Viva la Difference

Americans of all ethnicities are taking an increasing interest in Latin American music, and chart-topping pop acts like Ricky Martin and Marc Anthony are just the tip of the iceberg: in Chicago, rock-en-español acts from Mexican stadium stars Mana to the inventive Colombian group Bloque have been making steady inroads; Brazilian artists Virginia Rodrigues, Tom Ze, and Caetano Veloso have played to packed houses; and thanks to the runaway success of Buena Vista Social Club, traditional Cuban music is enjoying its greatest visibility since the 50s.

You’d think this would bode well for the 11th annual Viva! Chicago Latin Music Festival, which takes place next weekend in Grant Park: by all indications it should be the most diverse and exciting edition yet. But with the exception of Malo, a veteran Los Angeles rock band featuring Carlos Santana’s brother Jorge, all 14 acts performing on the Petrillo Music Shell stage are from either Mexico or Puerto Rico. And while Puerto Rican salsa singers Brenda K. Starr and Tito Nieves have the talent to warrant their popularity, and legendary Mexican vocal trio Los Panchos and prolific balladeer Armando Manzanero hold some historical interest, overall the lineup’s depressingly bland. Nearly everything attendees will hear at the two-day event will be salsa, merengue, cumbia, regional Mexican music, or pop. Cumbia’s roots are Colombian, merengue’s are Dominican, and salsa’s are Cuban, but there are no offerings from those countries, or from Brazil, Peru, Venezuela, Panama, Belize, or Ecuador–all of which have distinct and vibrant musical traditions.

“Latin music encompasses a tremendous variety of music, so we try to bring in a mix, and that makes it more difficult to program than the other [city-sponsored] festivals,” says Enrique Muñoz, who’s been in charge of Viva! Chicago since its second year. But Carlos Flores, a Puerto Rican community activist who coordinated Columbia College’s Project Kalinda (which looks at links between African and Latin musical traditions) and was on the committee that programmed the first Viva! Chicago, thinks Muñoz isn’t trying hard enough. “It seems like they’re only focusing on the Latino population,” which in Cook County is about 85 percent Mexican and Puerto Rican, he says. In the first year, the festival was more diverse than it is now, featuring Ruben Blades from Panama and Tania Maria from Brazil. In fact, even the upcoming Latin music festival at the Old Town School of Folk Music, which has only four acts, is more diverse.

Flores–who’s outspokenly criticized Viva! Chicago before–says the committee he was on was convened under Eugene Sawyer, but never asked back under Daley, who came into office in the spring of ’89. Munoz, who previously worked as a sales rep and liaison to the Latino community for 7UP, told me he consults local Latino radio and TV stations in his programming decisions; his city bio says the selection process is designed to “best represent the diversity of Chicago” and is “based on Billboard Magazine, CD sales, radio-play (or air-time), name recognition, and cost-effectiveness.”

According to the 1990 U.S. Census, the only other significant Latino population in Cook County is Cuban, and earlier this summer, a fifth of the 25 best-selling titles at Tower Records on Clark Street were by Cuban artists–there’s your “diversity of Chicago” and your “CD sales.” Yet the festival has never presented a Cuban artist who hasn’t defected. (Celia Cruz and Albita are among the expats who’ve played.) Muñoz says this is in part because when Flores and his colleagues tried to book Cuban legends Orquesta Aragon, Chicago’s Cuban community rose up in protest.

“It’s very difficult for the city to bring in a performer from Cuba without being criticized for supporting a communist group,” says Muñoz. “We’re trying to avoid any conflicts. I would love to bring in Cuban groups but my hands are tied until we have an open relationship with Cuba.”

But Jim Law, executive director for the Mayor’s Office of Special Events, said there is no city policy regarding Cuban musicians. More to the point, just last year the city-sponsored jazz festival presented Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes and his group Irakere, and over the last 12 months the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs has brought in Carlos Varela, Ernan Lopez-Nussa, Adalberto Alvarez, and Familia Valera Miranda. Furthermore, artists like Los Van Van, Barbarito Torres, Sierra Maestra, Cubanismo!, Eliades Ochoa, Ibrahim Ferrer, and Ruben Gonzalez have all either performed in Chicago recently or will do so in the next few months at nightclubs and concert halls, and so far there hasn’t been a peep of protest from anyone.

If we’re talking popularity, the other glaring omission in Viva! Chicago’s lineup is rock en español. This hasn’t always been the case–Munoz presented groups like Maldita Vecindad, Caifanes, and Cafe Tacuba before the genre started attracting mainstream attention. But he says a “disturbance” after the Mexican group El Tri performed in 1995 gave him pause, and though he says he hasn’t ruled it out, he hasn’t booked any rock en español since. Monica Posada, program director of WRTE, the eclectic noncommercial radio station owned by the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, says El Tri was simply a “bad choice for a family-oriented festival,” noting that they have a notoriously rowdy following.

Munoz also cites the festival’s $100,000 talent budget as a limiting factor in general, but while he’s correct that some groups–like Mana, who can sell out the Rosemont Horizon–are out of his reach, there are plenty of fascinating rock bands with broad appeal that are not, including Bloque and Cafe Tacuba, Aterciopelados, Los Amigos Invisibles, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Bersuit, Los de Abajo, and El Gran Silencio. Many of these groups are in the U.S. right now as part of the Watcha tour, a new rock-en-español version of the popular Warped tour. On Thursday two of them, Control Machete and Illya Kuryaki, were to perform at Orbit, a restaurant and lounge in Logan Square, suggesting that they or other bands might have been willing to take a Viva! Chicago detour.

“It’s very disappointing because every year it gets worse,” says WRTE’s Posada. “Younger Hispanics listen to all kinds of music, so it’s sad that the festival keeps bringing in the same stuff year after year and almost all of it’s Mexican. I understand that they need to bring in popular groups to fill the place, but I don’t know why they can’t also bring in a few interesting groups.”


On a related note, some breaking news on the Cuban-music front: Most likely encouraged by the phenomenal ticket sales for Ibrahim Ferrer and Ruben Gonzalez at the Chicago Theatre in November, the venue’s management just confirmed a date for the whole Afro-Cuban All Stars lineup in April. And not to be outdone, Jam Productions will present “Club Tropicana: Spirit of Cuba”–an elaborate song-and-dance revue from the legendary Havana nightclub–at the theater the first weekend of October. Show times and on-sale dates were not yet available.

Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at