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Addicted to Rock: The members of San Jose's Addicion Social--(back
from left) Raul Treviño, Adam Gallo, Edgar Gonzalez, Javier Ornelas
and (front) Grabiel Ortiz--lead the local rock en español scene.
Photo by Christoper Gardner.
From Mexico City to San Jose,
'rock en español' speaks to Latino
fans in a language they understand
Dense with dancers, the San Jose Civic Auditorium crowd boils to the music of Fobia as the five-piece band unleashes a fusillade of notes, science-fiction-themed lyrics and aggressive guitar and synthesizer distortion. Chants of "Olé, olé, olé" and "Mexico, Mexico, Mexico" echo off the walls.
The crowd surges forward as Fobia leans into the heavy bass lines and damn-the-cops lyrics of its next song, the hit anthem "Perra Policía." Fans jump on stage and leap ecstatically back into the mass of dancers; shirts are ripped off; bodies surf on outstretched arms; sweat saturates the air.
The show looks like just another anarchic, out-of-control rock & roll concert--except the audience is 99 percent Latino, the band is from Mexico City and the lyrics are in Spanish. It's not just rock--it's rock en español.
The 1,400-plus fans sprawled across the auditorium's floor this September night are rockeros, Spanish-speaking and proud-of-it kids and adults who paid $35 for tickets to Revolución '95, a Latino Lollapalooza featuring local groups opening for some of the biggest Spanish-language bands from Mexico.
Hardcore headliners Maldita Vecindad follow Fobia, assailing the crowd with a fluid mix of ska, funk, soul and even various transmuted versions of traditional Mexican styles like mariachi, salsa, raí and norteño. The tight groove conjures up Fishbone, but with a vernacular twist.
The lyrics aren't just for show. Flamboyant frontman Roco always has something pointed to say. "Pachuco" is a hyperkinetic generation-gap song about a street punk who reminds his dad that he was once a rebel, too. Later, the bare-chested singer punches the air as he condemns Prop. 187, racism and "Puto" Pete Wilson. Maybe most significant of all for a band that leads the rock en español charge, Roco excoriates the Texas judge who forbade a mother to speak Spanish to her daughter.
Rock en español is as much a movement as a music.
Speaking in Their Tongue
Scenes like the one at Revolución '95 are only the latest in an outpouring of Spanish-language punk, rock, ska, gothic, metal, death-rock, alternative, pop and rap bands across the border into the States. Every week, hundreds of fans gather at places like Alberto's in Mountain View, Abraxas in downtown San Jose and La Rockola in Berkeley to soak up the new sound delivered by both visiting bands and the new homegrown crop of rockeros.
Although the crowds are swelling, rock en español in this area is still poised between import status and break-out acceptance. "We draw stadium-sized crowds at home," says Lino Nava, the boisterous guitar player for La Lupita, an eclectic outfit from Mexico City on the bill at Revolución, "but in the United States, we must play small venues to get our name out. It's unfortunate that people in America are not as open to music in other languages."
The español in rock en español is more than just a novelty garnish, like the retro-kitsch of Pizzicato Five's Japanese-language pop hits. Rock en español bands from Mexico and Central and South America experiment with beats and genres familiar to rock fans everywhere, from heavy metal and punk to ska and synth-rock, but their audiences in the U.S. are still almost entirely composed of Spanish speakers, primarily first-generation immigrants. That kind of language barrier forestalls any notions of crossover success--just yet.
The best of the rock en español bands often adapt the rebellious, subversive power of rock & roll to political and social messages. "I listen to all kinds of music--from hard stuff like Faith No More and Nine Inch Nails to acid jazz and rap and disco," says San Jose rockero Roman Bolanos. "But this music speaks to me and my people. It's part of my culture."
This application of a universal style of antiauthoritarianism to specific, localized concerns is most obvious in the bands from Mexico, where the government, in the wake of the 1968 student protests, cracked down on youth culture for years.
But as even the angriest English-language rockers and rappers have learned, money changes everything, and the major labels with the money are taking notice of rock en español's burgeoning popularity in the U.S. Since the introduction of MTV Latino, clubs and promoters are vying for bands, record labels are opening Latin divisions, and Spanish-language radio stations are airing rock en español programs.
For better or worse, everyone from Sony Records to headbanger Rudy Sarzo of Whitesnake, who's starting his own Latin rock label, is tapping into the market. And it's not just labels but sponsors that are crowding to the front of the bandwagon. As Marcia Garcia, a DJ for KNTA (1430AM), downtown San Jose's Spanish-language radio station, notes, "Budweiser and the big companies are pulling funds out of banda and mariachi and putting them toward [rock en español]."
