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Great Rock--or a Refund

April 01, 2001|ERNESTO LECHNER | Ernesto Lechner is a regular contributor to Calendar

During last year's Revolucion Latin rock tour, publicist Josh Norek flew from his New York base to Los Angeles to handle the press for singer Julieta Venegas' "Bueninvento" album.

Instead of schmoozing backstage with the other insiders at the tour's Universal Amphitheatre date, Norek was inside the hall. Nothing would make him miss Jumbo, one of his favorite Mexican bands.

Norek doesn't fit the stereotype of the rock en espanol fan. The part-time law student, occasional music critic and professional publicist comes from Albany, N.Y., hardly a hotbed of Latin music. His family heritage is Polish, Russian, Algerian and French, and he wasn't even fluent in Spanish until he was 18.

But you're unlikely to find anyone more hopelessly in love with rock en espanol.

So in love with rock en espanol is Norek, so convinced is he of its potential to captivate mainstream America, that he's decided to give consumers an offer they can't refuse.

Buy his compilation album, "Escena Alterlatina: The Future Sound in Espanol," which he produced for Miles Copeland's Ark 21 label, and if you don't like what you hear, you can have your money back.

Norek wants to get the album into the hands of as many people as possible. At recent "Alterlatina'-related shows held in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, he gave away a disc to every ticket buyer.

Is Norek the visionary prophet of a movement that is finally ready for prime time, or are his marketing maneuvers the sign of a genre that's desperate for attention?

"I really believe that for an emerging genre such as Latin alternative, you have to go out on a limb and stand behind your product," Norek says. "Otherwise, you won't reach a new audience.

"As for the money-back guarantees, I feel there is very little risk. When I was in college back in 1996, I did a similar promotion for a band from Argentina called Santos Inocentes. From my dorm room we sold about a thousand copies of a group that had literally zero radio play in this country at that time. And we didn't have a single return from an unsatisfied customer."

Norek, 26, was exposed to Latin rock at age 19, when he went to Argentina with the intention of studying. He got a job with Warner Music Argentina instead and quickly became immersed in the rock scene.

"The music that I was hearing, like Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and La Portuaria, was far more exciting and innovative than anything that was playing in English back home," he remembers. "I became a convertido and really didn't want to work with any other musical genre."

Norek's marketing strategy for "Alterlatina" is already paying off. It debuted at No.3 on the Latin alternative chart in the College Music Journal, a publication that covers the independent music world, while the Borders bookstore chain is placing the record in listening booths at stores all over the country.

"I'm very excited by the fact that someone in Iowa can actually have real access to the record," says Norek, who is also promoting the collection to English-and Spanish-language radio stations.

A fun, eclectic and uneven record, "Alterlatina" focuses on obscure acts such as Orixa, Sonios and Hechos Contra el Decoro, some of whom might be unfamiliar even to genre connoisseurs. Also included is Venegas, whose anthemic "Me Van a Matar" is reason enough to get the record. There's also "Caliente," a terrific party song by Bay Area tropical combo Los Mocosos.

Except for Venegas, though, the anthology fails to include the most visionary names in the field-Cafe Tacuba, Fabulosos Cadillacs, Aterciopelados, El Gran Silencio, Orishas, Los Amigos Invisibles.

'It wouldn't make sense to include Cafe Tacuba," says Ark 21's Copeland, the veteran executive who oversaw the career of the Police, among others. "We're not releasing an album based on what happened already. We're releasing an album that shows you what the future could be like."

If that's so, the future sounds a lot like Korn and Rage Against the Machine. The album underscores rock en espanol's tendency to mimic the styles that are currently capturing the attention of British and American bands.

The saving grace (both for this compilation and the genre) is those artists who incorporate their cultural identity into the rock medium. Venegas' track is a rock en espanol gem because it delivers a message that could only have been conceived in Latin America (its bitter lyrics of poisonous love could well be the theme of a Mexican soap opera) within the context of a typical, guitar-based pop-rock tune.

'Alterlatina's" message is quite clear. Like Latin America itself, Latin rock is a world of extremes.

When the music is bad, it's really bad. But when it's good, it surpasses in vision and quality most of the rock material recorded in England and the U.S. these days, transcending its boundaries of culture and language.

Norek has already been commissioned a second "Alterlatina" compilation. And his love for the genre continues to flourish.

'I don't want to come across as pompous," he says. "But I genuinely believe that artists like Enrique Iglesias and Jennifer Lopez are of no real cultural significance. Acts like Julieta Venegas or Bloque might sell 1% of the records that Jennifer or Enrique do, but they are creating the most compelling music in any language today."

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