Photo Virginia Lee Hunter
Music is everywhere in Latin America. You find it in churches and love motels, empty train stations and crowded coffeehouses, at baptisms and weddings. Reality is experienced with excess. Tears are as bitter as bitter can be. Love is intoxicatingly sweet. Laughter is loud and hearty. Parties go on and on until the early hours of the morning, and there’s always plenty of dancing.
At the end of the millennium, the never-ending wave of immigrants from all over Latin America (and the ensuing creation of a new socioeconomic class: Latino yuppies) has brought Los Angeles as close as possible to being a Latino city. If you’re a recent arrival and learn to know your way around, you’ll never feel homesick.
The late ’90s are an exciting time for Latin music. Records have never been so widely available, and it’s become easier to find masterpieces that before were rabidly sought after by collectors. A Latin music record can be a tender love letter, a hot affair: L.A. is one of the best places on Earth to find a good date with Latin music.
There are four main genres of contemporary Latin music: salsa, pop, regional Mexican and roc en español. Each is a completely independent universe with its own rules and share of pleasures. For those who like what they hear, but still confuse cumbias with rancheras and tangos with merengues, here’s a rough guide:
Tito Puente has said it many times: "Salsa is what I eat my spaghetti with, but thanks to a little word that means nothing, we’ve all been able to make a living at it for the last few decades." What the timbalero is saying is that, in reality, salsa is not salsa — it’s something else. The bad habit of calling Afro-Caribbean music "salsa" started in 1932, when Ignacio Piñeiro and his Sexteto Nacional introduced a peppy new song called "Echale Salsita" ("Add Some Spice to It"). From then on, the dancing crowds began asking for more spice, more salsa, to shake their bodies to. Hence the term, which actually encompasses several Cuban dances, such as the guaracha, the son montuno, the mambo, the rumba and the guaguancó.
Salsa’s apex came in New York in the ’70s, from musicians who blended the original Cuban rhythms with big-band jazz and a touch of rhythm & blues. This was street music, volatile stuff, telling stories of criminals in the Bronx and ç openly misogynistic tales of doomed love. At the epicenter of the movement was a record label called Fania. Its three biggest stars were singer-songwriter Ruben Blades, trombonist-producer Willie Colón and the tragic figure of singer Héctor Lavoé, who died in the early ’90s. Together and separately, the three recorded what today is considered the canon of salsa, the very best albums of the genre.
In the mid-’80s, a new style known as salsa romántica was invented, seemingly heralding an end to salsa’s era of artistic ambition. The romántica creators had the charts in mind, and tried to bring the Afro-Cuban as close as possible to mainstream pop, buffing the gritty rhythms with synths and slick production values. It was a miserable time for salseros, but many musicians got rich in the process, and salsa became huge in Miami.
A renaissance began in the mid-’90s with intense new salsa coming again from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Colombia and the U.S. The rebirth was built on the heady creativity of New York salsa, but also reached into other styles, especially the traditional Cuban folk song known as son. When Ry Cooder went to Cuba and assembled a crew of veteran players for a recording project entitled The Buena Vista Social Club, he never thought that the resulting album would wind up selling a million copies worldwide, generating a hitherto-unheard-of craze for Cuban music.
Where To Go:
Until recently, salsa was an underground phenomenon. The best clubs didn’t last long, events of a violent nature often bringing a sudden end to the festivities. A favorite topic of conversation between salseros is to lament the disappearance of this or that club, where a lot of fun was had by all.
The situation changed with the arrival of two key names on the local scene: the Conga Room and Albert Torres. The first is the Miracle Mile club that made salsa trendy, catering to gringos in search of the exotic and, in the process, bringing an outstanding number of quality acts to town. The second is a professional dancer who, on his own and with limited commercial backing, turned himself into the hottest salsa concert promoter in town. Interestingly, he uses his own personal taste as a bailador when deciding which bands to present.
"I look at the rhythm of the music first," says Torres, who alternates between the Sportsman’s Lodge in Burbank, the Hollywood Park Casino, St. Mark’s in Venice and the Boathouse in Santa Monica for his live gigs. "There’s a lot of music out there that has killed the dancers’ desire to dance. When I hire somebody, I always think, ‘Is he gonna be able to keep the dancers on the dance floor all night?’"
For another authentic Cuban experience, try El Floridita, a Hollywood restaurant offering food and music from the island, with traditional salsa bands like Charanga Cubana. It’s become the place of choice for experienced dancers.
An annual event of particular importance to Angeleno salseros is the Salsa and Latin Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl, which serves more of a symbolic purpose than anything else — because of the cultish nature of salsa, you can still see its biggest names in small venues, so the vastness of the Bowl feels underwhelming compared to the intimacy of a club. For the more earthy side of tropical music, and some of its most popular names, check out the occasional concerts put together by the Orjuela brothers at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel. These shows usually draw thousands of people, presenting catchy material like the bouncy cumbias of Sonora Dinamita, and the grand boleros and guarachas of the veteran Sonora Santanera.
