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.
And so when the genre-blurring Planet Shock! -- comprising mostly second- and third-generation English-speaking Chicanos -- took the stage with a hip-hop inflected drum beat and a guy spinning records on a turntable and began not just rapping, for God's sake, but rapping in English, the crowd didn't waste much time formulating an opinion. The mosh pit ground to a halt, replaced by the spectacle of pissed-off rockeros running around in tight circles at the front of the stage, pumping middle fingers over their heads and chanting a rank vulgarity we won't repeat here. After two songs, the crowd unplugged Shock!'s monitors and hounded the band off the stage. And right there, Planet Shock! and the concert's promoters learned the difference, if they didn't know it before, between Chicano and rockero. The rockeros have been waiting a long time to hear rock in their own language, and right or wrong, they didn't take kindly to being sung at in English.
Good thing the ponketas weren't there.
Not a terribly civil display, and not the actions of what you'd call an open-minded listening audience, but if we're not going to confuse Mexican rock with Tejano music, neither should we mix it up with its English-speaking counterpart.
Mexican rock, which has been around for at least a good 30 years, remains rooted in politics in ways that many stateside bands are only recently rediscovering. When the 1968 Olympics focused an international spotlight on Mexico City, protesting students massed in the beam to air their grievances. They were rewarded with a Kent State-style massacre and subsequent government crackdown that lumped the newly visible rock and roll subculture in with the troublesome youth movement that embraced it.
Until the early '80s, there were almost no clubs, no radio stations, no venues that welcomed rock, and without a mainstream outlet, the rock went underground. It's only in the past ten years or so that it's come into the light again, led, as is progressive music most everywhere, by college radio. Now, with the boomer students of '68 graduating into positions of influence in the Mexican cultural hierarchy, rock has returned to the Mexican mainstream, but the political bent of the music is still felt, especially in American-based Spanish-language bands, who until recently have had to contend with an underground status enforced more by the marketplace (or now-changing misperceptions of the marketplace) than by any government agenda. Many of the Houston-based Mexican rock bands played their first gigs at benefits in Houston and Austin organized for the relief of Mexicans displaced by the hostilities in Chiapas.
Mexican rock also carries a nationalist tint, especially for its geographically estranged fans in the United States. In a media environment that makes heroes out of Young White Rock Stars and Black Rappers and Women in Rock, with hardly the outline of a brown face in the mist behind an emasculated Julio Iglesias, the emergence of a real rock and roll band made up of real Mexicans singing real Spanish lyrics to an audience of their own is a matter of no small pride. Nobody becomes and remains a rock and roll guitarist to maximize their earning potential, but nonetheless, success is regarded as good. The critical malaise that's struck much American music journalism -- that success equals compromise equals bullshit -- hasn't set in.
And most Mexican rock differs from American counterparts in how it presents itself. Any media-savvy high school American guitar band will tell you that what their 17-year-old selves do is original, that they sound like nobody else, that they are unique and you will remember them as being remarkably unlike anything you've ever heard before. They're usually quite wrong, but that's what they'll tell you.
Most Mexican bands don't hesitate to tell you what they sound like, and they'll usually tell you that they sound a good bit like something you probably already like. El Tri, for instance, is explained by every bilingual who listens to them as "the Mexican Rolling Stones." What that means is that they've played bluesy rock and roll for more than 25 years to massive crowds and retained contemporary dignity and popularity. Caifanes is "the Mexican U2" and Maldita Vecindad is "the Mexican Red Hot Chili Peppers." If you hear this sort of comparison too often, you might get the impression that Mexican rock is derivative, and some of it, as in every field, is, but the point is actually more self-promotional: it's good and you'll like it.
Which is a point that's just recently been recognized by the kind of corporate machinery that cracks a big grin when it sees a market it hasn't seen before. The Mexican rock underground in Houston, though, isn't operating at that level of the industry just yet. In fact it's just now starting to show signs of life. Two years ago, if you looked real hard, you might have found one or maybe two bands that played something you'd call rock with Spanish lyrics. Today there are eight, if you count the Basics, who are several rungs up from the pack in terms of professionalism and experience.
Ask anyone in the scene when the explosion started and, oddly enough, they'll pinpoint the Houston International Festival's 1993 Salute to Mexico with an unfailing consistency that makes you wonder if maybe the rockeros aren't on the festival's board of directors.
Connie Mims, the festival's director of programming, booked the music that year, and she says she wanted it to go beyond the standard chamber of commerce, mariachi, folklore society fare. "Most of the time when you're dealing with a ministry or a department of commerce or whatever, they want to give you something traditional and folkloric. We wanted something modern, something contemporary. Show us what you've got."
