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POP MUSIC

Rock without borders

Cafe Tacuba's joyous experiments range from polka to ska. Now the band is trying live drums and electric guitars. How ... traditional.

May 11, 2003|Josh Kun | Special to The Times

When the members of Mexico City's Cafe Tacuba took the stage at the recent Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, the band couldn't have asked for a better setting. The desert sun was on its way down behind the mountains, and a cool breeze was creeping through the palm trees. As they picked up their electric guitars and settled in behind their keyboard stands, the sprawling expanse of polo field in front of them teemed with thousands of festival-goers.

Cafe Tacuba was one of two Mexican acts to make the Coachella bill (Kinky, from Monterrey, played the day before) alongside marquee faves like the White Stripes, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the Beastie Boys, and they brought the festival's sizable Latino contingent front and center. The foursome blazed through some of their early hits (the rockero anthem "Chica Banda," the angular disco of "El Baile y El Salon"), but the highlight was the debut of "Que Pasara," a thundering, muscular whine from the band's highly anticipated new album, "Cuatro Caminos" (due July 1).

Produced by Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips), Andrew Weiss (Ween) and the band's longtime producer, Gustavo Santaolalla, it is the band's first full-length album of original material in more than three years. "I'm gonna speak in Spanish because there are so many of my paisanos here," the band's charming and scrappy lead singer, Ruben Albarran, told the crowd in Spanish with a giddy smile. "But if you see anyone around you who speaks Anglo-Saxon, please translate for us."

For this slice of the crowd -- full of as many veteran Tacuba fans as newcomers who had wandered over from the food tents and never left -- no translation was needed. This was joyous, experimental rock in any language. As Sonic Youth blasted feedback from the main stage, Tacuba went one better, cranking up its amps to blast a head-banging son jarocho version of Juan Luis Guerra's "Ojala Que Llueva Cafe" with punkish ranchera howls and ferocious fiddling that churned the front of the crowd into a playful mosh pit.

In five albums, Albarran, Emmanuel "Meme" del Real, and Quique and Joselo Rangel -- all in their mid-30s -- have crafted a complex and style-swapping rock sound that, while rooted in the daily hustle and manic cultural collisions of Mexico City life, has always flown above its traffic jams and plazas into a worldly sky with no national limits. As its Coachella set showed, Tacuba's vision of rock can seamlessly encompass everything from polka and classical to mariachi, techno, speed metal and ska.

Over the years, the four have been just as at ease backing Beck on a Spanish-language makeover of "Jackass" (they toured with him in 2000) as they've been collaborating with classical music outlaws Kronos Quartet (they wrote "12/12" for Kronos' recent gallop across Mexican music, "Nuevo").

"I have never been so impressed with how well a group of musicians and composers work together as a band," says Kronos' David Harrington. (Kronos covered Tacuba's "La Muerte Chiquita" on 2000's "Caravan.") "They each have such an incredible creativity, really sensitive and open. No idea is too extreme for them, nothing is too far-reaching."

Tacuba's commitment to artistic growth is precisely what caught the attention of executives at the band's new label, MCA, which wants "Cuatro Caminos" (Four Roads) to reach the international audiences they believe it deserves. Although the band's previous label, with Warner Music, signed it to separate deals in the U.S. and Mexico, MCA made the new deal worldwide, removing some of the national market and industry barriers that have helped stymie Latin alternative artists in the past. The label also launched an aggressive rollout to Latin and Anglo insiders last month with advance press mailings and listening parties, making sure the band's music would find its way into as many of the right hands as possible.

"For bands that are great, there is always a battle between art and commerce, and this band has one foot firmly planted on each side of that battle," says Joel Mark, MCA vice president of A&R. "They're making great art and they actually sell records all over the world. It's gonna be a huge worldwide push for this record. This country, in particular, is ready for a Spanish-speaking rock band to break though in a big way."

Back to basics

Like a musical amoeba determined to never be locked into a single shape, Cafe Tacuba has always been a band tethered to change. When Warner Mexico released their debut in 1992, the four former graphic-design students donned sideburns and huarache sandals and came on like satirical ranchera punks.

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