You can also find live salsa Tuesdays at St. Mark’s in Venice (with Johnny Polanco and his seasoned Conjunto Amistad), Saturdays at the Grand Avenue downtown (with Los Costeños), and, on weekends, at Hollywood’s La Isla del Mambo, where the food, a mixture of Cuban and Mayan influences, is complemented by a retro show that will transport you to the Havana of the ’50s.
What To Get:
Start with a solid Willie Colón or Héctor Lavoé album such as Comedia or La Voz, and grab Ruben Blades’ essential Siembra as a companion piece. If you’re looking for traditional son, the Buena Vista Social Club album is actually worth all the hype surrounding it. Grupo Niche’s Etnia is a great introduction to the simple joys of commercial salsa, and its opening track is a superb cumbia. This is Colombian salsa at its best, vilified by snotty critics and politically correct Cuba-lovers. Ignore them and dance away.
Mainstream Latin pop begins with a perfectly chiseled face. Its most popular practitioners could easily pass for models, and to most of their fans, their looks are as important as the music. Stylistically, these titans of the Latin charts draw inspiration from the school of "international singers" such as Charles Aznavour, Nana Mouskouri or Julio Iglesias. The latter is not Latin American, but his son Enrique Iglesias is responsible for stealing the throne of Latin pop from Luis Miguel. Although Miguel has known tremendous success with three albums resurrecting classic boleros, he has good reason to fear the young Iglesias: Live, the 24-year-old Enrique is simply mesmerizing.
Both Miguel and Iglesias, however, pale in comparison to Ricky Martin, former singer with teenybopper group Menudo, who has "crossover" written all over him. After conquering Latin America, Europe and Asia with "La Copa de la Vida," the song he performed at the closing ceremonies for the 1998 World Cup in front of billions of people, Martin went after the U.S. with a vengeance. His first English-language album already promises to be one of this summer’s biggest sellers.
Not as widely venerated as the pretty boys, but still enjoying long-lived success, are a few Latin singer-songwriters whose work is as vital as it is uncompromising: Cuba’s Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés, representing the nueva trova; Argentina’s Mercedes Sosa, who took folkloric music to a new level of political and sociological impact; and Spain’s Joan Manuel Serrat, a Catalonian singer who inspired them all.
Where To Go:
The Universal Amphitheater is the only place in town that consistently presents Latin pop with first-rate production values. "We are one of the most technically complete venues in town as far as the overall quality of the shows we present goes," says Georgia Carrera, Latin events coordinator for the Amphitheater. "In the past three years, the demand of the audience for quality Latin music has been overwhelming."
The more obscure names of Latin pop occasionally appear at diverse places like the Wiltern Theater or UCLA’s Royce Hall. Because of their promoters’ limited budgets, those shows are usually poorly publicized, and the fans learn about them through word of mouth.
What To Get:
For mainstream pop, a copy of Ricky Martin’s last Spanish-only album, Vuelve, is all you need. A superb example of the frothy digital production and crystalline sound that marks the genre, it’s actually an enjoyable and lovingly manufactured piece of aural candy. For the real thing, get one of the many greatest-hits collections by Mexico’s Agustín Lara. These are achingly romantic songs about unrequited love, failed romance and pain. You don’t need to speak Spanish to savor the lyrics — this guy’s smoky voice says it all. If you’re into poetry, Cuba’s Silvio Rodríguez is the guy for you. You’ll probably fall in love with the frightening beauty of his words and the disarming simplicity of his melodies. David Byrne has released a wonderful compilation of Silvio’s work on Byrne’s Luaka Bop label.
Music from the northern states of Mexico has become very popular among Latinos in the United States, in part because it’s rich in references to the travails of immigration and the rocky road toward the American Dream. Norteño’s love poems and social-commentary tales are set to a bouncy beat that brings to mind both polkas and waltzes. At first, all the tunes sound alike, but after a while, especially in a live setting, a mantra-like feeling grabs hold — you’ll find yourself pining for more. Add some antojitos, a couple of beers and good company, and you may start believing you were Mexican in a previous incarnation.
In the ’90s, banda music became the newest phenomenon, fusing the norteño style with the sound of country brass bands. Its groups play everything from rancheras to tropical dance music.
Where To Go:
If you’re looking for the quintessential mariachi experience, drop in at La Fonda on a night when Nati Cano’s Mariachi los Camperos is performing. His is one of the country’s most underrated ensembles, performing a dizzyingly varied repertoire with unparalleled subtlety. Another excellent group is José Hernandez’s Mariachi Sol de México, which ç works out regularly at Cielito Lindo restaurant in South El Monte.
