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With An Accent On Rock; Young Latin Bands Trying To Find Their Voice And Place
By ANDREW GLAZER, STAFF WRITER
7 November 2004
The lead singer leans in close to the mic, almost kissing it, and whines a few lines from a popular White Stripes song.
His voice and the backing music sound almost exactly like the original recorded version of the bluesy anthem. Then something strange happens.
Before reaching the chorus - a mush of cymbal slapping and guitar distortion and vocal howls - singer Carlos Lopez backs away from the microphone. His band quiets except for percussionist Leo Munoz, whose hands suddenly become a blur pounding a sped-up salsa beat on congas. Suddenly the song has left the dirty Detroit garage, thrown on a guayabera and headed south for the tropics.
Meet Santa Juana, one of dozens of North Jersey-based Latin rock bands out to prove that Latin music and rock can be one and the same. Until then, thanks to the record industry's rigid taxonomy, they all will have to live among the salsa and mariachi albums on record store shelves, or squeezed into special "rock en Espanol" segments on Spanish radio.
Latin rock bands range in sound from buzzing distortion to percussive dance rhythms, and they fall into a commercial limbo. Record executives, radio stations, and booking agents aren't sure how to promote bands that straddle their well-defined labels of Latin music and alternative rock. Even rock stations with large Latino audiences in New York and Los Angeles are reluctant to spin "rock en Espanol," or "Latin alternative," as some call it. So the thousands of American fans of Mexico's biggest rock act, rap-metal band Molotov, are hard pressed to find their music on commercial radio.
"I don't think it's intentionally racist," said Josh Norek, a Los Angeles-based promoter of some of the biggest Latin alternative bands. "But how can you overlook that more than 30 percent of [Los Angeles rock station] KROQ's listenership is Latino? Playing Molotov should be good business for them."
Some Latin rock artists and promoters say there is an upside to obscurity. It gives a new musical idiom an opportunity to develop on its own without commercial temptations to water it down.
"Right now we're in the cocoon stage," said Santa Juana's bassist, Willie J. Gonzalez, 27, of Paterson. "I don't know if our idea is to cross over, but it's definitely to expand what we're doing right now," he said. "And if that means performing for a lot wider audience ... " He stops to laugh, because his band mates think he said "whiter" audience. "I think we're first trying to refine our sounds among local people."
Innovative pop music, like mold, tends to grow best in dark, damp basements and clubs. Punk rock gets all frothy and melodic when it climbs bleary-eyed from the underground and sees daylight on commercial radio and MTV. Mainstream hip-hop became an advertisement for sneakers and liquor and auto accessories since it left impromptu South Bronx street-corner parties. Even salsa, a gritty street sound, became sappy when Marc Anthony and Ricky Martin took it mainstream.
And so, while rock en Espanol performers and enthusiasts fight for airplay and record deals, they have created a unique sound and scene.
But there's little that binds together this scene other than the native language of its performers. Latin alternative music encompasses hip-hop, electronica and old-fashioned rock-and-roll, as a recent compilation CD that Norek put together shows. Some artists even sing in English. Although bands eschew the label "rock en Espanol," they also are squabbling with one another as they try to define the genre in their own terms.
Some say acts like Santa Juana, which fuse afro-Latin percussive sounds with guitar-based rock-and-roll, sound too Latin to be considered part of the scene.
"Many people feel that if you're going to play rock, then you have to put aside the instruments your parents grew up with, which is insane to me," said Gonzalez, who in high school wore all black clothing, grew long hair, and hung out with fellow metal heads. "But everything I do is interpreted through my culture first. I don't have a choice."
With other bands, such as Englewood's Mamposonica, it's hard to trace any Latin influence through the distortion. This is what Norek said makes the "rock en Espanol" category so useless. He and others prefer the equally vague term Latin alternative.
"Some of the edgiest bands aren't mixing Latino influences at all," he said. "They're doing the Anglo rock thing better than some of the Anglo rockers."
New York and New Jersey's sound is different than what's being produced in the rock en Espanol "mecca," Los Angeles, because of its more Caribbean ethnic base. Many Latin rock bands here have a more percussive sound.
But the Latin rock scene is decidedly pan-Latino. Take the members of Santa Juana: Lopez, 23, and Munoz, 26, are both Colombian; bassist, Gonzalez, is Dominican; and drummer Pablo Zarate, 23, is Ecuadorian. Fans at a recent Halloween show were from Puerto Rico, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil and the United States.
A few bands, such as the Los Angeles-based collective Ozomatli, rock en Espanol pioneers Los Fabulosos Cadillac of Argentina, and the accordion-playing Tijuana-reared soloist Julieta Venegas have gotten some attention among non-Latinos. But still, rock en Espanol can't seem to find an audience on mainstream radio or venues.
Only two major New York-area radio stations have special programs for Latin rock and they're both Spanish-speaking stations, artists said. Nationwide, only one major non-Spanish language radio station in Los Angeles has a show designated for Latin alternative music. The Red Zone is two hours late Tuesday night, but it's a start, host Chelina Vargas said. Still, she says, she would like to see program directors start to include Latin alternative music on their regular playlists.
"I would rather it be inclusive than exclusive," she said.
Santa Juana's Lopez, who writes lyrics for the band, said he wasn't throwing a bone to his non-Latino fans when he included the White Stripes song in their set. In his bedroom growing up, like many of his band mates, he turned up Guns N' Roses and Metallica to drown out the traditional Latin music his parents played. In America for nearly a decade, he has been exposed to a host of new sounds: contemporary rock, experimental Latin, jazz, afro-beat, and other Latin alternative bands.
And so one day - in the damp basement in percussionist Munoz's home in Roselle Park - they began to jam. And what came out, a blend of congas and White Stripes and buzzing energy, sounded just right.