From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

Next week the annual music industry showcase South by Southwest gets underway in Austin, Texas. Last year, no fewer than eight bands from Monterrey, Mexico were invited to play. Organizers say they were impressed by the city's musical output. In fact, some have called it the Seattle of Latin alternative music.

NPR's Felix Contreras visited Monterrey for the last part of our series on Latin Alternative.


It's 9:00 on a warm Saturday evening in Barrio Antigo, a sprawling colonial neighborhood that is the heart of this industrial city. About the only thing you hear on the deserted cobblestone streets is a vendor grilling salchichas, or hotdogs. But just an hour later, the streets fill with people and music spilling out from bars, restaurants and dance clubs.

Passion for music runs deep in this city of over one million. Ten years ago, Monterrey was considered the Nashville of Mexico because it's the center of grupero music, the accordion based world dance music popular along both sides of the border.

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The fact that other sides now share the clubs and studios with grupero makes sense to Ivan Gonzales-Ortiz. As the program director of a top Monterrey radio station, it's his job to know what the city wants to hear. He says in part because of the proximity to the U.S., the city is uniquely situated to produce such popular Latin Alternative bands as Kinky, Control Machete, El Gran Silencio, and Plastilino Mosh.

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Mr. IVAN GONZALES-ORTIZ (Monterrey Radio Program Director): (Through Translator) We have more of a chance to hear different music than the capital, Guadalajara, (inaudible) or Yucatan. We have a very open society that allows us to follow our own beat or musical preference. We are not boxed into liking just one kind of music.

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CONTERRAS: Being a cultural crossroads is in Monterrey's history. In the late 1800's, the city was known as La Sultana del Norte, the Sultan of the North. Over 500 miles from Mexico City, it dominated northern Mexico commercially and eventually culturally, as Monterrey's musicians traveled north into Texas just 150 miles away.

Now, the influence moves south through border radio, satellite TV and the internet. In a middle class suburb, a 30-minute drive from Barrio Antigo, the band Baquerro is rehearsing for a performance later in the evening. The musicians have been together eight years and released three albums in Spanish under the name (unintelligible). Now lead singer Geraldo Garza performs in English.

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CONTRERRAS: Driving to the gig after the rehearsal, the band's drummer, Rodrigo Guardiola (ph) says the language switch is natural.

Mr. RODRIGO GUARDIOLA (Baquerro Band Member): (Through Translator) The schools are all bilingual. We hear rock in English. We've seen American TV since we were kids. We see American films. And now with the internet, we can visit websites from all over the world.

CONTRERAS: Guardiola says singing in English is also strategic. Even the name change from (unintelligible) to Baquero was intended to be easier on Northern ears.

Mr. GUARDIOLA: (Through Translator) The market for us here is very small. Even if you're a band with the biggest hits in the country, you continue to work a market that's not very big. We think it's easier to reach out to a bunch of small markets in different countries.

CONTRERAS: But in a working class neighborhood on the eastern edge of Monterrey, another band is looking inward.

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CONTRERAS: The hip hop collective Cartel del Santa takes its name from a barrio called Sante Catarina, a working class suburb in the shadow of the city's industrial smokestacks and factories. Cartel's leader is MC Babo (ph).

MC BABO (Leader of Cartel Del Santa): (Through Translator) That's how our group came to be, rapping about gangs, about drugs, living in the barrios. Our music was about our small little corner of Nuevo Leone. In Santa there are no yuppies or people with money. They were all field workers and factory workers. It was the ghettos of Los Angeles, only with factories.

CONTRERAS: Monterrey has become the center of Mexican hip hop. The members of Cartel del Santa live together and record in a rented house they call Casa Babylonia. The tattooed MC Babo loses his rapper's swagger and takes on the language of a CEO as he talks about his plan to take advantage of changes in the Mexican music industry.

MC BABO: (Through Translator) After three CDs, my role with the label is going to change. Last year I was just an artist on the label. Now I'm a business partner with the label. I make the songs. I compose them. I produce them. I own them. It gives me a bargaining position. If it is not agreeable to me, I walk away. I know what's best for my product, because I'm the one who is creating.

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CONTRERAS: MC Babo may be in the right place at the right time to take on the Mexican record business. Industry observers estimate the major labels and their artists are losing 50% of their sales to piracy. In Mexico it's not unauthorized downloading, but illegal CDs sold in shops and on street corners all over the country. The crisis is loosening the control the majors hold over the industry.

A few years ago, it was almost impossible for a new band to get heard on the radio, sold in record stores or tour if it wasn't signed to a major label. Ricardo Hass (ph) manages the rock band Baquerro. The veteran of the Mexican music industry says bands are figuring out new ways to get audiences to pay for their music.

Mr. RICARDO HASS (Baquerro Manager): Bands know that they can work with a do- it-yourself approach or an independent weight approach that works. The majors, the indies, the do-it-yourselves, they're going to meet. There are now new ways of developing artists that the majors are trying to be signed. So it's like some sort of a strange marriage between the major label and the independent artists or the do-it-yourself artists.

CONTRERAS: And those musicians are everywhere. Even a casual stroll from Barrio Antigo along a deserted commercial strip yields a musical performance.

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CONTRERAS: A trail of teenagers on the way home from a Barrio Antigo nightclub is beat boxing.

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CONTRERAS: With the clarity of youth, the leader, who calls himself Senor Echo, sums up the secret of Monterrey's musical abundance.

SENOR ECHO (Street musician): (Through Translator) The people of Monterrey are very expressive, and in music they find what they need, love, tenderness, disaster. Whatever life throws at you, it's there in music.

CONTRERAS: Felix Contreras, NPR News.

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BLOCK: You can check out a variety of Latin Alternative music and hear the other stories in this series at our website,

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