Laffite Benitez, West Coast promoter for BMG, one of the record companies most actively promoting Latino music of all kinds, says that Chicanos (second- and third-generation Latinos born in the U.S.) and even non-Latinos are now starting to pay attention.
"Most of the airplay these bands get is from college stations, and college kids tend to be more open-minded," Benitez says, an observation that explains why many of the rock en español groups lean to the kind of alternative rock that college stations often favor. "Non-Spanish-speakers are getting into the music without the bands having to change their style or language," Benitez adds. "They don't know what they're saying, but they understand the music."
Benitez doesn't think that commercial pressures will inevitably force bands from Mexico and Central and Latin America to sacrifice their linguistic roots to catch on in the U.S. market: "They will never become bilingual." The situation for new rock en español bands born in the immigrant and Chicano communities of the U.S., however, is more complicated. There is a future, Benitez thinks, for Chicano bilingual bands with ties to both their Latino heritage and their American neighborhoods. In L.A., he says, there are dozens of bands singing in both languages.
Elena Rodrigo of Aztlan Records, a young, independent San Francisco label specializing in U.S. rock en español bands, is even more confident that commercial demands won't denature the sound. "I really believe rock en español doesn't need to be bilingual to grow. You can't understand the lyrics in most grunge and punk, anyway. The music catches you first, before the lyrics."
According to Rodrigo, rock en español concerts now attract combinations of Latinos, African Americans, Anglos and Asians. That's the kind of fertile demographic mix that powers rap and hip-hop, and makes record company executives salivate with anticipation. The November issue of Spin nails it: on a top-ten list for the future of rock, rock en espanõl is listed as #7.
Dancing With Dr. G
A few weeks before Revolución '95, I sit in with rock en español disc jockey and Latino program director Gerardo Sandoval at KZSC (88.1FM), the UC-Santa Cruz radio station. Possessing a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde-like personality, the normally soft-spoken 24-year-old East L.A. native transforms himself into the tumultuous Dr. G when he sits down behind the microphone for his weekly show, Mi Vecindad (my neighborhood).
A charismatic figure with plentiful earrings and squared-off sideburns sprouting from his blunt-cut dark hair, Dr. G can't stay seated. Slipping in Rey Azucar, the latest CD by Argentina's Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, he jumps out of his chair and starts skanking to the beats of "Mal Bicho," an upbeat, heavily horn-influenced track. Produced by Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz of the Talking Heads and the Tom Tom Club, the album includes appearances by Debbie Harry of Blondie and Mick Jones of the Clash, plus a ska cover of "Strawberry Fields" en español.
There are Spanish-language rock scenes flourishing all over Latin America, says Dr. G. "Argentina is really big, but rock en español bands are also coming out of Spain, Chile, Colombia, Venezuela and Puerto Rico."
In between my questions, Dr. G answers the phone, which has been ringing nonstop with callers hoping to score tickets for Revolución '95. "Hello. May I help you?" he answers in an exaggerated English accent. The caller on the other line hangs up, and Dr. G starts laughing. "They don't know what to do when I answer in English," he says. "They usually hang up."
The phone lights up again, this time with a request for Vilma Palma e Vampiros, an Argentinean band scheduled to perform the following week at the Bold Knight in Sunnyvale. The group's current hit, "Trivesta," tells the tale of a man who falls for a transsexual. They are not the only band that explores gay issues. Mexico City's Café Tacuba--who recently won the MTV Latin Video of the Year Award--features a track ("El Baile y el Salón") on its gold record, Re, that boldly narrates the story of two men falling in love on the dance floor.
Chilean band Sexual Democracia also pokes fun at machismo and other customs of Latin America in "Ella gana mas plato que yo" (she makes more money than me), a song about a young man who goes about trying to demonstrate his masculinity, but his girlfriend is unimpressed because she earns more than he does.
Although Dr. G graduated last June with a degree in psychobiology from UC-Santa Cruz, he decided to stay on at the college radio station to help further what he and many others call the rock en español movement.
"College radio stations are the only ones playing rock en español," he says, pointing up a paradox about the diverse Spanish-language music market. "Most other Spanish-language programs stick to salsa, merengue, banda and pop bands like Maná." According to Dr. G, even in Mexico and Latin America, the government leads a campaign against rock en español because the bands are considered too rebellious.
While flipping through his massive collection of CDs, Dr. G briefly explains the origins of Spanish-language rock in Mexico. "The music has been around since rock started in the U.S., but it's just now gaining momentum here."
