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Singing Their Own Fates

With their nonconformist music, female Mexican artists have become a pop force to reckon with.

April 21, 2002|AGUSTIN GURZA

On the list of the top five best-selling Latin artists last year in the United States, there's only one woman. She's from Mexico, and she's No. 1.

Paulina Rubio, a sexy pop singer with blond hair and fluffy material, outsold salsa heartthrob Marc Anthony, mariachi monarch Vicente Fernandez and L.A. banda bad boy Lupillo Rivera, according to year-end sales reports from SoundScan.

Rubio, however, represents only the most visible--and critics would say, most disposable--faction of female performers who have emerged as a significant force in Mexico in the past decade or two. Indeed, market-savvy artists such as Rubio and Thalia, another high-gloss commercial creation, tend to steal the spotlight from a swelling movement of lesser-known but more challenging artists who haven't drawn mass-media attention.

Chances are you won't see Mexico's most rewarding female artists on Spanish-language television or hear them on commercial radio. They don't have major-label contracts and only rarely travel here on tour. But the number of independent female performers making original and nonconformist music in Mexico is approaching critical mass, according to fans, promoters and independent labels that have given many of these alternative artists a chance.

"Women are defining alternative Mexican music today, much the same way male rock groups like Cafe Tacuba did in the 1980s," says Betto Arcos, host of "Global Village," a world-music show on Los Angeles radio station KPFK-FM (90.7). "Their music is different, it's good, and it needs to be heard."

Mexico City-based Opcion Sonica, an independent label founded 15 years ago, has capitalized on the trend with a series of three compilation albums called "Mexican Divas." The albums focused attention on Mexico's eclectic roster of female performers working in styles from medieval chants to electronica, They include top names such as Ely Guerra and Lila Downs, who got her start on the label. Downs and Guerra, along with Julieta Venegas, are among the handful of women who have recently broken away from the alternative pack to win higher profiles and international followings.

But the diva collections also contain works from a group of talented women still laboring in relative anonymity south of the border. They range from the outlandish performance art of Astrid Hadad to the cosmopolitan jazz vocals of pianist Iraida Noriega to the hilarious, irreverent cabaret parodies of Liliana Felipe. Southern California audiences will soon have a chance to see some of these performers in person for the first time. From Wednesday through Oct. 24, several artists on the compilations will appear in a series of monthly concerts titled Mexican Divas Night Live at L.A.'s Mayan nightclub.

Mexico has so many female artists nowadays that the diva collections feature as many as 14 tracks without repeating an artist, and they keep introducing new talent with every volume. The albums sparked collaborations by artists who had previously worked on their own. They include Noriega and singer-songwriter Magos Herrera, who during their L.A. appearance plan to perform a rare type of indigenous song from Michoacan called pirecua, which was originally created for female duet and often combines Spanish and native Indian tongues.

For the series, "the hope is to try to demystify what Mexican singers are about," says Arcos, who is helping publicize the events. "They don't just sing boleros and rancheras. They don't just sing dance music. We also have women who use their music to make a statement. In Mexico, women are finally being allowed to do their own thing rather than being just a token in a man's band."

It may seem odd, at this late feminist stage, that Mexican women are still obliged to grapple with stereotypes about their place in society and the music business. But many people still cling to notions about the subservient female and the dominant male in Mexican culture.

Even prominent Mexican American writer Richard Rodriguez, in an interview on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air" this month, helped reaffirm the myth of Mexican women as passive and long-suffering martyrs. In Mexico, Rodriguez generalized, men are sentimental about mothers but cruel toward women, and "casual about their betrayals of the wife." The Mexican male's main mission, he continued, is to have sons "who are as dreadful" as their fathers.

Machismo may be alive and well in Mexico, but you'd have to look high and low to find a modern Mexican woman who would sit still for it. If you missed that point, you haven't been listening to the voice of Mexico's female singers.

In Felipe's wickedly satirical "Mala" (Bad), today's spurned and mistreated woman comes across as outright scary, even in translation.

Bad as censorship, as a hairless garbage mouse/ Bad as misery or a thief in the house/ Bad as the signature of Santa Anna / Bad as taking a stick to your nana/ Bad as strychnine, bad as cold soup/ Bad as a spider, bad and blood-thirsty/ Bad as order and decency.

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