CADILLACS DRIVE TO TOP OF CHARTS

Not since the likes of Tango great Astor Piazzolla has Argentina had a musical export comparable to Los Fabulosos Cadillacs. The band’s 1993 compilation, “Vasos Vacios,” has more than 300,000 copies on their home turf alone, and brought the Cadillacs to such far-flung outposts as Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C., and Miami, as well as Japan and most Latin American capitals.

Ten years and eight albums after their formation, the Cadillacs’ rambunctious mix of rock, reggae, salsa, samba and ska has put the band in the captain’s chair of the Argentine pop scene. Their ascent was consummated by “Vasos Vacios'” bonus single, “Matador,” which topped local charts and later established itself as a bar anthem throughout Latin America. The crown jewel came when MTV named “Matador” its best foreign video of 1994 – a feat many Argentines likened to “The Official Story’s” 1986 best foreign film Oscar.

In a continent whose pop music is better known for over produced one-hit wonders and sing-along teen idols, the Cadillacs have proved that a back-to-basics style can prosper without the help of an air brush.

The band has no qualms with sarcastic song titles like “I Wouldn’t Sit at Your Table” and “My Girlfriend Fell Into a Bottomless Pit.” Meanwhile, their straight-from-the-barrio look would leave most wary about meeting them in a dark Buenos Aires side street. The encounter, however, would most likely end in drinking beer with the band at a corner watering hole.

And concerts, whether at a small-town bar or a Buenos Aires stadium, continue to sell out, despite the influx of international acts – here and lead-singer Vicentito’s penchant for wearing skirts on stage.

The secret behind the Cadillacs’ success is their ability to choose from the entire gamut of Latin music schools and down-home Anglo rock, shake it all up, and turn out a product undeniably their own.

The band’s hodgepodge of styles may well be a result of their Argentine environment, where most continuously ask themselves if they are European or Latin American and come to a peculiar conclusion somewhere in between.

Of course, the band members, with a “good ol’ boys” charm about them, would be much less cerebral about the whole issue. Said saxophonist Sergio Rothman: “We could call it rock, rap, ska, salsa – anything but heavy metal. We’ve never pursued a determined style, rather we went along adding the rhythms we liked little by little.”

Working with top-notch talent also has been a Cadillacs stand-by. Their 1988 “Ritmo Mundial” album featured a duo with salsa diva Celia Cruz on the “Vasos Vacios” single, along with a hilarious cover of the Clash’s “Revolution Rock.”

In 1992 the band tapped former Sting producer K.C. Porter for their seventh album, “El Leon,” featuring sit-ins with famed Tex-Mex accordionist Flaco Jimenez (who also sat-in on the Rolling Stones’ “Voodoo Lounge” single, “Sweethearts Together”) and percussionist Luis Conte, who has worked extensively with Madonna.

Despite the album’s limited commercial success, it received high marks from local critics as well as those in Spain and the U.S. Subsequently, Porter was invited back to produce the “Vasos Vacios” compilation.

The Cadillacs’ live performances are an intoxicating mix of improvisation, authenticity and humor. When the band was asked (against their principles) to lip-synch last year on Argentine variety program “Fer Play,” they embarrassed the pretentious host by playing whatever came to mind, wandering around the stage and bouncing off the walls.

The Cadillacs’ success outside of Argentina has brought them an added measure of respect at home.

“The Cadillacs were always popular here but never like now, with their success outside the country, and especially on MTV. People are paying more attention to the words and even kids’ parents are getting into the band. Everyone’s like, ‘ If the Americans like it then it must be good,” said Buenos Aires radio disc jockey Ronnie Arias.

Meanwhile, the Cadillacs recently finished their new album, “Rey Azucar,” scheduled for release this May. Produced by former Talking Heads Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth and recorded at Compass Point studios in the Bahamas, the album packs just as much horsepower as any of the band’s previous releases.

“Mai Bicho,” the first single, features a rap interlude by ex-Clash mouthpiece Mick Jones, with a Vicentito-Debbie Harry duet for a ska version of “Strawberry Fields,” also on the menu.

In April the band will play France’s Bourges Festival, along with shows in Barcelona and Madrid, before returning home to prepare for the “Rey Azucar” tour, which begins in August and will take them to almost all of Latin America as well as cities throughout the U.S.

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