Rock En Espanol Takes Hold In North Carolina Like many other parts of the country, North Carolina has seen an influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants. The transition hasn't always been smooth. But now, Charlotte's rock en Español musicians and fans are counting on rock's tried-and-true secret weapon — three chords and a great melody — to inspire a change.
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Rock En Espanol Takes Hold In North Carolina

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Rock En Espanol Takes Hold In North Carolina

Rock En Espanol Takes Hold In North Carolina

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From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris. The population of North Carolina has swelled over the past two decades, and much of the growth has come from Hispanic immigrants. That shift in demographics has brought tensions. Recently, we've been reporting on homegrown music scenes, and NPR's Felix Contreras visited North Carolina, where he learned about a scene that may be helping to ease those tensions.

FELIX CONTRERAS: Scandalos is a Latin club on the southeastern edge of Charlotte. People usually come here to dance to hip-hop influenced reggaeton or the accordions of Mexican norteno. But tonight, 300 or so people have come to rock.

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: Six bands are on the bill for the fifth annual Carlotan Rock Festival. The music is rock en Espanol, and it could be the soundtrack for Charlotte's racial and cultural revolution.

Ms. JESS GEORGE (Assistant Director, Latin American Coalition): Charlotte is one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States. It's one that has really rapidly changed from kind of a small Southern town to a destination point for migrants of all backgrounds.

CONTRERAS: Jess George came to Charlotte from upstate New York. She's the associate director of the Latin American Coalition, a social service agency that administers to Charlotte's most needy immigrants. She points out that since the statistics show an almost 800 percent increase in Charlotte's Latino population over the last two decades and she says many in the area were not ready for the change.

Ms. GEORGE: I guess there was some invisible breaking point, where all of a sudden, the mainstream Charlotte community said, well, my hotel room is clean, but now I saw the maid, and she doesn't speak the same language I speak, and she doesn't look the same way I look. People started to feel uncomfortable with the differences that they were seeing around them.

(Soundbite of truck backing up)

CONTRERAS: In a warehouse near the airport, Daniel Alvarado supervises a room full of mostly Mexican immigrants. He moved to Charlotte with his family from Venezuela five years ago, and he is the bilingual link between his Spanish-speaking assembly-line crew and management. A little more than 12 hours from now, he'll trade his clipboard for a microphone.

Mr. DANIEL ALVARADO (Warehouse Worker): These people, they came up to me last week, oh, I saw you on the newspaper. Because they see me here as their manager, and they see me in the newspaper as someone else.

CONTRERAS: Alvarado is the lead singer for the band Bakalao Stars.

Mr. ALVARADO: It's like having two lives. During the day, I'm a supervisor, and by night, I'm a rock star, you know. It's cool.

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: Singer Daniel Alvarado says most of his warehouse crew listens to traditional Mexican music. The rock en Epanol he prefers got its start in the mid-1960s in Mexico and Argentina. Once it arrived in the United States, rock and roll themes of self-identity and alienation took on deeper meaning.

(Soundbite of music)

MARK KEMP (Music Editor, The Charlotte Observer): They're playing basic rock en Espanol, but the themes are the things that are going on here, immigration issues.

CONTRERAS: Mark Kemp was born and raised in Charlotte, and came back in 2002 to be the music editor for The Charlotte Observer. He says that when he heard a band called La Rua, it reminded him of the rock en Espanol explosion he witnessed back in California in the early 1990s when he was a music journalist there. Only this time, the music is about the experience of being Latino south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Mr. KEMP: They have a song called "El Chanchito," where they talk about this guy who works all these jobs on construction sites in the South to make money to bring to his girlfriend over the border. And, you know, that's brand new for the South. It's not for southern California, but for the South and the Midwest and a few other areas that are experiencing this explosion in the Latino population, it's brand new.

(Soundbite of song "El Chanchito")

CONTRERAS: Charlotte's rock en Espanol bands are starting to reach an Anglo audience in large part because a club in a neighborhood rarely visited by Latinos decided to take a chance on the music.

Mr. JOE KUHLMANN (Owner, Evening Muse): But they've worked hard at it.

CONTRERAS: The Evening Muse owned by Joe Kuhlmann and his wife, Lea. He's a transplant from New York State and they've run the club since 2001. Kuhlmann says he took a financial risk by hiring La Rua, but he says it wasn't about the money. He saw a chance to bridge cultural and language barriers.

Mr. KUHLMANN: Music as a medium itself, it's a higher form of communication than speech. When the music and the thought and the passion behind it is there, you'll come away from it with something.

(Soundbite of Spanish announcer)

CONTRERAS: Two years ago, the Carlotan Rock Festival attracted a large mixed audience when it moved to a theater across town. Last year, however, many Latinos stayed away from the open-air venue out of fear of immigration sweeps. So this year, it's back at Scandalos, where it started, and it's Anglos who have stayed away. Tonight, the club is packed almost entirely with Latinos.

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: Catalina Marin has come to hear her husband's band tonight. She's from Venezuela and she's been in Charlotte for 11 years. She wants Anglos to hear this music, but she says it also plays an essential role for Hispanics like her, who have been here for a while.

Ms. CATALINA MARIN: I think there's nostalgia for home. My husband started his band because he played in bands growing up his whole life, in Ecuador. And there wasn't anything like that here. So he really longed for it, and we want to continue to be surrounded by our music of our childhood. And, you know, more and more kids are getting together and forming bands and writing their own songs and singing Mana and Enanitos Verdes, all this music we all grew up with.

CONTRERAS: Some of the musicians performing tonight are the children of the area's first wave of Latino immigrants. Pilar Carillo came from Chile 10 years ago, and she's here to see her nephew's band. She's not really a fan of the music, but she recognizes its potential in her adopted home.

Ms. PILAR CARILLO: (Through translator) We are very happy that Latin music is growing here in Charlotte. Many Americans have heard this music before, and I think it unites us because it teaches them a little bit more about Latino culture. It is a big step forward for all of us.

CONTRERAS: Charlotte's rock en Espanol musicians and fans acknowledge Anglo support for the music is still small, and the racial and cultural divisions here are still wide. But they're counting on rock and roll's tried-and-true secret weapon, three chords and a great melody, to inspire a change. Felix Contreras, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: You can hear an extended interview with the musicians of La Luca and a full concert by another Charlotte band on

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