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Northern Exposure 

A new compilation tries to bring rock en español to the masses

Wednesday, Mar 21 2001
Last year American television audiences got a taste of "Latin Alternative" music when the first Latin Grammies were broadcast nationally. Over several hours, viewers watched Colombian pop queen Shakira perform her tunes, Emilio and Gloria Estefan smile for the cameras, and Ricky Martin live la vida popular. Some alternative. The underground sound that the young Latino generation has embraced -- which, for lack of a better term, is called "rock en español" -- was nowhere to be seen on the show. This sound's low profile may be about to change, however. One-time Police manager and current Ark21 label head Miles Copeland is about to release a compilation, Escena Alterlatina: The Future Sound in Español, that may put the style on the map for good.

Sold with a money-back guarantee, the 14-track collection offers a hemispheric cross-section of artists -- from high-profile performers such as Julieta Venegas and Delinquent Habits to relative unknowns like the Bay Area's Orixa and Los Mocosos. The songs draw from -- but don't adhere to -- a wide range of genres including hip hop, ska, and traditional Latin music, and they feature non-threatening titles that even an eighth-grade Spanish student could pronounce. Only a few songs on the collection are sung entirely in Spanish; a couple more feature Spanglish. Still, that slim language barrier forms a line a lot of non-Spanish speakers might not want to cross.

"There's tunes in English on this collection, like "My Commanding Wife' by Los Rabanes, that should be next to Sublime and the [Mighty Mighty] Bosstones on the charts," says Josh Norek, the publicist and executive producer of Escena Alterlatina. "It's about just getting past the stereotypes. I remember working [Mexican hip hop group] Molotov's first record, and radio stations [weren't] even touching it because it had a few words in Spanish. Yet a German heavy metal band like Rammstein can get airplay. Who speaks German here? Over 15 percent of this country speaks Spanish; it makes no sense whatsoever to exclude this music."

Few Bay Area stations regularly play alterlatino tracks. It's not that the audience isn't there: The promotions company Alvarez and Garner has produced several sold-out shows at the Fillmore and the Warfield with Spanish-language rock bands. But now, with the release of Escena Alterlatina, KITS-FM (105.3) is taking the first steps toward airplay. The station will host an upcoming record release show at Justice League as part of a series of cross-country parties. For this appearance, Orixa and Los Mocosos will perform alongside Mexican diva Venegas. In an attempt to sway consumers, every ticket buyer will get a free copy of the CD with the price of admission. Norek hopes KITS's interest signals the beginning of a new era.

"I've heard a lot of labels gripe how they can't get radio involved with this music," Norek says. "But [by] having Live 105 host this show, it's making history. This has never happened for a major Spanish-language rock event. I think English rock stations are starting to think about their demographics, and it makes sense."

Depending on public reception, the widely publicized collection could cast some light on the local rock en español scene as well. Both Los Mocosos and Orixa have loyal followings and play every few weeks somewhere in town, and there's a potent crop of young artists such as Santero, Songo, Caradura, Lodo y Asfalto, Martin Franco, and Orquesta D'Soul waiting in the wings.

Orixa has been around since the early 1990s, when the punk/ska band hosted a regular rock en español night at the Berkeley Square. Made up of the Peruvian brothers Mark, Eddie, and Juan Manuel Caipo and Venezuelan singer Rowan Jimenez, the group is considered by Norek to be one of the best unsigned bands in America. Recently, the act -- the only one with two tracks on Escena Alterlatina -- was nominated for a California Music Award for Best Latin Album.

For their part, Los Mocosos ("The Snot-noses") grew out of a series of 1996 jam sessions in a garage in the Mission. Formed by singer Piero "El Malo" Ornelas, bassist Happy Sanchez, and horn player Victor Castro, Los Mocosos have toured the country several times and released one album, Brown & Proud. Sanchez helped form Aztlan Records, the first Spanish-language rock label in the country and the home to both bands.

Unfortunately, the label collapsed in 1998. Orixa forged on, forming its own Elegua Digital label and landing a spot on the 1999 Latinocentric Watcha tour (along with Los Mocosos).

"When you're veteranos from the streets you got to make things happen," says Los Mocosos bandleader Sanchez at the Velvet Lounge in North Beach before a showcase gig with the band's new label, Six Degrees. "Being Latino and all, you got to keep it positive and believe in something. It's not about business for us; it's about our passion for playing. We're a real barrio rock band and represent a sound that's traditional in our neighborhood."

Los Mocosos' soon-to-be-released Six Degrees album, Shades of Brown, fuses the varied dance-hall sounds of the Mission: R&B, salsa, rock, rap, and ska. But the group is more than just another party-crazy combo. One tune in particular, "El Barrio Está Loco," takes a hard look at gentrification. "We wanted to touch on that and tell people that there is a way to maintain your culture even though you're being invaded, and we do it in a fun way even though it does have its jagged edge," says trombonist Castro.

It's obvious from listening to Escena Alterlatina that young artists in Spanish-speaking countries have musical tastes just as varied as their North American neighbors. The mariachi hip hop of Delinquent Habits (East L.A.), the ska-lypso grooves of Los Rabanes (Panama), the samba/rock/funk of O Rappa (Brazil), the drum 'n' bass of Kinky (Mexico), and the power-pop hop of Santos Innocentes (Argentina) bring an originality that transcends genres and offers a look at artful assimilation.

"We represent a demographic," says Los Mocosos' Sanchez, "that is about people coming from other countries and embracing the popular culture here. It might take two to three generations, but it changes them and their families. Los Mocosos are still eating Mexican food, talking Spanish to [our] grandmothers, but [we're] doing our own thing."

Josh Norek might be the best person to market the project to this demographic. His company, JN Media, has been instrumental in publicizing the initial U.S. tours of Spanish rock bands such as Jaguares, Mana, and Cafe Tacuba. He also collaborated last summer with Tomas Cookman, manager of Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, on the first Latin Alternative Music Conference in New York City. Now, with Ark21's help, he's attempting to break rock en español nationwide, putting Escena Alterlatina in record-store listening stations across the country, taking out full-page ads in music magazines and trade industry papers, and pushing for airplay. Will it work?

"Te gusta el disco o te devolvemos su dinero," says Norek in broken Spanish, referring to the collection's money-back guarantee. "It's coming right out of my wallet, bro! People say I'm crazy, but no way! That's how much I believe in this project."

About The Author

Jesse "Chuy" Varela


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