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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

This is All Things Considered, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Take a spin through the radio dial in just about any American city and you'll hear the sounds of a major demographic trend. The fastest growing segment of the U.S. population is Hispanic. And on the air you'll hear everything from salsa to the hot Latin hip hop style called reggaeton. But there's another style that's been bubbling just beneath the surface for almost a decade. It's called Latin Alternative. Today we begin a four-part exploration of the genre: who's buying it, who's making it, and where it's being developed.

NPR's Felix Contreras begins by trying to define the music, and that's tough, because it encompasses everything from punk to tango to electronica.

FELIX CONTRERES: In a small Brooklyn recording studio, the members of the band Candela Soul are mixing their first CD.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANDELA SOUL)

Unidentified Man #1: You know that (unintelligible) the roll, the roll is too generic.

CONTRERES: A discussion about a drum roll takes on a larger significance when the musicians come from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and New York City. And their influences range from Afro-Cuban salsa to 1980s arena rock.

LOUIS BURGOS: We're a product of America.

CONTRERES: Louis Burgos is the band's guitarist and song writer.

BURGOS: We're a product of, you know, of Guns and Roses and Diana Ross and Journey, Metallica, and also we go home and we listen to Hector Lavo, Ellie Barmedi (ph), and, you know, Johnny Bacheco (ph). So you know, it's all that confusion that creates what we call Candela Soul.

CONTRERES: That eclectic collection of influences is at the heart of Latin Alternative, a music created by young players who've been raised not only on their parents' music, but also on rock, hip hop, and electronica. It represents a sonic shift away from regionalism and points to a new global Latin identity.

(SOUNDBITE OF LATIN ALTERNATIVE MUSIC)

CONTRERAS: The singer Bebe (ph) from Spain is Latin Alternative. And so is the Argentine band Bersuite (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF LATIN ALTERNATIVE MUSIC)

CONTRERAS: And so is this band, Audicia (ph) from Oakland, California.

(SOUNDBITE OF LATIN ALTERNATIVE MUSIC)

CONTRERAS: The term Latin Alternative was coined in the late 1990s. Not by musicians or their fans, but by record company executives as a way to sell music that was literally all over the map. It was marketed as an Alternative to the slick, highly produced Latin pop that dominated commercial Spanish language radio. Think Ricky Martin or Shakira.

(SOUNDBITE OF LATIN ALTERNATIVE MUSIC)

CONTRERAS: In the very beginning, young musicians were reacting to something else.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPANISH VERSION OF ELVIS PRESLEY SONG)

CONTRERAS: In the 1960s, LPs from the U.S. and Europe found their way south and performers there eventually found a voice in rock and roll to speak out against their authoritarian governments and societies. In Mexico City, a pioneering rock band gave itself an English name, Three Souls in My Mind, and took on the government with Abuso de Artoridad (ph), or abuses of the authorities.

(SOUNDBITE OF THREE SOULS IN MY MIND)

CONTRERAS: Alex Lore (ph) is singing, To live in Mexico is the worst. We are not allowed to protest because they'll take us away.

By the mid 1980s, the music was still taking on social issues. By then, it was being called Rockin' Espaniol and songs were about revolutions, globalization and immigration to the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKIN' ESPANIOL)

CONTRERAS: Rockin' Espaniol was also a sonic challenge tradition to traditional Latin American cultures

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKIN' ESPANIOL)

CONTRERAS: In 1988 the Mexican group Maldita Vencidad y los Hijos del Quinto Patio (ph) released it's first CD. The musicians turned their fathers' mariachi music on its ear.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKIN' ESPANIOL)

CONTRERAS: Maldito's lead singer, who goes by the name Rocco, explains how the band found a place for itself in the cracks between listener expectations.

ROCCO: For the rockers in Mexico, we was too (unintelligible), you know, too salsa, too tropical, to Afro-Latin because we used percussions and saxophone. And for the Afro-Latin musicians in Mexico, we were too rockers, because we used guitar and we shout, and we play these rhythms, you know. So we was in the middle, we was Alternative for the Alternative.

CONTRERAS: In the internet age, culture moves across boarders easier than people, and Latin Alternative is no longer just a reaction to outside influences but its own thing, or things. Josh Coon is an associate professor of English at UC Riverside and has written about Latin Alternative for over a decade.

JOSH COON: The music's reach and scope continues to grow across cultures and across backgrounds, not only in the audiences, but also within the bands themselves, where some bands will kind of be sneaking in white American members or African American members or Asian American members, and likewise the audiences, though still primarily Latino, are audiences that are becoming more and more characteristic of what we might consider a kind of stereotypical urban audience of a multicultural audience.

CONTRERAS: Coon says amidst that cultural mix the struggle for identity has overtaken politics and oppressive regimes to become a central theme of Latin Alternative.

COON: To be "Latin" in the U.S. has always been kind of wrapped up with ideas of being tropical or being caliente, or being spicy, and all of these stereotypes of Latinos in the U.S. The Latin Alternative music was always, always had no time for it, and didn't want to have anything to do with it at all, and wanted to defy expectations and defy stereotypes.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANDELA SOUL)

CONTRERAS: Back in the studio, the band Candela Soul seems to have resolved it's own identity crisis. A drum break that started as a typical dance club riff was tweaked into a beat based on Puerto Rican bumba (ph) music.

Unidentified Man #2: That's better. That's it. That's it.

CONTRERAS: It's a small adjustment, but it shines a sharp light on musical and social changes in Latin America and in this country. Again, Louis Burgos, Candela Soul's guitarist.

Man #2: That's it. That's the one.

BURGOS: We cannot be the poster boys of Latin music because we don't want to represent salsa alone and meringue alone, and we want to represent what music really touches from when we were children in our country and here, in the United States.

CONTRERAS: Tomorrow, the struggle of making music and making money below the radar. Felix Contreras, NPR News.

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