Mexico City's Ministry of Culture, as it turned out, had the same idea. "Fortunately," Mims remembers, "we hooked up with the woman there, her name is Alejandria de la Paz, and she was very hip to what we were trying to do, and so she presented us with Caifanes and Cafe Tacuba, and Maldita Vecindad. We thought that maybe Maldita was a little outside of what we could get away with (Maldita Vecindad translates as "the damned neighborhood," and the music reflects an up-from-the-streets, wrong-side-of-the-tracks independence that borders on mayhem), but Cafe Tacuba, just their video and their music, we were swept away by it."
Mims may have come to dig the bands she booked, but when it came time for them to take the stage, she wasn't prepared for what she'd gotten herself into.
"We were very surprised from a production sense when Cafe Tacuba took the stage that opening day, at the mass of juventu who showed up. It was at City Hall stage, and we had a good 300 to 500 people, which is a lot for City Hall Plaza. I'm a bad judge of crowds, but it was substantial. And I don't think a mosh pit's ever been done at the Houston International Festival, but it happened that year. We had to call in extra security, and we were laughing because it came out of nowhere. We weren't prepared for it and we just thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a little scary at times, but we were ready for Caifanes. By the second weekend we had it figured out that we needed to beef up on crowd control and that kind of thing."
All those kids weren't just jumping barricades and moshing, apparently, because everyone involved will tell you that's where Houston's branch of the Mexican rock scene was born, where all the Mexican kids who loved Mexican rock but had precious little stumbled into each other and exchanged ideas and phone numbers, and a guy with a guitar met a guy with a drum kit who knew a guy with a bass who thought maybe he could sing and, "orale, why don't we start a band."
There were club owners there, and DJs and video crews and 'zine writers and amateur musicians and professional musicians and promoters and all sorts of the riff-raff that constitutes a rock and roll scene. That's when the bands started getting together. And a year later, when MTV's trial launch of MTV Latino became widely available in the States and wildly, unexpectedly popular (it's now got a South American viewership larger than U.S. MTV's in the States), creating a star system all its own for Mexican and Latin pop and rock of all stripes, those closest to the scene began to see it building into something bigger than just a garage movement.
Eighteen-year-old bassist Arturo Garcia and his guitar playing older brother started Uno Mas about a year and a half ago, after being turned on to the flood of new music coming out of Mexico via MTV Latino. The brothers found a drummer and a singer later, and ended up playing a few mostly cover gigs at Olympus Disco, Coco Loco and Cache Club before landing the show of a lifetime, opening for El Tri this past December.
"That was the biggest one we've had," says Garcia. "They told us, 'Just keep on practicing,' that was the main thing they said, 'Don't stop practicing.'" So, even though the Desmother Rockero showcase marked the departure of the band's drummer (in some ways, Mexican rock is exactly like its American counterpart), the band plans to go forward.
"We're going to try to find other clubs to play and just write original music and try to record a demo to see if we can get a record company or an agent or somebody to help us. There's not a lot of places to play -- we're not making any money at all right now -- but it seems like it's going to start growing here in Houston, like it did in L.A."
Three quarters of the fun of rock and roll is watching it live, and to be seen, bands need a place to play. That's been the emerging scene's biggest stumbling block so far, at least in Houston.
Most Hispanic clubs are still oriented toward Latin pop, which often means either Tejano and Spanish-language disco, or else Latin jazz and salsa music. Only since the introduction of MTV Latino have some of the clubs, such as Olympus Disco, dedicated a night to DJs spinning contemporary Mexican rock. Only one local club, Cache, presently opens the stage to live local Mexican rock bands on Sunday nights. The rest of the week is salsa and disco. On a recent Sunday night, the band didn't show up. The dance floor was filled with impossibly young looking girls bopping to DJ'ed rock singles from Caifanes, Maldita Vecindad and Gloria Trevi, regarded for her embrace of shock marketing as "the Mexican Madonna," or the "Mexican Rosanne Arnold," depending on who you ask.
The problem is that 1) Many of the band members are too young to go into the places they would play, and with still-tenuous routes of communication to the club owners, they don't often have access; and 2) Most club owners are only starting to see the potential of the developing scene, and young bands with unproven draws aren't usually the safest bets. Nonetheless, over at Cache, promoter Edmundo Perez says he draws a regular 200 to live Sunday nights. He's dedicated to nurturing the struggling scene, but so far, his club is the only one providing a regular forum.
That one forum, though, quickly generated enough local interest that Chuly Diaz, who runs a local promotion company called Chuly Entertainment, organized the Desmother Rockero Battle of the Bands that made Planet Shock! all those new fans.
