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Looking for Originality? Copy These Ideas

May 07, 2000|ERNESTO LECHNER | Ernesto Lechner is a regular contributor to Calendar

Imagine you're a young Latin musician with a weakness for pop and a desire to be original.

What if you don't feel comfortable with the frigid, homogenized sound practiced by such heavyweights as Luis Miguel, Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias? What if you want to make music that functions within the pop genre but also breaks free from its parameters?

Your chances for success might be greater if you can draw some inspiration from those artists who throw caution to the wind and decide to defy conventions. Those adventuresome fools are sometimes called visionaries.

Three wildly different Latin artists have released albums that demonstrate how to find an alternative road when you want your pop to stand out from the competition.

The records dispense some key pieces of advice:

1. Listen to tons of electronica records.

Fans of the Spanish pop-rock group Mecano are in for a shock when they listen to the new album by its former singer, Ana Torroja. "Pasajes de un Suen~o" (on BMG Latin) is worlds away from the defunct group's peppy, easy-on-the-ears hits. Torroja, who divides her time between London, New York and Madrid, recruited Andres Levin and Arto Lindsay, two highly idiosyncratic producers, to help her design a new sound inspired by electronica.

"What's happened here is that people never knew the kind of music that I really like," says Torroja, who is planning a world tour that will reach Los Angeles in the fall. "There was a very specific balance of personalities in Mecano, and because that seemed to work so well, I never got around to questioning it. At times I tried to offer more creative input, but it never really worked out."

Songs such as the sweet-sounding single "Ya No Te Quiero" bear the touch of Levin, with a style that combines warmth and coolness in sophisticated textures marked by a variety of electronic effects. Also responsible for high-caliber efforts by Aterciopelados, El Gran Silencio and Amigos Invisibles, the Venezuela-born producer is up there with Argentina's Gustavo Santaolalla as a key architect of the rock en espan~ol movement. Here, he has proven that his distinctive style is ideal for pop.

Torroja herself thinks of her music as belonging to that genre.

"If you want to pin me down, you should say I'm a pop artist," she says. "I'm not a rocker, and I'm not a balladeer. I make pop music at a time when record companies are looking more and more like any big corporation. They don't understand music; they just make records in order to make more money."

The album's closing track, the simple, bittersweet "Una Cancion de Amor," bears echoes of both Elton John and Tori Amos. The 12 songs in "Pasajes de un Suen~o" might be the best Latin pop we'll hear this year.

2. Borrow freely from as many genres as you can.

Granted, Enrique Bunbury's new album is as much rock en espan~ol as it is pop. And the Spaniard is known as the former lead singer with not-so-subtle hard-rock outfit Heroes del Silencio. But the 12 songs in "Pequen~o" (EMI Latin) are marked by a playful, gentle sensibility reminiscent of the confessional pop of Ricardo Arjona and Joan Manuel Serrat.

Rather than follow the Latin music trend of mixing highly contrasting genres (say, disco with samba, or reggae with salsa) just to see what happens, Bunbury has allowed his remarkable imagination to take flight, borrowing bits and pieces from myriad song formats. The beginning of "El Extranjero" could easily be the Nino Rota theme for a Fellini movie; the power-pop ballad "El Viento a Favor" sounds like a combo of Silvio Rodriguez and U2. Crucially, Bunbury has achieved this carnival of styles without a trace of self-consciousness.

3. Write lyrics about more than just broken hearts.

In 1993, Argentine Fito Paez released "El Amor Despues del Amor," one of the most satisfying Latin pop records of the '90s. Filled with immensely hummable songs that made Paez seem a distant Latin American cousin of Paul McCartney, it was the singer's most commercially successful album to date.

Now Paez has released a collection with a harder edge. "Abre" (WEA Latina) was produced by veteran Phil Ramone (Billy Joel, Paul Simon et al), and its sounds will most likely be old news to those who have followed Paez's career.

The lyrics, however, are a different story. Paez has always showcased a knack for impressionism, filling his songs with vivid images of life in a Third World metropolis. This time, he has outdone himself with a veritable torrent of metaphors and poetic musings that reveal the soul of a restless poet.

In "Al Lado del Camino," Paez recites a list of the events, people and influences that made him what he is today. "The books, the songs and the pianos/The movies, the betrayals, the enigmas/My father, the beer, the pills, the mysteries, the cheap whisky/The paintings, love, the stages/The hunger, the cold, crime, money and my 10 aunts." He spits the words out with the fury of a machine gun.

The album's centerpiece is the 12-minute epic "La Casa Desaparecida" (The Disappeared House, a reference to "the disappeared ones," those taken away during dictatorships), a thorough description of the horrors and wonders of his country that also applies to the realities of any post-dictatorship Latin American nation.

"I've been traveling a lot lately, and everywhere I go, that song gets a very strong reaction from the public," Paez says. "I'm getting three-minute-long standing ovations after I perform it live. The kind of applause you see at an opera house, not within the setting of a pop concert."

Although the music itself is no match for the potent lyrics, Paez should be lauded for crafting a record that goes beyond cliches and offers a glimpse into the real world. It's something good pop music is famous for.

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