With his long black hair shaved off on the sides and an outfit reminiscent of the golden age of Mexican cinema, Juan, the lead singer of the Mexican alternative-rock band Cafe Tacuba, is an up-to-date Aztec B-Boy.
But even his unusual appearance only hints at the melting pot of styles that make up the group's sound. It's a vibrant music with influences ranging as wide as Sid Vicious and Sergio Mendez. The mix also includes elements of Led Zeppelin, spicy Tejano and Afro-Cuban rhythms, even unabashedly romantic, jazz-based boleros.
"We don't want to sound like a North American or European band," says the 25-year-old Juan, who doesn't use his last name. "The music that came to us from all over the world goes through our filter and then becomes something different. We want to find a sound that in any part of the world, you can say, 'This is Mexican music.' We have an extraordinary culture, so we take from that."
That is reflected dramatically in the varied approaches Juan takes to songs on the Mexico City-based group's recent debut album, "Cafe Tacuba." In "Pinche Juan" he snarls a litany of curses with both the rage of a disaffected Brixton punk and the self-mockery of Cheech and Chong. For the ballad, "Maria," he croons passionate love lyrics. But the song "Jaguar Lips" is the group's most vividly realized modernist homage to indigenous traditions. The title refers to an Aztec idiom for full-lipped female beauty, and the lyrics tell of a Mexican who leaves his rich, European-appearing girlfriend for her Indian servant.
The album has been hit in Mexico and did well enough on college and alternative radio in the U.S. that WEA Latina, Time Warner's Hispanic-oriented record company, is planning a big push for the follow-up album, which is due in spring.
A slot on the second stage at the "Lollapalooza '92" concerts at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre and a well-received showcase at the New Music Seminar in New York helped boost the band's visibility north of the border last summer.
Tacuba is banking that its Mestizo rock 'n' roll will hurdle any cultural and linguistic barriers. "The scene in Mexico City is very good now," Juan notes. "They are trying to find an identity in their music."
Tacuba's instrumentation is both witty and effective: straddling Mexican folkloric and dancehall techno approaches, with Quique Rangel knocking out full-bodied grooves on an electrified stand-up bass, his brother Joselo coaxing rippling flamenco chords and pull-out-the-stops raves from an electrified acoustic guitar, and Emmanuel Del Real handling keyboards, melodica and drum-machine programming.
"In the '60s," says Quique, "Mexican bands played American rock 'n' roll, translating the lyrics. In the '70s, people tried to compose their own songs, but in English. In the '80s, people began singing original Spanish lyrics with their own music. But the '90s is the first time people are searching for their own Mexican sound with original compositions and Mexican themes."