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Chile's pop music scene hits a new high, with Astro in its orbit

The electro-pop band, set to play at the Fonda on Thursday, is part of a growing cultural scene in Chile that's riding the wave of youthful artistic energy.

March 07, 2013|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • Chile's Astro will perform at the Fonda Theatre on Thursday as part of an alt-Latin music concert.
Chile's Astro will perform at the Fonda Theatre on Thursday as part… (Canyon, Nacional Records )

In the video for their hit single "Ciervos" (Stags), members of the Chilean electro-pop band Astro wave spears and romp around in furry pelts and animal skulls as if part of some Bronze Age lost tribe.

It's intended to be the last word in low-budget primitive cool, Andean style. But for viewers of a certain demographic profile, the imagery may summon surreal memories of Peter Gabriel, his face camouflaged like an African mask, making tortured connections with shrieking simians.

No doubt the similarities between "Ciervos" and Gabriel's "Shock the Monkey," an early '80s cry of inter-species angst, are inadvertent. (They're more explicit in Astro's song "Mono Tropical," about monkeys guarding Mayan pyramids.)

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But speaking by phone in Spanish from their Santiago home, two members of the Astro core quartet, Andrés Nusser and Octavio Cavieres, affirm that '70s British art-rock chameleons such as Gabriel and David Bowie, and ever-mutating bands like Genesis, were among their youthful instructors.

It's not hard to grasp how the highly theatrical stage antics of that era served as an exoskeleton for Astro's development into one of South America's wildest ensembles. The band will perform Thursday night at the Fonda theater on an alt-Latin bill along with La Santa Cecilia, Carla Morrison and Bomba Estereo.

"It was a species of rock that was pop, but at the same time it had a component that was more psychedelic, or more progressive," says Cavieres, the band's drummer. "That was a great influence on us at the beginning."

Perhaps no Latin American country is currently experiencing a greater surge of youthful artistic energy than Chile. Filmmakers such as Pablo Larraín (the Oscar-nominated "No") and Dominga Sotomayor ("Thursday Till Sunday") are regularly popping up on international movie festival circuits. A new generation of playwright-directors led by Guillermo Calderón, who'll be returning to REDCAT in downtown L.A. next month, is putting its mark on collective-based experimental theater.

But the Chilean art form receiving the broadest attention of late is pop music. Much like the Argentine rock explosion that followed the collapse of that country's military dictatorship in the early '80s, Chile has experienced its own, slower-gestating music boomlet in the two decades since the departure of strongman Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Several of the most prominent Chilean pop artists have signed on with North Hollywood-based Nacional Records, including the soulful French-Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux. Astro, Tijoux and other Chilean artists now turn up regularly in U.S. media coverage of Latin music, winning praise on shows like NPR's influential "Alt.Latino."

That's critical for a country often perceived, even within Latin America, as existing at the pop music margins.

"We feel very close to the new wave of Chilean music today that includes Pedropiedra, Gepe, Alex Anwandter, Javiera Mena," says Nusser, the group's singer-guitarist, ticking off the names of compatriots gaining traction outside their homeland.

No factor has been more crucial to Chilean pop's development than the country's improving economy. Although Chile's growing prosperity has produced greater income disparities than in decades past, the country has one of Latin America's lowest poverty rates and a rising middle class. Easier Internet access, more affordable laptops and digital file-sharing have helped Chilean musicians and DJs enter the global conversation, although admittedly they arrived a bit late to the EDM party.

"Within Chile, we were perhaps a little lagging behind in making electronic music," Cavieres says. "Technology got cheaper, and I think now we're at the same professional level as the rest of the world."

Astro came together when its members, who also include Nicolás Arancibia on bass and keyboard and Daniel Varas on percussion and keyboard, got to know one another through the Santiago DJ scene, in the mid-2000s. In the early years of Chile's post-Pinochet democratic era, a number of the country's best sound samplers, such as Ricardo Villalobos and Matías Aguayo, often chose to make music in Europe and other foreign climes.

But an emerging DIY culture has enabled Chile's homegrown musical talent to stay home. What's still lacking is the industry infrastructure to support it.

"We came together with a lot of knowledge but not much practical experience in the sense of how to put together a show, how do you get into the media," Nusser says. Breaking into U.S. and European radio markets, and obtaining a distributor there, remains especially challenging.

"It takes a greater effort than it would for a U.S. band," Cavieres says, "because we're required to have an idea, a concept, that's more original as far as the music. It can be done, but you have to fight very hard."

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