A wiry, longhaired 25-year-old New York-born Puerto Rican who's lived in Houston most of the past ten years, Diaz just recently came back to the promotion business after a tantalizing brush with Latin pop stardom as a bilingual rapper. Back in 1991, he was signed with Warner Brothers' Latin division, WEA Latina, and his single hit no. 8 on the charts in Spain and no. 6 in Italy. His "Macumba" was in rotation on MTV and he was gearing up for a U.S. tour.
"I was at the peak of my career, hitting it big time. I never thought I was gonna go back. My album was gonna be released in August, I was on tour in Puerto Rico for three weeks, and when I came back to the States my album was gonna get released, and when it was about to drop, the president of WEA gets fired for sexual harassment. So the new guy who came in, he brought his own projects, he brought his own people, you know, and said 'I ain't touching none of the projects that other guy was doing.' And I was one of those projects, so I've been on the shelf."
So he went back to doing what he'd been doing before his ship almost came in. "I had been a promoter since I was 16, 17 years old, back in the day over here. We used to rent ballrooms and throw parties, you know, get DJs and local rap groups."
With connections he'd built as a promoter and artist, Diaz started throwing dances and concerts once more. Chuly Entertainment brought 37 international acts -- some rock, most salsa and Latin jazz -- into the States for appearances in Houston, Dallas, Atlanta and Louisiana in 1994, including Mexico City's El Tri, whose first Texas appearance in 25 years drew a crowd of 4,000 to the International/Aragon Ballroom on a Sunday night in early December.
"You know, the rock has been around forever," says Diaz, "but it's just really blowing up the past year. Here in Texas, especially here in Houston, it's gotten really, really extra hot. There were almost no local groups two years ago, just one or two playing Cache, but in the past year it's grown up so big. Even in Dallas they have now two local bands. Last year it just blew up. Now every club, every Hispanic club, wants to have a Rock en Espanol night, you know?"
Desmother Rockero didn't turn out to be the promoter's boon Diaz hoped it would, and he blames poorly planned radio promotion for the turnout of only 400, but where there's a market there's a will, and Diaz is already well under way with plans for Houston's first Rock en Espanol Festival -- a sort of Mexican mini-Lollapalooza scheduled for March 26 at the International Ballroom and featuring La Cuca and Cafe Tacuba from Mexico, a Dallas band, an Austin band, and two local acts.
He's also planning to produce a CD compilation of mostly local Mexican rock bands, to give the scene some much needed exposure, and hopefully, to translate some of that exposure into the currency of all music industries: hits.
"There's talent here, but nobody is looking yet. Why they gonna be looking in Texas when they got all this great shit in Mexico?" The festival and the CD, he hopes, will help answer that question.
In the meantime, exposure for the local bands is coming from a variety of small grassroots sources.
Armando Arteaga and his G-Video company produces an MTV-style video program called Zona Rock that runs locally at 11 a.m. Saturdays and 12:30 p.m. Sundays on KTFH/Channels 49 and 33, featuring interviews with local bands -- who almost as a rule don't have the money to record, much less shoot promotional spots -- alongside international videos and interviews. Joshua Marco runs the six-year-old Houston-based Latin culture 'zine Propaganda, which recently published a Spanish language companion issue to the long-running English edition. Propaganda publishes interviews and reviews of local bands alongside poetry, artwork and fiction for a small, international subscriber base. DJ Goel Toledo recently launched a radio program devoted exclusively to Spanish-language rock, scheduled to run from 10-11 p.m., Monday through Friday on KYST/920 AM. On April 8, Cache's Perez has organized a showcase at the Melody Ballroom for one band from Monterrey, another from Mexico City, and the Basics.
And in Spring Branch is one of the focal points for fans of Spanish language rock: DJs Centro Musical. It's a tiny little record shop in a dingy little strip center, and the inside of the store looks like the tenants either aren't quite finished moving in, or aren't quite finished moving out. The floor is concrete, and the only furnishings in sight are the swivel chair on which the young cashier sits behind the checkout counter and eight or so CD racks that aren't exactly overstocked. There's one of everything by the big name acts, but not a lot else. It's about as far from Planet Music as you can get, but it's got one rock and roll accouterment that you can't find most places anymore. While you're flipping through the stacks, trying to decide which Maldita Vecindad disc is the best buy for a neophyte, the kid -- whose name turns out to be Vlady Engadi -- has gone back to his chair behind the counter, pulled a beat-up Fender from its prop in the corner, and begun strumming chords along with the rock and roll song playing through the store's speakers.
It turns out he's in a band. You just haven't heard of them yet.
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