Latino pop-rock is the best of many worlds
The music melds Mexican and South American traits with ongoing European trends.
By Reed Johnson and Deborah Bonello, April 15, 2009
Reporting from Los Angeles and Mexico City -- Growing up in a middle-class home in Mexico City's genteel Coyoacán neighborhood, Camilo Lara watched MTV and listened to the Happy Mondays and the Charlatans, "in my room, very loud." But whenever he drifted into his family's communal living spaces or the kitchen, he'd get a shot of José José, classical music, cumbia (which the family's cook favored) or "some crappy Mexican pop."
"I respect cumbia and salsa as much as the Smiths or the Stone Roses," said Lara, who will perform Sunday at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival under his creative moniker, Mexican Institute of Sound, a grandiose name that reflects both Lara's sprawling ambitions as well as his sly, pretension-puncturing sense of humor (he's currently writing a novel about a guy who's writing a novel).
Lara's brand of electronica-rock, on display in his new, critically praised album "Soy Sauce," draws liberally on his country's musical culture, sampling mariachi horns and incorporating solos by Café Tacuba lead guitarist Joselo Rangel. But he doesn't feel obliged to wrap himself in the national banner, as previous generations of Mexican musicians often felt compelled to do.
"Whenever music is led by nostalgia, it's terrible," Lara said. "I can take, borrow some of my culture, but I don't necessarily adore my culture, you know? What happens to me in some population in the U.S., like L.A. or New York or Chicago, is that they have this fascination for Mexican culture per se, putting everything in a bucket. So it doesn't matter if you're Mayan or Aztec, or you eat tortillas or you eat worms. It's just the idea of being Mexican. And for me, it's totally the opposite."
Lara's self-consciously trans-border approach to music making echoes that of most of the other nominally "Latino" acts performing at Coachella this year, which include the Argentine-Uruguayan collective Bajofondo and two veteran Mexican rock outfits, Molotov and El Gran Silencio. The eclecticism and growing international standing of these bands indicate how globalized Latin rock has become in the roughly two decades since the beginning of the so-called rock en español movement.
Twenty years ago, punk-rock, ska and hip-hop were the main genres that shaped the sound of emerging Latin American bands. Today, electronica is filling that role. And, as was the case with punk and ska, the more risk-taking Latin bands are tweaking and customizing electronica to suit their cultural and aesthetic objectives, rather than merely imitating existing U.S. and European electronica outfits.
The results of those experiments can be heard in the work of groups such as Mexican Institute of Sound and Zizek Club, an Argentine collective that also will perform at Coachella, as well as through the ongoing efforts of more established ensembles such as Tijuana-based Nortec Collective.
Last year Nortec's brain trust, the artists known as Bostich and Fussible (Ramon Amezcua and Pepe Mogt), released what might be the group's most accomplished disc to date, "Nortec Collective Presents: Bostich + Fussible/Tijuana Sound Machine." While the record keeps faith with Nortec's trademark mix of computer-generated electronica and traditional Mexican norteño, it also incorporates more live musicians playing clarinet, accordion and the bajo sexto traditional 12-string guitar.
Gustavo Santaolalla, 57, the Argentine musician, composer and producer who is the best-known member of Bajofondo, suggests that when electronica arrived in Latin America it initially had a faddish quality.
"But now the thing has evolved," he said during an interview at his Echo Park home (he has lived in L.A. for 30 years). "Now everybody plays with sequences and stuff. The whole moment with the raves, that's kind of fading. But the influence has been absorbed, and it's now part of everybody's musical language."
Formerly known as Bajofondo Tango Club, the eight-man group has moved beyond its early foundations of tango, milonga and candombe, assimilating fusion jazz, hip-hop and other elements. Bajofondo recently released its third album, "Mar Dulce" (Sweet Sea), a reference to the estuary-fed Rio de la Plata that flows between Argentina and Uruguay as it empties into the Atlantic.
The new disc includes collaborations with guest artists as diverse as Elvis Costello, Nelly Furtado, Gustavo Cerati, Julieta Venegas and Lágrima Ríos, resulting in a suave paradox: rhythmically and emotionally complex music that is propulsive yet tinged with melancholy.
That combination has been exporting well. Bajofondo's current North American tour will cover 13 shows, with stopovers in New York; Austin, Texas; Toronto; Montreal; Tucson and Detroit, among other places, and the band is planning future engagements in Korea and Japan.
Santaolalla said that Bajofondo is coalescing more than before in the studio, a consequence of having played together for the past several years. "When you see it live, it's like a rock band. It has a much more raw sound."
When Bajofondo started, he said, the majority of its music was programmed, and the rest was played. Now, it's the opposite. "I think it was a natural evolution," Santaolalla said. "We wanted to play more, and the more we played the more we were taking out [what] was programmed. So all the album kind of reflects the progression of the band."
Techno-driven sonic experimentation, the stock in trade of electronica, is not without ample precedent in modern Latin American music, from the ear-tickling, space-age bachelor-pad pop of the eccentric Mexican composer and arranger Juan García Esquivel to the whimsical, industrial-strength cacophonies of Brazil's Tom Zé. In the past, such friskiness often caused non-Latin American audiences to scratch their heads in bewilderment.
To a degree, that bemusement still persists. Lara said that when he performs in the United States he attracts a mixture of the curious, Mexican-immigrant nostalgists and world music aficionados, and he wouldn't be surprised to find himself sharing a billing with a group of Burundi drummers. In Mexico, he's likely to get shoved into a hip-hop event.
But if artists like Lara are getting comfortable with the temporary state of confusion, audiences might be as well.
"I guess with my music I feel a little bit like a misfit wherever I go," Lara said. "It's funny. At the end, I feel like the Mexican sound is kind of like a dog from the street, that has one eye of one color and the other one of other, and it doesn't fit anywhere. So probably the best thing to market is a unique, ugly but pretty thing."