are complexities to making a marketable Latin sound. It's hard to make a tropical album without mimicking the successful sound of Colombian Carlos Vives or Mexican band Maná.

"It's really tough to establish a sound that's a tropical pop-rock and not sound like those guys, so we talked about U2, Ruben Blades and some old salsa. We spoke about a little bit of Motown. We just incorporated as many different things into the songs as we could."

After 25 years in the business, George is elated about the genre-blending he is seeing in Latin music, the melding of nationalistic styles by bands such as Bacilos.

"It's moving toward being very eclectic and innovative, toward being different but maintaining the Latin base. In Chile, for instance, you've never heard anything with a tropical beat --that would be impossible -- but you're hearing it now. It's a great moment, a merging of the cultures."

Latin Rock Group Bacilos Living Busy Life


September 2, 2003
Copyright © 2003
ASSOCIATED PRESS. All rights reserved. 

MIAMI (AP) -- The Latin rock group Bacilos wants attention. Listen to their hit song ``Mi Primer Millon'' (My First Million), and the message is clear with the song's chorus: ``I only want to hit it on the radio, so I can have my first million.''

The song is an inside joke in the Latin music industry, mainly because it achieved its desired effect in Latin America and parts of the United States. It points out the risks that grass-roots acts must go through to have the means to provide for their families and be adored ``from Sevilla to New York'' -- without compromising their art.

``It's realistic and it's really honest,'' said Jorge Villamizar, who teamed with producer Sergio George to write the song. ``It's so honest, it's beyond being tacky or hip. More than the market, it has touched the industry.''

The Miami-based band is Colombian guitarist and lead singer Villamizar, 32, Brazilian bassist Andre Lopes, 26, and Puerto Rican percussionist Jose Javier ``JJ'' Freire, 31. They have three Latin Grammy nominations, and Villamizar has three more on his own for his work as a songwriter. George, who produced two songs on the album, leads all nominees with six for the awards show Sept. 3 to be broadcast live by CBS.

Bacilos won a 2001 Grammy award for best Latin pop album for their eclectic album ``Caraluna'' (Moon's Face). They've sold out shows in New York, Los Angeles and Latin America, and can reach up to 35 million America Online subscribers for a five-song jam for an AOL Sessions cybercast in mid-September.

Their name literally means ``bacillus,'' or bacterium in English, though there's also a reference to a ``vacilon,'' or a big, wild party.

Despite their frenzied two-year run, the trio hasn't reaped the financial success they seek -- one of Villamizar's goals is to earn a ``couple of million dollars.'' Still, critics fawn over their acoustic fusion, admiring it as an alternative to the homogenized, prepackaged sounds of Ricky Martin-inspired Latin pop.

``We're still alternative. We're not fully members of the top 10 club yet,'' Villamizar said.

While Bacilos has joined Juanes, Molotov, and acts from Surco records as part of a wave of alternative Latin rock, they began eight years ago as three young guys in a hard-sounding power trio. That's a far cry from their more mature, organic sound of today.

``The whiskey, the beer, and the electric guitar tends to bring out a more raw and punkish sound,'' Freire said.

But they soon found they had to adjust to the venues they were playing, restaurants and bars with little room or need for huge drum sets or loud amplifiers. So they adjusted their approach and went acoustic.

``People would tell us that when we played acoustically, we had this special energy,'' Freire said. ``Yeah, it's softer, it's different, but there's still intensity and it's still fresh. We revealed and projected our Latin roots more effectively.''

The group toiled in Miami for a few years before releasing their first album ``Bacilos,'' which netted two Latin Grammy nominations.

The band was forming a base that today fuses several musical styles -- rock, cumbia, ska, reggae, soca, bossa nova and others -- and layered the sounds of the violin, cello and brass instruments into their work.

Bacilos' musical diversity is born from the nuances of each of their cultures and the mixed salad of Latin American influences that permeate Miami.

``Each one of us brings their own roots,'' Lopes said. ``More than that, because we live in Miami, there's no way you can turn on a radio and not listen to maybe a Mexican ballad, Argentinian or Mexican rock, then there's a salsa or a merengue, then some pop. It's very hard not to be influenced by everything you listen to and hear.''

Examples of their multicultural influences and teamwork are all over ``Caraluna,'' where vocals are led by Villamizar but all three sing on choruses.

There's the pop ballad ``Solo Un Segundo,'' (Just One Second), the flamenco and bossa nova influenced ``Barcelona,'' and the English-language, ska-inspired ``Elena.'' Villamizar penned that song for a Greek woman he knew while living in London who didn't speak English.

The album turned into a Grammy, which Villamizar admits was a life changer. They had earned respect of their peers and turned a corner.

``The Grammy closed the phase of the unknown musician, the underdog trying to prove a point,'' said Villamizar, the only married Bacilos member. ``At the same time, it made me feel at peace with the sacrifices I've made in my life.''

Bacilos acknowledge their success doesn't mean they're suddenly full-fledged rock stars.

``Here we're not famous, but in Latin America we're really famous. We have 10 times more airplay in Latin America,'' Villamizar said.

A whirlwind Latin America tour and Latin Grammy nods forced the group to fly thousands of miles to and from Miami in recent weeks, bringing out some frustration.

``In Latin America. we cannot go to a restaurant without having a meal without interruptions. That sucks. Fame is tricky. Anonymity is as wonderful as fame. But you always see the other side better. You become famous, and everything becomes a hassle.''

In all, however, Bacilos is enjoying the life it asked for. They're planning to release an album next spring.

They know one way to get the attention of the huge U.S. audience that embraced crossover acts such as Martin, Marc Anthony and Shakira is to, well, sing in English.

``We wouldn't mind. We wouldn't have to take English classes,'' Lopes said.

``Absolutely. There's much more money in the English market,'' Villamizar added. ``We can show an interesting face of Latin music.''


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