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Multi-Ethnic Music Flourishes In Puerto Rico

By Randy Luna

September 27, 2003
Copyright ©2003 Information Access Company. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- A new generation of Latin-flavored bands is creating a brand of multiethnic music that combines the band members' many cultures with the street sounds that surround them.

These groups have attracted widespread media attention for their sound and background, as well as for their live shows. Now, the bands and their label are hoping that sales will follow.

Latin-rooted Yerba Buena and Afrobeat orchestra Antibalas are leading the way. Both groups are based in New York and signed to indie labels.

Yerba Buena, which has been featured in the TV series "Third Watch" and will be seen in the film "Havana Nights." fuses such rhythms as Nuyorican boogaloo, Cuban rumba, Colombian cumbia and Pan-American solca with hip-hop, Motown soul and Nigerian Afrobeat. The group's debut, "President Alien," on Fun Machine/Razor & Tie, was released early this year and received positive review. The band's six core members hail from Venezuela, Cuba, St. Thomas and New York.

Similarly, the 15 members of Antibalas are Latino, Caucasian, African-American, African and Asian-American with musical backgrounds spanning jazz, rock, improvised music and traditional drumming from Cuba and Brazil Their two albums, "Liberation Afrobeat Vol. 1" and "Talkatif," both on Ninja Tune, feature a modern expression of the Nigerian rhythm called Afrobeat (which mixes jazz, funk and traditional Africa elements) with lyrics in English, Yoruba and Spanish.

Such groups are a result of the increasing cultural integration in large cities.

"America is becoming one world [with] new influences, sounds and musical forms that reflect the evolution of the times," says Alex Kadvan, manager Antibalas.

Michel Vega, VP at the William Morris Agency and booking agent for Yerba Buena, adds, "It's the expression of traditional rhythms as seen by this generation. You have musical elements that make sense side by side but have not been [put] together until now."

According to Vega, Yerba Buena has played approximately 60 concerts during the past year, including one in September as part of the Latin Grammy Awards festivities in Miami.

Despite the excitement generated by its shows, Yerba Buena, like Antibalas, has so far failed to dent the Billboard Top Latin Albums chart. But the hope is that a new level of promotion will be that.

Because these bands are making distinctive sounds, their respective labels and management teams have thus far used a different marketing strategy. Playing live is a priority, and promotion is done through street teams, press and word-of-mouth. Commercial Latin radio is not a priority in the marketing mix.

"The strategy has been to expose [Yerba Buena] live to as many different audiences as possible," Vega says. "[But] we consciously have not addressed the typical Latin market because this band can appeal to a wider audience."

Now, he says, "it's time to go to the next level, which is radio promotion ant videos."

Other bands on that path include Miami-based DJ Le Spam & the Spam All Stars, who mix such DJ-produced dance rhythms as Miami bass and hip-hop with live musicians playing a variety of Afro-Latin music and free jazz. Despite negligible sales, their latest album, "Fuacata Live," on Elegua Records, garnered the Latin Grammy for best pop instrumental album.

In Puerto Rico, 11-piece Bayanga combines African-rooted Caribbean rhythms inch as salsa, ska and reggae with Brazilian batucada and samba. The group recently released its self-titled debut on RAS Records/Sanctuary Records.

Multicultural groups making multicultural music are, of course, not new. The most prominent example at an international level is French/Spanish act Manu Chao, while stateside, Los Angeles-based Ozomatli has great success locally and on the sales charts.

Today's crop of acts seeks to capitalize on that open door and on the intermingling of cultures in large metropolitan areas and the increasing influence of the ever-growing minorities. To a large degree, these are the same factors helping an Anglo audience understand the new sounds.

"The hottest Yerba Buena shows have been for non-Latino audiences," says Andres Levin, the Venezuelan producer/guitarist/bandleader of Yerba Buena.

Yerba Buena's musical diversity has allowed it to open for artists as diverse as Dave Matthews Band, Willie Nelson, the late Celia Cruz and Cafe Tacuba.

"[Yerba Buena] appeals to so many audiences: the young Latino crowd, the club community, the urban hipster, the roots jam band crowd, the college crowd and the world-music-appreciating audience," explains Milo Pacheco, senior product manager at Razor & Tie.

As for Antibalas, founder and sax player Martin Perna says the group has been well-received in places as diverse as Canada, Alabama and Nebraska, and it had a successful European tour last year.

These bands could be considered ambassadors of cultural integration, because they are helping a growing number of listeners understand that the power of music relies on it being a language of its own.

"The barriers of music are created by record labels and radio," Levin says. "We have to give respect to the public if they want to listen to something, even if it is not in their [original] language."

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