U.S. Crossover Hits Elude Latin Alternative Latin alternative can mix salsa and rock, or flamenco and hip-hop. It's wildly popular in the Spanish-speaking world, but it has yet to find that widespread popularity in the United States.

U.S. Crossover Hits Elude Latin Alternative

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


And I'm Michele Norris.

Latin music rang up $650,000,000 worth of sales last year in the U.S. according to the Recording Industry Association of America. It's one of the bright spots in an otherwise stagnant industry, and some insiders predict Latin sales will swell to a billion dollars a year within this decade.

Of all the Latin music offerings, one of the most critically acclaimed is Latin Alternative. It can mix salsa and rock or flamenco and hip hop. It's a hit in the Spanish-speaking world, but as NPR's Neda Ulaby reports in the second part of our four part series, Latin alternative has yet to find widespread popularity in the U.S.


NEDA ULABY: About 10 years ago, an American college student named Josh Norrick (ph) visited Argentina and was intrigued by this blend of Latin music and ska.


JOSH NORRICK: The first time I heard this music, I became an instant convertido. I was offended as soon as I heard Los Fabuloso Cadillac that I had never heard their music in the United States. I knew my calling was to bring this to as wide an audience as possible.

ULABY: Josh Norrick is now a one-man Latin Alternative hype machine. He co- founded a Latin Alternative music conference, he runs a Latin Alternative record label, and he manages the U.S. careers of half a dozen musicians with major label deals at home. And Norrick plays in his own Latin Alternative band that reflects his Jewish roots. It's called The Hip Hop Hoodios.


ULABY: Josh Norrick says the Hoodios audience is about half Anglo and half Latino. With other bands he manages, the breakdown varies. An example is a band called Jiguares (ph). They sell out stadiums in Mexico, but like many other Latin alternative groups, their U.S. audiences are divided.

NORRICK: You have the recent immigrants who bring their love of a group like Jiguares with them when they come to America, and that's a reason why Jiguares can now tour 25 cities rather than five cities in this country.


NORRICK: And then you have the kids who are in college who, maybe, if their parents or grandparents immigrated here, and they're reconnecting with their roots. Maybe they grew up listening to English music first and foremost and they discover Ozo Matle (ph) or Café Tecouva (ph) later in life.


ULABY: Ozo Matle and Café Tecouva have earned praise from the mainstream media and a sizeable non-Latino fan base. Still, Latin Alternative has yet to impress recording executives in the United States.

RAPHAEL FERNANDAS: It doesn't really register that much on my scale.

ULABY: Raphael Fernandas is Vice President of Latin Music for the Recording Industry Association of America. He says more than half of the Latin music sold in this country is Mexican regional and another 40 percent is primarily pop. Latin Alternative does not sell enough to matter. Still, Fernandas listens to it and he likes it.

FERNANDAS: I think it's something that Latin music needs. It needs to continue to evolve and reinvent itself in order to continue to grow. And I think we have huge growth potential. And certainly Latin Alternative music is one of those that can push it into the next level.

ULABY: Except for one big obstacle: radio.


ULABY: Latin alternative is too Latin for English language rock stations and it's too weird for Latin radio. Enrique Levine is an arts editor for the Newark Star Ledger. He's actually heard the word weird used by Hispanic radio programmers to describe Latin alternative.

ENRIQUE LEVINE: It was just an example of what the mentality was at the Latin labels, at the Latin radio stations at the time, which was, if it doesn't sound Latin, then it isn't Latin.


ULABY: This musician, Manu Ciao (ph), is from Spain. He sings in a variety of languages and, like many Latin alternative artists, incorporates music from all over the world. Journalist Enrique Levine says mainstream Hispanic radio stations in the U.S. would never play Manu Ciao because their music is programmed in rigid formats like tropical or reggaeton. Latin alternative is played on some public and college radio stations but, in this country, that's basically it.


ULABY: New listeners to Latin Alternative tend to skew middle class and young. And they'll often learn about a band like Nortec Collective (ph) online, says Josh Norrick. And Norrick says sales are no longer confined to traditional Latino population centers.

NORRICK: For example, with Nortec Collective, people would assume that, since the group is from Tijuana just over the border from San Diego that, after LA, San Diego would be the number two market in America. So imagine when we get our sales report and we see Seattle is. Well, why is Seattle our number two market? Seattle has a very big electronica dance scene and it also has a very large Mexican population.


ULABY: Norrick says about 90% of Nortec Collective's sales come through the Internet. But it's nearly impossible to accurately track sales of a more established band like Jiguares. You can find its albums at Borders, but also at bodegas, where sales data is not collected by Sound Scan. And many of those disks may be pirated.

There's a larger problem in tracking Latin Alternative. It's just too diverse to pin down. Ozo Matle or Jiguares are readily described as Latin Alternative, but the band Mars Volta is not, even though it's originally from El Paso, Texas, and the musicians sing in English and Spanish.


ULABY: Josh Norrick says Mars Volta may portend Latin Alternative's future.

NORRICK: My girlfriend's 15 year old sister refuses to listen to Spanish rock. She's first generation Salvadoran American, but she worships Mars Volta. So in my mind, the key is to be viewed as just a legitimate artist, to recognize that 15 percent of this country is Hispanic, and that we don't have to be just pigeonholed as in the Latin section of a record store.

ULABY: Latin alternative boosters would love to see more crossover artists like Mars Volta or Shakira. But many musicians say they're fine with Latin Alternative exactly where it is: stubbornly uncategorizable and available to anyone who takes the time to seek it out.


ULABY: Andrea Echeberi (ph) of the group Atercio Palados (ph) has seen her popularity from country to country and album to album.

ANDREA ECHEBERI: We don't believe in the mainstream.

ULABY: Echeberi says for years, she's heard Latin Alternative is on the verge of being mined and marketed to the masses by major labels in the United States.

ECHEBERI: And it hasn't. And I'm glad. Because there's no pressure. You're much more independent. You can do what you want to do.

ULABY: Latin Alternative has gotten just big enough so someone like Echeberi can make a living as a musician and please her fans by pleasing herself.


ULABY: Tomorrow, a look at a producer who's making that possible. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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