A New Kind of Latin Alternative Music Is Breaking Down Old Barriers in L.A. and Beyond
Qvolé Collective's Jorge Avila
On a chilly Wednesday night in early March, a line of too-cool 20-somethings stretches along the outside wall of Echo Park's Club Bahia, a Latin dance hall turned Live Nation venue that still hosts cumbia and bachata nights on weekends.
A woman with an iPad stands at the front of the line, checking names against a list of RSVPs. Inside, free red aluminum cans of Budweiser, the evening's sponsor, crowd every available surface.
Boiler Room, the popular London-based, live-streaming party promoter, is hosting tonight's event. Their camera crews dive through the growing crowd to capture close-up footage of Latin-loving British producer Quantic (who spins old-school cumbia 45s); Afro-Cuban house duo Chico Mann and Captain Planet; and Camilo Lara, the Mexico City DJ who performs as Mexican Institute of Sound. Ceci Bastida, the L.A.-based, Tijuana-bred ska-turned–indie rock singer, plays MC for the night, taking to the mic between sets to hype the crowd in both Spanish and English.
At about midnight the beats stop, and L.A. sextet Buyepongo drag their clutter of live instruments onto the stage.
"C'mon, L.A.," singer Edgar Modesto says before Buyepongo launch into a frenetic set of their signature musical mezcla, a sound that's equally influenced by Wu-Tang, funk and the pulses of West Africa and Central America. "The whole world is watching."
As drunk white couples dance crotch to crotch and millennial Latinos spin around to Buyepongo's infectious beats, the heavily mixed crowd confirms what many in L.A.'s indie music scene already know: The broad-based genre once marketed as "Latin alternative" isn't just for Latinos anymore.
Aided by a growing infrastructure of open-minded venues, community radio stations and bootstrap booking and management companies, L.A.'s millennial Latinos are evaporating the old commercial structures that kept Spanish-speaking musicians in a segregated market. Instead, they're presenting everything from garage-rock and hip-hop to Afro-cumbia and EDM as parts of a next-generation indie scene, one that embraces sonic and cultural diversity as a given.
"We want to represent all of L.A. and build those bridges because flavor is flavor, you know?" Compton-raised Modesto says before Buyepongo's Boiler Room performance. "That's why it's not [just] music to us. It's art, and it's art that reflects change. ... You can't avoid it, no matter how many policies you plant or who the president is. We're a new breed of people, and we're not going anywhere."
The far-reaching genre of Latin alternative (and before that, Latin rock and rock en español) has long had a solid underground following in L.A., a city that over the last three decades has seen Hispanics grow from one-quarter to nearly half of the population.
By the '90s, the influence of Latin America's growing rock en español scene inspired the formation of local Chicano bands such as Quetzal and Ozomatli. Radio stations like the recently shuttered Super Estrella began catering to fans of proven, radio-friendly Latin rock. And major acts from Mexico and South America, including Café Tacvba, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and Maldita Vecindad, were playing sold-out concerts in L.A.
Still, America's highly commercialized and stratified music industry didn't have much use for the growing Latin-rock movement. So independent promoters and radio DJs like Mark Torres, a second-generation Mexican-American, began creating their own outlets for the music.
"It was all for those Latin American, East L.A., Chicano and Spanish rock groups initially," says Torres, explaining why he started the country's longest-running weekly Latin-rock radio show, KPFK's Travel Tips for Aztlan, in 1995. "My mission statement was to provide space so that these bands could have a platform to present their artistic creations."
The scene wasn't as unified as it is today, Torres says. The community was self-fragmented into specific genres and there was a cultural (and linguistic) divide between the musicians born in Latin America and those born in the United States.
"Now it's like we're all in this together," says Torres' co-host, Mariluz Gonzalez. "We're just different flavors of the same big, huge stew. But it took time for that to happen."
Sky Daniels of KCSN 88.5 FM
By the mid-2000s, labels such as North Hollywood's Nacional Records sprang up to help artists from Latin America get the U.S. publicity and distribution they sorely needed, and another weekly radio show, The Latin Alternative, began syndicating an hour of crossover-ready hits to more than a dozen independent stations around the country.
In 2013, Josh Norek, who co-hosts The Latin Alternative out of Albany, New York, with journalist and author Ernesto Lechner, collaborated with Cal State Northridge's KCSN 88.5 to expand the hourlong show into the country's only 24-hour radio station exclusively dedicated to Latin alternative music. "One hour a week does not make a movement," KCSN program director Sky Daniels says. "We knew it needed to be a more full-service, 24/7 platform so it can build an audience that knows it's there."
For the last five or six years, many of L.A.'s young, multicultural Latinos have been breaking down industry barriers between Hispanic and Anglo artists. Pomona native Rene Contreras' promotion company, Viva Presents, was one of the first to start booking Latin bands from Chile, Argentina and Costa Rica on the same bills as such American bands as Crystal Antlers and The Growlers. His annual Viva Pomona! festival has become a daylong expression of this mash-it-up-and-see-what-happens approach.
"When I started booking shows, having a garage band play with a Spanish band was unheard of," Contreras says. "I kind of had to force these bands from different communities or cultures of people to come together, and of course they discovered that they understand each other.
"The Latin music industry had its moments, but they didn't evolve. They stayed in one spot and stayed content. We're taking it elsewhere."
Jorge Avila started his booking and artist management firm, Qvolé Collective, in 2011 to help young Latino artists he wasn't hearing on the radio. His first two acts were a then-unknown Chicano Batman and Long Beach's Wild Pack of Canaries, a psych-rock band fronted by now–solo artist Rudy De Anda. Current Qvolé clients include Rialto-based jazz/psych-rock trio Brainstory, San Fernando Valley rockabilly act Cutty Flam and Buyepongo, all of whom Avila says can reach wider audiences by catering to the different influences they draw from.
"A lot of it is carving out different spaces for these Latin artists. Buyepongo's roots are in hip-hop, so they can do an interview in Wax Poetics, and it makes sense," he says.
The arrival of venues such as the Hi Hat and Resident, as alternatives to the crowded Echo and Troubadour scenes, also has been crucial, Avila says. "Even just a year ago, we didn't really have an L.A. venue where you can have shows and grow and cultivate an audience outside of La Cita. It's been really instrumental for raising visibility of artists we're working with and bringing in other groups from other places."
That visibility got even higher earlier this month when Coachella added six more Latin bands to its lineup, including local first-timers Quitapenas and Thee Commons. Together with such previously announced acts as soulful rockers Chicano Batman and Bronx DJs The Martinez Brothers, they make this the greatest number of Latin artists to perform at Coachella in the same year.
Following the lead of Viva Presents' Contreras, the festival seems to be avoiding mere tokenism. It also has added several non-Latin Viva Pomona! regulars, including Shannon & the Clams, Surf Curse and Slow Hollows, making the Coachella lineup better represent the mixed listening habits of today's younger audiences.
"It's like we had two glasses of water and they were the same size and we just got a bigger glass and dumped both glasses of water in there," Contreras says of the way traditional barriers between Latin and Anglo alternative music continue to break down. "All the molecules are in one glass of water, and that's the revolution."
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