Originally, most of Mexico's bands were copycat versions of American sensations--like the Beatles, Elvis, Little Richard, the Rolling Stones, et al.--and they performed both covers and originals in English. After the student protests of 1968 and the crack-down that followed a Woodstock-like concert in Avándaro in 1971, Mexico's musical counterculture was driven underground.
What emerged from this censored periphery, almost a decade later, were bands--like El Tri and Ritmo Peligroso--that no longer wanted to emulate their American counterparts. Instead, they emphasized their Mexican identity. Dozens of bands followed suit, and by the early '90s, Maldita Vecindad, Caifanes, Fobia, La Castañeda, Café Tacuba, Maná, La Lupita and many others were heading what was beginning to look like a crusade.
The phone rings again; "Immigration," Dr. G answers with a mischievous grin, just as Virgilio González walks into the room. A faithful fan of Dr. G, González has been making steady appearances on Mi Vecindad in hopes of someday taking over the program. Dr. G cues up the latest number by Puerto Rican rocker Robi Rosa (whose claim to fame is that he was a member of Menudo).
González crinkles his nose, exclaiming, "He sucks. Maná sucks too. They don't use their imaginations. They don't want to make people think. They just want people to listen. Caifanes, Maldita Vecindad--they are my heroes. They talk about our people, the poverty, the relationship between us and the U.S."
Indeed, with immigration bashing at an all-time high and laws like Prop. 187 fueling controversy and hatred, bands like Maldita Vecindad (whose full name, Maldita Vecindad y los Hijos del Quinto Patio, translates roughly as Damned Neighborhood and the Sons of the Fifth Tenement) have become voices for the thousands of disaffected fans. "There is a need for Latino heroes in our youth," Dr. G says. "This is a great way to help the community--through our music."
KNTA DJ Maria Garcia also showcases rock en español.
Born in the U.S.A.
The headliners are still the imports with big reputations from Mexico City and Argentina, but indigenous rock en español bands are starting to form in the Silicon Valley, and in Berkeley, Oakland, Mountain View and San Francisco. San Jose alone boasts seven bands that consistently play at Abraxas (a moniker for rock en español nights at the Phoenix on South First Street).
Hanging out at a SoFA district coffee shop, local alternativo rockeros Adiccion Social look more like a pack of hip, retro club-goers than a politically and socially charged band. Obviously nervous about being interviewed by an English-language paper, the band's members fidget in their seats, quietly answering questions about their plans to release a CD next month. Still unsure of the album's title, they say it will definitely include their most popular song, "Ideales."
"The song is about going for your dreams and hopes. If you have something you want, you must try for it and do your best," explains drummer Javier Ornelas. "We don't believe in quitting."
It's not until I mention Revolución '95 that the band sits up and gets vocal. Still riding high after opening at the concert, lead vocalist Gabriel Ortiz pulls back his beret and grins, explaining what a big break it was for them. "It was the most important gig we've ever played," he says. Although Adiccion Social was only able to perform a half-hour set, the crowd took to the band's lively stage presence, crisp vocals and sharp lyrics.
"Many of our songs are about social issues," says Ornelas. "We don't want to change the world, but we do talk about the political and social system here in the U.S. and try to give our listeners direction." Hence the name Adiccion Social.
"We don't idolize gang violence," continues Ornelas. "Too often, people sing about gangs and drugs; that leads to negative stereotypes about our people. We don't like that. We want to send out positive messages about the Latino community--not negative."
Together for more than a year now, Adiccion Social showcases a sound reminiscent of many of the alternative modern-rock bands heard on Live 105 and KOME. When asked about their musical influences, all the members start blurting out names at once. The Cure, the Doors, U2, Janis Joplin, Depeche Mode, Jimi Hendrix ... and the list goes on.
"I grew up listening to everything from KC and the Sunshine Band to mariachi to Queen," says Javier. "Although we love the bands from Mexico City--like Maldita Vecindad--we don't want to play like them. In order for Spanish rock to grow, you have to show people different forms of the music."
Local rock en español groups do just that, exhibiting a wide variety of musical styles, from modern rock to ska and hard core to world beat and metal. Bay Area bands Mutilador, Apostol Death and Morbosidad lead the death-metal scene; Oakland's Orixa leans more toward world beat; Milicia plays hard rock; San Jose's Ruido Azul goes for a rock/pop sound; Sangre de Mozart opts for a ska-pop flavoring. And, of course, there are cover bands (Fundación and Confución) that play all of rock en espanol's most popular hits.