The big-scale mariachi event of the year is Rodri Rodriguez’s Mariachi USA Festival at the Hollywood Bowl, where after five hours of nonstop performances by numerous ensembles you’re guaranteed to know the lyrics to "Volver, Volver" by heart.
For norteño and banda music, check the occasional outdoor festivals, such as the Fiesta Broadway, where several different groups perform, usually for free. The crucial norteño group Los Tigres del Norte visits Los Angeles on a regular basis, and its members don’t leave the stage until everyone’s song request has been honored.
Other groups worth seeing: the Mariachi Los Gavilanes at Mision Los Gavilanes in San Gabriel, Mariachi Tlaquepaque at El Parian in El Monte, and Montebello’s Mariachi Alma de Mexico in the restaurant of the same name. An outstanding all-female ensemble, Mariachi las Alondras, can be found playing in restaurants all over town.
What To Get:
If you want a taste of the Golden Age of Mexican ranchera, invest in best-of compilations by greats José Alfredo Jiménez (the best composer in the genre), Lola Beltrán (its greatest female voice) and Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán (the world’s most spectacular mariachis). If the devastating passion of these sounds gets you hooked, try one of Juan Gabriel’s mariachi albums. Essentially a pop idol, he also composes fine rancheras.
For the modern norteño sound, Los Tigres del Norte’s Jefe de Jefes is a must. Slickly produced and chock-full of corridos (the epic ballads that originally told stories of the Mexican-American War), this double-CD is way over-the-top with accordions and rich vocal harmonies.
ROC EN ESPAÑOL
Most of it’s awful. The exceptions are heavenly and can rival the efforts of quality English-language artists such as Björk, Tricky or Radiohead.
The roc en español movement got its start in Mexico and Argentina during the ’60s, with a bunch of hippies singing protest songs heavily inspired by Bob Dylan. In the ’80s, the genre exploded, with bands such as Soda Stereo and Caifanes taking their sonic cues from England’s new wave. Many groups started out with terrible records, but after a lot of trial and error, and with the blind support of Latino rock fans, something clicked, and now the masterpieces are arriving on a regular basis.
Latin rock is about eclecticism, the scattered dreams of musicians who grew up listening to their parents’ collection of boleros and Afro-Cuban records while digging gringo music of all kinds, from punk and hip-hop to alternative and bubblegum pop. Of great importance to the genre has been the contribution of two idiosyncratic producers, Gustavo Santaolalla and Andres Levin. Their work created the aural identity that defined the new generation of Latin rock: at once warm and cold, technologically adventurous while keeping a foot firmly planted in nostalgia.
The last five years saw the birth of a new subgenre that belongs in the roc en español category, but has also the freshness of an independent movement: rap en español, which began as a gimmick but quickly found its own identity. Incorporating hip-hop aesthetics into a fragmented Latin American reality, acts like Molotov, Control Machete, El Gran Silencio and Los Tetas have undergone explosive creative growth in the last two or three years.
Where To Go:
Roc en español fans are feverishly devoted, and will give new names a try just because they’re part of the family. And the shows are all over the place: from the Greek Theater, which occasionally brings together three or four of the biggest acts for a festival, to the House of Blues and the Roxy, which have recently opened their doors to Latin rock. Monthly gigs are organized by magazines La Banda Elástica at the Key Club and Retila at Jacks Sugar Shack in Hollywood.
"There are always new fans discovering this music," says Frank Barbano, publisher of Retila. "And they bring their own perspective and taste to the movement. The scene has grown tremendously in the last couple of years, but it won’t get to a national level until we get support from the radio stations."
What To Get:
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Café Tacuba’s brand-new Yo Soy . . . Revés (Warner Bros.) is arguably the best record the genre has to offer. A sort of White Album for the roc en español movement, this double set includes one disc of tender, mostly acoustic songs, another one of harsher, rawer instrumentals, and a guest spot by the Kronos Quartet.
For a darker aesthetic, listen to Los Fabulosos Cadillacs’ Grammy winner Fabulosos Calavera, where death is seen as a lonely, sarcastic buffoon surfing under the moonlit sky. Fabulosos combine hardcore with jazz, salsa with rock, tango with soundtrack music.
There’s also Caribe Atómico, the fourth album by Colombia’s Aterciopelados, a deliciously fresh combination of trip-hop influences and earthy Latin American folklore. Aterciopelados has a skillful composer in bassist Héctor Buitrago and a rock & roll priestess in nerdy singer Andrea Echeverri.
For the best in rap en español, get the debut album by El Gran Silencio, where traditional hip-hop is distilled through a ranchera perspective, and drum loops are enriched by the fiery touches of a full-time accordionist.