By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
It's Saturday night and it's cold. Down on South Main, the International Ballroom -- or the Aragon Ballroom, depending on the nationality of the act booked that night -- is cold too, and the cavernous venue that must once have been a Kroger looks almost empty from the door, even though 400 people are huddled near the stage. There's a beer vendor in one corner, a T-shirt seller in another and a few scattered banners for CD manufacturers and radio stations hung on the walls. Just outside the front door there's a food cart selling tacos and fajitas, and, inside, an enormously broad stage that almost swamps the bands playing on it.
Strange bands, too. In one, the drummer, bassist, guitarist, singer and sax player all wear knee-length shorts and sweater vests while blasting out a bleating, three-chord punk rock mess, making for an Angus Young-meets-the Ramones-style spectacle. Another throws a Judas Priest cover into their set. A third plays straight-ahead speed metal, while the vocalist, sporting leather boots, black clothes splattered with brightly colored paint and a Beavis and Butt-head shirt, wails like Ronnie James Dio. The better bands throw a bit of ska flavoring into the tunes to get the crowd jumping. It's a traditional Battle of the Bands, and the young crowd shows its appreciation, when it shows appreciation, with pumping fists and a dangerous looking mosh pit.
There is, besides me, one gringo in the room, here for reasons of his own, and early on, just before leaving, he leans over to ask: "What is this stuff?"
Well, it's only rock and roll ... en espanol.
The question, however, wasn't surprising. Non-Hispanic musical aficionados in Houston -- despite living alongside a burgeoning population of Mexican and Latin-American origin that's approaching 500,000 -- really aren't very conversant with that population's music.
Almost everyone hereabouts probably knows a little something about Tejano, which is largely Tex-Mex dance-hall music, because they've read about local Tejano-pop idols La Mafia, whose CDs are regularly nominated for Grammys and sell well into the millions internationally, or maybe they've ventured to the "Go Tejano" nights staged at the rodeo. And possibly they've heard a bit about the accordion-fueled norteno style, which is only right, considering that norteno music is, in its broadest definition, folk music from the north country of Mexico (which was once, of course, Texas). And if they've really done their research, they may be familiar with the corrido -- the topical story songs of the U.S.-Mexico border.
But when it comes time to test that knowledge in, say, a local music poll, they can still be counted upon to take a longtime local mainstay like the Basics -- an unmistakably rock-rooted band -- and nominate them as the city's best Tejano group, simply because the players have brown skin and oftentimes sing in Spanish. Besides, everyone knows that Mexican music is big, fat bajo sexto guitars and mariachi bands and dancing around a maroon $75 faux-felt sombrero at La Jaliscience on a Friday night. Mexico doesn't rock...
Just don't tell that to Los Caifanes, or Cafe Tacuba, or El Tri, or Maldita Vecindad, or Fobia or Mana -- Mexican rock bands that draw stadium-sized crowds at home and sell millions of records abroad.
And don't tell it to the kid smashing a drum kit or flailing at a second-hand Ibanez electric for one of the eight or so local Spanish-language rock bands that have sprung to tenuous life in Houston in the past two years, or to the hundreds of rock-hungry local Hispanic kids who constitute the local Mexican rock underground's audience.
They might be able to tell you the difference between a cumbia and a corrido, but they'd rather tell you which of Maldita Vecindad's albums was produced by Jane's Addiction frontman Perry Farrell (it's called El Circo) and what Fobia track currently resides in the Buzz Bin on MTV Latino. They'll tell you who's underground, who's gone soft pop, who's coming up and who's just cashing in. They'll also tell you the shadings of difference between Chicanos (second- and third-generation, American-born, English-speaking Hispanics) and rockeros (Spanish-speaking "Mexico Proud" rock fans) and ponketas (hard-core Spanish-language punk rockers), and they'll tell you in no uncertain terms.
That's what some 400 rockero kids did that cold Saturday night in late January, when local promoters staged that first ever Mexican rock Battle of the Bands at the Aragon/ International Ballroom. The evening was billed as "Desmother Rockero," which is a bastardization of "desmadre rockero," which in turn indicates a crazy-ass rock and roll party, and it showcased seven unknown-to-the-mainstream local Spanish-language rock bands on a single stage -- a gesture of unity and purpose for the fledgling scene. Seven young bands with varying degrees of inexperience -- Desorden, Desgracia de Inez, Aura Mistica, Seres Ocultos, Moscas En El Paraiso, Uno Mas and Insurgentes -- battled for crowd response (though the promoters took the night's competition aspect way more seriously than did the bands) before ceding the stage to mainstream-penetrating local favorites and guest headliners for the night Planet Shock!.
After a slow start, the crowd had warmed to the lineup's mostly punk and metal-influenced, mostly original music, and were busily slamming into each other, knocking each other down and then helping each other up again, in the roiling pit that formed at the foot of the stage at each fresh attack of a double-time drum beat or a speed-strummed electric guitar. It ought to be clear by now that rock and roll, whatever the quality of its contemporary discourse, has become an international language; this was a language the kids understood, and the language of the lyrics being yelped or screamed or wailed over the music was, for a change, their own as well.