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Chicago Tribune

Latin Rock: More Than Folk Music

By Aaron Cohen. Special to the Tribune

December 3, 2003
Copyright ©2003 Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved.

Superaquello's songs barely rise above whispers and its lyrics are quietly self-reflective. When its co-founder, Eduardo Alegria, is asked if these attributes contrast with the image of Puerto Rico's boisterous music scene, he responds with considerable pride.

"Let me put this in perspective," Alegria says. "We are the weirdos here!"

Growing movement

While Superaquello (meaning super other) may be outcasts in San Juan, the group is part of a growing movement that is challenging assumptions of Latin American popular music. Starting Thursday at HotHouse, the two-day Ruido festival will present the band alongside similarly innovative performers, including Argentinian singer Juana Molina and Ely Guerra from Mexico. Chicago's understated Aluminum Group is also on the bill. Even though these musicians emphasize subtlety, "ruido" is the Spanish word for noise.

"The most important thing is to inform people that Latin rock has a number of different genres," says Ana Maria Soto, director of Latino Cultural Affairs for Columbia College Chicago. Her department is a primary sponsor of the event. She adds that, "There is so much more than mariachis and folk music."

Gabriel Gonzales Feijoo, a Columbia College student and Ruido organizer, says his early cultural experiences in Mexico City were far from monolithic.

"Most of the kids that I grew up with are influenced by Mexican pop culture," Feijoo says. "But they're also influenced by Japanese cartoons, films from the U.S. and music from London."

During the 1980s, Alegria was one of a few teenagers in Puerto Rico who were listening to such imaginative British pop bands as The Cocteau Twins. When he discovered German electronic artists Kraftwerk, he said, "it felt like the second coming of Christ."

Alegria brought these influences to Superaquello. He says that the ethereal songs on the group's "Mu Psiqui Ta" disc disprove the pervasive idea that "being Puerto Rican is all about being loud and shaking our butts." So, too, are his lyrical accounts of manic depression, which recall The Smiths.

"What's really fun for us about doing this work here is that even though I whine about how difficult it is," Alegria says, "we are the only people representing for the melancholics."

Molina also creates music that transcends her nation's borders. Her father, Hector, is a singer and she remembers that he hosted bossa nova legends such as Chico Buarque and Vinicius De Moraes when she was a girl. She also gravitated toward The Beatles' later experimental records, such as the White Album and "Abbey Road."

Unique sounds

Like The Beatles during those years, Molina searched for unique studio effects and environmental sounds to shape her recent disc, "Segundo." She spent a year recording and reworking the project. On the final result, her gentle voice and minimalist keyboard lines quietly reveal a vast soundscape.

"I don't like very high sounds," Molina says. "They are always disturbing to me."

But Molina has faced a challenge when she performs in Argentina. For seven years, she was the main actress on the television comedy "Juana Y Sus Hermanas." Even though there is implied humor in her music, Molina's Argentinian audience has presumptions that she'd rather downplay.

"People are always expecting me to make them laugh," Molina says. "It's really hard when I have to play a song seriously. Sometimes in my shows in Argentina I end by putting my clown nose on and then I feel miserable because I didn't do what I wanted to do, which is just put my songs together."

So Molina is happy about being free from that pressure for her Chicago debut this week. Alegria is excited that his band is sharing a stage with the Aluminum Group, who, he says, "have a very classic pop thing going on, which I like very much."

Feijoo is optimistic about encouraging collaborations between Latin American and Chicago musicians. He says Guerra "was blown away completely" with the Tortoise discs he gave her when she was here for the World Music Festival two years ago. These exchanges would benefit everyone, according to Feijoo.

"The people who make really interesting music are always aware of what's going on in other parts of the world and you can hear it in their work."

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