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Latin rockers seek global roll

HOLLYWOOD — Despite a generation of political struggle, an underground rock ‘n’ roll movement has thrived in Buenos Aires and Mexico City.

Only in the past few years, with increasing democratization and economic reforms in Argentina and Mexico, has rock en espanol burst forth from the underground, generating huge sales for the Latin American market.

With the advent of MTV Latino last fall, rock from south of the border is beamed around the clock to 14 Latin nations and selected U.S. Latin markets, creating the best opportunity yet for these vibrant bands to break out in the U.S. and Europe.

“This culture has been repressed for a long time,” says Kevin Benson, whose Twin Towers company supervises music for Latino film soundtracks. “There are brilliant, innovative acts — it’s the freshest stuff out there right now.”

Overcoming stereotypes

But Kim Jones, who reps top Mexican bands Caifanes and Maldita Vecindad for William Morris Agency, realizes the enormity of overcoming stale stereotypes. “When I say ‘Mexican rock,’ ” says Jones, “people shrug or roll their eyes — they’ve never heard it before.”

Rock en espanol, or rocanrol as it’s also called, was born more than 30 years ago when Latin bands began doing Spanish covers of Chuck Berry and Little Richard tunes. Then, gradually, artists in Latin America began writing and recording original material — always in Spanish, never in English.

Throughout the late ’60s and ’70s however, with military dictatorships in Argentina and the state-controlled TV monopoly Televisa in Mexico, rocanrol and its culture were all but banned. In these conservative, Catholic cultures, “They considered the music Satanic,” says Marusa Reyes, who manages five of Mexico’s hottest bands.

“I was thrown in jail numerous times in the ’70s just for having long hair,” recalls Gustavo Santaollala (“santa-o-laya”), the legendary Argentine record producer who helmed Maldita Vecindad’s first two albums.

“Rock concerts were always raided, with 50-100 people out of several hundred attending hauled off to jail. It was part of what they called ‘The Process’ in Argentina.” And in Mexico, rock bands fared little better. Similar to the student upheavals in the U.S. in the ’60s, there was a violent backlash suffered by Mexican students and musicians.

But the music endured in both countries, and by the mid-’80s, bands jammed in do-it-yourself underground venues with hand-rigged lighting and cables.

With virtually no radio airplay or TV exposure, darkly poetic bands like Caifanes, and gritty street bands like Maldita Vecindad attracted a huge following among the vibrant street culture of the youths of Mexico City — now the most populous city in the world with 23 million residents.

Caifanes released their first album in 1988; soon after, their single “La Negra Tomasa,” a hip update of Cuban cumbia music, sold over half a million, which is double platinum in Mexico. “This single was so huge they couldn’t ignore it,” says Lafitte Benidez of BMG in Los Angeles. Then Maldita — a fusion of ska, rock and Mexican folk rhythms — released their first album in 1989.

Meanwhile in Argentina, bands like Los Divididos and Los Fabulosos Cadillacs took off. Years before, after the Falklands War with Britain in 1981, the bands got an unforeseen break when anti-English sentiment within Argentina created receptivity to native rock and allowed rock bands to get established.

Perhaps because of those extra years of development in the mainstream, some Latin rock critics feel Argentina’s rock is even better than Mexico’s. “I think the best band in Latin America, with the best chance of crossing over, is Los Divididos,” comments Enrique Lopetegui, Latin rock critic for the L.A. Times.

During its long incubation in the underground, divorced from commercial pressures, Mexican rockers developed a sound startling in its honesty and raw vitality. “In Mexico City, the street culture is real, authentic, not driven by the media,” says Benidez.

Spiritual quality

Other bands express a spiritual quality with roots in the mystical traditions of Mexico’s hybrid Spanish-Indian culture. One band, Santa Sabina, takes its name from a famous mushroom priestess: they sing about vampires and black magic. “The mysticism and artfulness of the country is reflected lyrically in terms of the music’s moods and textures,” says Twin Towers’ Benson.

Navigating the waters of the vast American rock market, however, where rock en espanol has little or no visibility, will be no picnic. But a host of record company execs, managers, journalists and agents believe it’s not a question of if, but when the sound breaks out.

The first natural place to hear rock en espanol would be on Spanish-language radio in the U.S. BMG’s Benidez complains that access to U.S. Latin radio is blocked by the overriding popularity and success of Mexican folk music, or Banda.

As Billboard’s John Lannert puts it, “Why should they switch to rock when Banda is working so well for them?” In fact, the top-rated radio station in L.A. , KLAX, plays Banda.

There is hope that the sheer size of the Latin market in the U.S., now estimated at 30-40 million people, will eventually create an irresistible demand for this music.

“The Anglo market has flattened out on a ticket basis,” claims Kevin Benson. “Anyone who can bring the Latin audience into a venue — be it a movie theater, a concert hall or a subscription to HBO — is tapping into the last uncommited demographic in the U.S.”

Perhaps because Europe, with its polyglot culture, is more receptive to rock en espanol, BMG’s strategy with Maldita Vecindad has been to broaden their Euro base before tackling the U.S. After successful Latin American tours and limited U.S. club tours, Maldita toured 10 nations in Europe last spring with 35 concerts on a breakneck schedule.

Many execs familiar with the band foresee Maldita Vecindad taking off as a World Beat sensation. The band’s latest triumph is its inclusion on the best-selling “Reality Bites” soundtrack album, which raced up the sales charts into the top 20.

Here in the states, there are a few bright spots in radio and TV for Latin rock. Miami’s WXDJ plays tropical music; they have added the first regular Latin rock program in the country. Observes Billboard’s John Lannert: “Young people are saying they want more than just ranchera.”

In addition, promoters like Lafitte Benidez are appealing to alternative rock and college outlets, where there is strong interest but little experience programming rock en espanol. When there are radio stations where rock en espanol can be heard in major U.S. markets, most supporters feel, things will begin to change.

Until then, there is MTV Latino. Launched in October, 1993 in Miami, the 24 -hour Latin music channel promises eventually to reach all of Latin America and the U.S. Latin market, which have a combined population of 350 million people.

Alex Pels, supervising producer of MTV Latino, is credited with conceiving the visionary approach of lining up Latino and Anglo bands together. Pel’s experiment began in 1988 when his program, MTV Intl., was broadcast on Telemundo in the U.S. That show proved to be the pilot for the music channel.

To Pels, it’s not so much vision as common sense. “It’s all good rock and roll,” says Pels. “All the sounds and visuals work well together.” Pels points out that bands from both sides are beginning to tour each other’s territories, allowing for valuable interaction between bands and fans.

Pels views Los Angeles as the key market for rock en espanol, due to the high concentration of Mexican-Americans, and the predilection Miami’s Latinos have for other musical forms. Chicago has also proved receptive for Latin rock concerts.

The recent SRO concert at Universal Amphitheater in L.A., joining up Maldita Vecindad, Caifanes and other Mexican acts with Redd Kross and Caifanes producer and former King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew, is looked to as a turning point for industry acceptance.

Ultimately, the inexorable pull of rock’s evolution may draw these potentially influential bands to the forefront. “David Byrne said that the next wave of rock and roll would originate from other countries,” explains Gustavo Santaollala, “where people have absorbed the influence of U.S. and British music and are doing something new, rather than hashing the same thing over and over.”

The originality and vitality of underground Latin rockers is reminiscent of the punk movement in the U.S. and Britain in the late ’70s.

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