Local Latin Music Explosion

I didn’t understand a word that was said from the stage at a couple of the best shows I’ve seen in the last year–Argentinean pop singer Gustavo Cerati and the Mexican experimental rock band Cafe Tacuba, both at the House of Blues–but I was in the minority. Rock en español may have already come and gone as a hot media topic in the U.S., but as a crossover phenomenon it’s just 0getting started. Last year saw the formation of a rock-en-español package tour called Watcha, targeted to an “audience [that] includes as many, if not more, fans whose first language is English,” and this year Chicago is on the 18-city itinerary.

Watcha was started by three men: Kevin Lyman, producer of the Vans Warped tour, Jorge Mondragon, who manages several top rock-en-espanol bands, and Darryl Eaton, an agent at Creative Artists. It comes to Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom next Friday, August 18, and while the lineup for the show here is missing the two most interesting acts on the tour–Cafe Tacuba and Ozomatli are skipping this stop–it still gives the novice a good sampling of this diverse scene.

The Colombian group Aterciopelados, who just finished recording the follow-up to their excellent 1998 album, Caribe atomico (BMG U.S. Latin), are the best band on the Chicago bill, mixing cumbia rhythms, sophisticated pop melodies, and electronica-enhanced production. The Argentinean trio A.N.I.M.A.L., who started the summer on the Warped tour, couldn’t be more different from them: judging by last year’s Usa toda tu fuerza (WEA Latina), which includes a cover of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” with Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister on guest vocals, their relentless grind metal would fit right in on this year’s Ozzfest tour. The million-selling Mexican quartet Molotov couch their brand of aggression in tight funk and hip-hop grooves, a la Rage Against the Machine or early Red Hot Chili Peppers; on the recent Apocalypshit (Universal Music Latino), produced by Beastie Boys associate Mario Caldato, they rap in Spanish over the usual slap bass, breakbeats, and crunchy guitar riffs, but also find ways to incorporate native traditions, like sampling the Mexican folkloric group Mono Blanco on “El mundo.” Argentina’s Enanitos Verdes are the grizzled vets of this tour, entering their third decade as a band, and the cover art from their recent Nectar (Universal Music Latino) is old-school cheese–an airbrushed, buxom, winged maiden seductively pouring the title comestible from a big jar. They flavor their middle-of-the-road pop rock with flourishes borrowed from South American folk traditions: “Cordillera,” for instance, makes use of Peruvian bamboo flute and sweet Andean mandolin. The bill is rounded out by Latin Froz, a hip-hoppish group from Los Angeles.

Watcha rolls into town in the midst of a larger local Latin-music explosion. In the last few weeks the Venezuelan disco band Los Amigos Invisibles, Mexican art-rocker Julieta Venegas, and Mexican pop stars Jaguares have played at Fiesta del Sol and the Pan-American Festival, major events aimed primarily at the Spanish-speaking community, and Afro-Cuban music continues to draw fans from across the cultural spectrum: according to Daniel Garibay, the Latin-music buyer for Tower Records in Lincoln Park, the demand for Cuban records is even greater this year than last–which is good news for Buena Vista Social Club stars Compay Segundo, Omara Portuondo, and Eliades Ochoa, all of whom will perform here over the next few months. Earlier this summer New York salsa bandleader Jimmy Bosch played Taste of Chicago and Cuban flute virtuoso Maraca kicked off the city’s Summerdance series in front of huge crowds, and last week Cuban expats Celia Cruz and Albita played to a packed house at Ravinia. And in September, the city’s World Music Festival will bring in Brazilian popsters Lenine and Chico Cesar, Puerto Rican salseros Plena Libre, Honduran singer Guillermo Anderson, Mexican rockers Los de Abajo, and Mono Blanco.

Perhaps the most significant Latin-music happening this year was the Chicago debut of the venerated Cuban group Orquesta Aragon, who played Ravinia in June. The band, whose career spans six decades, was scheduled to perform here more than a decade ago as a headliner at the inaugural edition of the city’s Viva! Chicago Latin Music Festival, but protests from the local Cuban community caused programmers to cancel the gig. Ever since, the festival has avoided booking any Cuban artist who hasn’t defected, and this year is no different. Legendary Cuban expat bassist Israel “Cachao” Lopez, an early architect of the mambo, will perform on Saturday, August 26, but that’s as close as the event comes to acknowledging America’s current fascination with traditional Cuban sounds. Other bright spots on the schedule include the excellent Puerto Rican salsa band Papo Lucca y la Sonora Poncena, which follows Cachao on Saturday, and a tribute to Tito Puente featuring bandleader Johnny Pacheco and pianist Eddie Palmieri (who already paid homage to Puente, earlier this summer at Ravinia), slated for Sunday, August 27.

It’s also encouraging to see that the Viva! Chicago lineup includes a couple groups representing the folk music of Ecuador: Tropical Galapagos and Ecuador Incas. But there’s still no music from Brazil, no rock en espanol, no tango, no Andean music, and no Chilean nueva cancion–all major currents in Latin music. The bulk of the bookings are more of the same flaccid Latino pop, slick merengue, and Mexican regional music that’s prevented Viva! Chicago from attaining the world-class status of other city festivals in the past. In the midst of more and more sophisticated Latin-music programming by both the city and commercial promoters, this seems more pathetic than ever.


Bobby Conn, the Goblins, Kim, and Cats & Jammers will perform this Saturday at the Empty Bottle in celebration of the release of Chic-a-Go-Go: The Soundtrack! (Roctober/Beluga), an eclectic 32-track compilation of songs, jokes, and interviews culled from the first five years of the public-access cable show Chic-a-Go-Go. Among the highlights: Cynthia Plaster Caster’s duet with the show’s puppet host, Ratso, on Dudley Moore’s “Bedazzled”; a performance by Peoria country-karaoke singer Alan Gillett; Kelly Hogan and Andy Hopkins sing-speaking the story of “The Great Titanic”; and Ratso’s interview with Lemmy Kilmister, whose advice for the kiddies is “don’t talk to bleeping puppets.” The extravaganza will be emceed by Ratso–whose voice and movement are supplied by cocreator Jake Austen–and his regular cohost, Miss Mia, aka Kim drummer Mia Park.

Mixed Live, a mix CD by popular British club DJ Carl Cox that has just been released on Moonshine Records, was recorded this past May at Crobar.

Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at postnobills@chicagoreader.com.