"We are like a big family," says Damien Pacheco, the wiry, long-haired guitarist and singer for Metalmorfosis, a Spanish-language metal outfit from San Jose. "Many of us have been playing together for years--mostly in garages, though. For a long time we had no place to perform."
Unlike L.A., where there are dozens of local bands and more than 30 clubs featuring live rock en español, the Bay Area lacks venues willing to promote local groups. Part of the problem lies in a lack of funds; the other in security. In the past, the security hired by clubs has been too violent, jumping the gun and not allowing people to enjoy themselves, says Pacheco. And what good is a rock & roll show if you can't slam dance?
So, taking matters into his own hands, Pacheco has recently started promoting rock en español nights at Abraxas, where he says everyone is more than welcome to slam. With plans to continue supporting the underground local music scene, and bring in top acts from Mexico and other Latin American countries, Abraxas has become a safe haven for the hundreds of fans who travel from as far as Salinas and Berkeley to hear live rock en español.
Alberto's in Mountain View, which has played a major role in showcasing visiting rock en español bands to the Bay Area, has recently started showcasing local bands on Sunday nights. Just last year, owner Alberto Martin--who is also responsible for setting up Revolución '95 in San Jose--brought Maldita Vecindad, Caifanes and Fobia over for sold-out performances at the club.
At Your Service
Immediately following Revolución '95, La Lupita's Nava joins me for a tour of downtown San Jose along with Iñaki, the keyboardist for Fobia. "I've heard enough music in Spanish for one night," exclaims the 26-year-old Iñaki. "Let's check out the local scene."
Our first stop is Red Light, where a local band is running through sound check. As we sit in a circle casually drinking and discussing La Lupita's droll art-garage aesthetic, I'm struck by how worldly yet remarkably unpretentious they are--a huge contrast to U.S. rockers, who are generally anti-intellectual when they're not self-obsessed. Nava, also a songwriter, explains that most of La Lupita's songs are related to love and money, but seen through a historic glass with good humor.
Indeed, humor is at the forefront of all the band's actions. La Lupita's 1992 release, Pa'Servirle a Usted (at your service), displays a variant of the peace sign that resembles someone's ass. The band's music, always playful, ranges from metal to blues and ska to disco, but also veers off into punk renditions of original and classic norteño songs.
"Only 50 percent of our influences come from Mexico," Nava says. The rest come from the States, Europe and other parts of Latin America. "Björk influences us. Mambo influences us," he continues. "In a city filled with 24 million people, we can't help but be recyclers of noise." Looking about the club, he adds, "I like this place. It reminds me of a club I used to perform at years ago. And the band, uhh, I've seen better."
Down the street at F/X, Iñaki, with his short retro cut, tattoos, baggies and a so-square-it's-hip polyester polka-dot shirt, fits right in with all the trendy club hoppers milling about the dance floor. "This is just like the bars we have in Mexico City," he says. "They play much of the same music, too." He knows the band names and titles of every song the DJ plays. "We have an eye for what's happening all around the world," he says, explaining that bands like Japan's Pizzicato 5 and Ultra Bidé and Iceland's Björk, plus obscure groups from Africa, India and Brazil, have had major influences on the band.
I remember what Iñaki had told me the previous evening about the musical aspirations of Fobia, a band that swerves at an angle to many of its peers. Although Iñaki respects all the other rock en español bands out there, many are too political for his taste.
"Any band can get up and say 'Viva Mexico' or 'fuck the government,' and, of course, everyone is going to agree," he says. "It's an easy way to get applause. As a band we represent many things. We don't like the hate in a lot of music. We speak as middle-class men from Mexico City. Our songs are about love, technology and things that happen to us. Not everyone is struggling."
Fobia, however, is something of an exception, at least for now while rock en español enjoys the first flush of success without having to worry too much about selling out or being co-opted. Bands like Maldita Vecindad continue to support the barrios they came from. "We don't set out to be political," says Maldita Vecindad guitarist Tiky. "But the reality of Mexico and the people of Chiapas can't help but be reflected in our music."
Singing in Spanish about real-world issues, Maldita Vecindad reaches out to fans in the same visceral way that the best rock always has. As Anita Gonzalez, who traveled an hour and a half from Soledad to be part of Revolución '95, says, "I love Nirvana and Pearl Jam. But it's bands like Maldita Vecindad and Caifanes that I connect with. These are real Mexicans singing in Spanish about my people and my culture."
Check out these clubs, record stores, or web sites that specialize in rock en español.
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