If you think the popularity of Latin music in the United States is limited to the salsa dance craze and the pop schlock of acts like Ricky Martin, you're missing the bigger picture. Rock en español -- or Latin rock -- bands are to Latin pop music what alternative bands used to be to the U.S. music scene.
"They're the Becks or Smashing Pumpkins of the Latin world," according to John Riley of Shore Fire Media in New York City. "So many of these bands are so far ahead of the curve of what's going on in Anglo rock rightnow."
Spanish-language rock bands -- from Mexico, South and Central America, and the U.S. -- inject flourishes of Latino music, including mariachi brass and flamenco guitar, into the rock 'n' roll mix. Mexico's Cafe Tacuba, for example, is an avant-garde outfit that delves into reggae, punk, and cheesy '70s funk as well as Spanish guitar. Molotov is the Mexican version of the Beastie Boys, a base-heavy, hip-hop-and-rock hybrid offering attitude and political lyrics.
Riley says Cafe Tacuba "literally blew me away" when he saw the band four years ago. Shore Fire represents the L.A.-based band Viva Malpache and Miami's own Volumen Cero, both of which will perform during the Watcha'99 Latin music festival August1 in Pompano Beach. Tacuba and Molotov are also among the dozen or so bands on the bill. In fact, the alternative Latin supertour was created by Vans Warped Tour producer Kevin Lyman and Jorge Mondragon, the manager of Molotov, which played the Warped tour earlier this year.
"With America currently rediscovering Latin music," explains Lyman, "we hope to give exposure to the more underground sounds of rock and hip-hop that Latino as well as culturally diverse Anglo youth are embracing."
Indeed, Latinos aren't the only ones listening to rock en español. "We were playing a show in San Jose [California], and had an email from these guys who had driven from Phoenix," says Volumen Cero rhythm guitarist Marthin Chan. "They were blond-haired, blue-eyed Americans who had heard us on college radio."
The Peruvian-born Chan and his bandmates, all from Chile, have lived in the States since grade school. After performing and recording its guitar-driven alternative pop in English as Orgasmic Bliss from 1994 to 1997, the band members returned to their roots, switching names and languages. They've since toured extensively in California and South America, and their videos air on MTV Latin.
"Rock 'n' roll is another language," Chan says. "As long as the music is good, the language doesn't matter."