The cover piece for the week of January 31 (“Rockeros on the Rise” by Sergio Barreto), although I would hope well-intentioned, contains several mistakes that do not quite capture the complexity of the problem at stake when it comes to what’s being referred to as “arena ready Latin rock stars.”
Yes, there are weekly gigs at La Justicia. The particulars of what a rock show in that venue is like are kind of accurate. I don’t know if La Justicia was opened in 1995. What I do know is that “the first area concert by pop-rockers Mana” was not in 1997 as reported, but in 1994 at another venue in the Little Village area (Apollo’s 2000) with a sold-out crowd of over 2,500 people. Barreto also writes that La Justicia’s owner, Julio Martinez, “saw Jaguares fill the Aragon twice. In just a couple of years, he says, those bands had achieved the sort of popularity it took well-known traditional Mexican singers decades to build here.” Jaguares actually had been playing in Chicago since 1991 in their first incarnation as Caifanes at the Viva Chicago Music Festival in Grant Park (to this date they still use the same font that they used for Caifanes). After that, they headlined a show at Metro a decade ago alongside Maldita Vecindad with hundreds of people standing outside without a ticket. In 1994 they were booked to play at the Park West and then the show was moved to the now defunct Oak Theatre, months later they headlined the Aragon Ballroom, and from then on they have played in Chicago about every six months, either at that venue or at the House of Blues (their fee for playing at the Aragon Ballroom last year was about $200,000). Not exactly a success coming out of nowhere especially considering that these guys have been around since 1984.
Barreto mentions that there are “weekly shows on area Spanish-language radio stations.” He fails to document that there are also weekly shows on college radio stations, such as WLUW’s four-hour slot that even includes an hour of English-spoken commentary on all the new music emerging from Spain and Latin America and is frequently featured on the radio recommendations of papers such as the Sun-Times. Another key factor in Latino kids listening to Latin alternative music is Radio Arte in Pilsen, where one can listen to what might be some of the best programming in Chicago, with a diversity that goes from “electro” outfits like Peaches or Chicks on Speed to the latest work of people like Gustavo Cerati, Babasonicos, Ely Guerra, or Cafe Tacuba.
Barreto then states, “Most of the musicians were born and raised in America.” I’m sorry for being politically incorrect, but America is a continent, not a country. Guess what? Brazil is part of America, and so is Canada. This is as stupid as declaring the UK as Europe and disregarding every other neighboring country. This mentality is unfortunately carried on by the comments of people like Omar Castro that lead Barreto to write, “In this scene, ‘north-siders’ is a synonym for whites, or ‘Anglos.'” Has Castro ever been to Round Lake Beach, or Waukegan, or Mundelein, or Rogers Park, or Lakeview? There is a shitload of Mexicans all over Ashland and Western Avenue too. This only hints at the problem going on with this “scene.” Finally, the crew behind El Guapo state to Barreto that Nash Kato approached them “at the local Latin Grammy Awards party.” So fucking what? He was approaching everybody. Oh yeah, and Opcion Sonica is not based in the U.S., it’s a Mexico City label with distribution deals in the States.
The main problem is that there is no such thing as a scene, but these people want the benefits of being called a scene. Unfortunately, due to the complexity of their culture clash, a great majority of these musicians are bent on copying other acts Anglo or non-Anglo due to the lack of musical culture that they possess. Do they know who Fela Kuti, Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, Serge Gainsbourg, Miles Davis, Kraftwerk, the Fall, Caetano Veloso, Neu!, T. Rex, etc., are (just to name a bunch of mainstream acts that are kind of important if you are going into music)? Bands like Vendima suck big time. Did you listen to their record? They might want people to think they are the big shit, but if they stumble upon someone who knows about music then they are at a loss for words. Bands like Planeta de Crystal have been able to fool people like Achy Obejas, telling her that they are big in Spain and Argentina. Sure, it’s easy to just print some bullshit and not do the research. I think the only person taking care of not writing someone else’s delusion of grandeur in the Latin Alternative marketing world is Peter Margasak. At least he asks around and he has the musical culture required to identify some of the stuff going on. What does he think of the local bands “ready to fill arenas”?
Sure, the climate for what could be a really exciting scene is all there. Chicago is a very important city for its cultural musical heritage, and the native music from countries like Mexico or Argentina or Brazil is very rich and complex. The turmoil and alienation that is required to do good art are all in the expatriate sectors. Bands like Mexico City’s Cafe Tacuba are doing top-notch work (now recording with the Automator), and the music coming out of these countries is finding an Anglo audience through the sound tracks of breakthrough films such as Y tu mama tambien and Amores perros. So how come the work of local bands sucks so bad (although they might want to play victims and blame it all on racism and Anglo indifference)? Simply because they need to get over their trauma and get educated and absorb as much art and culture as possible. Most of the best rock bands ever have come out of art school. There are hundreds if not thousands of bands in a country like Mexico, and most of them suck. The local bands here in Chicago have seen the success of people like Jaguares (horribly redundant), etc., in their sold-out shows at the Aragon Ballroom and House of Blues and Club PM and want to be a part of that. But doing good work is not easy and it requires a frame of mind that unfortunately might be lacking in most local Latin rock bands. I’m pretty sure there will be a time when someone emerges out of Chicago with work as good as Babasonicos, Trineo, Los Fancy Free, Los 3, Los Bunkers, or Cecilia Ann. The city surely has the material to inspire anyone, no matter what country or ethnic background they are coming from.
And yes, I was born and raised in Mexico City and I go to school here in Chicago and I spend a lot of time at the music venues around the city. All over the city. And I apologize for my fellow countrymen.
Sergio Barreto responds:
Thanks for the correction regarding Opcion Sonica, and for the additional info. It turns out, however, that Mana’s first arena show was in 1993.