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Rock en Espan~ol for the New Century

Artists mix older genres and contemporary technology for a sound that's fresh, not forced.

October 25, 1998|Ernesto Lechner | Ernesto Lechner is a regular contributor to Calendar

Want to be a rock en espan~ol star?

Don't pick up an electric guitar yet. First, go to your parents' house and raid their old record collection.

That's the path being taken by a new generation of musicians that is combining old genres such as bossa nova, boleros and Latin lounge music with turn-of-the-new-century electronics.


* On its latest album, "Caribe Atomico," Colombia's Aterciopelados has found a new creative vein by mixing old-fashioned Latin folklore with an aural aesthetic that is closer to British trip-hop than anything ever recorded in Spanish.

* Venezuela's Los Amigos Invisibles is enticing audiences around the world with its bizarre mixture of disco and '70s funk plus a couple of bossa nova instrumentals thrown in for variety.

* Manu Chao, the Spanish former lead singer of the punkish group Mano Negra, has just released his best record ever, "Clandestino," a conglomeration of disparate sounds recorded while traveling in South America, Europe and Africa.

These three albums happen to be the best rock en espan~ol releases so far in a year when the genre has reached new levels of quality.

Coincidence, or a sign of the times?

Interestingly, the meshing of musical genres doesn't result in convoluted, forced hybrids. What's remarkable about these records is that they have somehow incorporated the old sounds into a fresh musical vocabulary.

Take Chao's record, the closest thing to an album for the 21st century as you are likely to hear this year. On "Clandestino" (on Ark 21 Records), Chao sings in English, French and Spanish and throws in heavy sociopolitical messages on top of the bewildering rhythms and styles he has chosen for each track.

In fact, the integration of world sounds into his musical personality has been so organic that the singer declines to discuss specific genres and influences.

"People ask me about that all the time, and I really don't know what to say," he says when asked about the beat on "Mango Bongo," the slice of bittersweet pop that is the first single from the album.

"The thing is, this album was recorded in so many different places," he adds. "I would do the backing tracks for a song in Rio de Janeiro, and then add stuff to it in Paris or Dakar [in Senegal]. There are so many different layers of beats and collaborators that I myself can't really tell which sound is which anymore."

Hector Buitrago, bassist and co-leader of Aterciopelados, is also reluctant to define his band's sound, and the dramatic change it underwent from the first couple of albums to the kaleidoscopic variety of "Caribe Atomico."

While "El Dorado," the band's second and breakthrough release, seems to have been recorded by people who grew up listening to the Clash and the Sex Pistols, the new record sounds like a cross between Antonio Carlos Jobim and Portishead.

"Our principal influence is traditional, rootsy Latin music," says Buitrago, explaining the idea behind "Man~ana," an infectious new song whose chorus is drenched in bossa nova euphoria.

"All those lounge music records from the past were influenced by that. It was always 'Ray Conniff Goes Latin' or something. They did rancheras, boleros and bossa novas, but with an orchestra."

For Los Amigos Invisibles, the need to form a band stemmed directly from their earlier listening experiences.

"My parents would listen to tango, bolero, mambo, cha cha cha and salsa," explains Julio Briceno, the group's singer. "My older brother would play anything from progressive rock to disco, and then I had an uncle who was a funk fanatic. So you grow up listening to all this stuff, and it stays within you."

But besides betraying the listening taste of the artists' parents, these albums reflect a new, smaller world, where even the most exotic locales have become accessible for the wandering musician with a portable studio.

"I recorded 'Clandestino' in two or three years, while traveling around the world," Chao says. "My recording studio fits in a suitcase, and I carry it with me everywhere I go."

There's a liberating quality in this emancipation from established musical niches.

"Traditional Latin music is not the only genre we are influenced by," says Aterciopelados' Buitrago. "We are open to everything. It can be trip-hop, electronica, lounge music, whatever. As long as it moves us, it's bound to appear in our records."

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