I wrote this piece for MSN Music back in March, as part of my trip to SXSW, but they never ran it. (They paid me anyway, which was nice of them.) Since Ximena Sariñana's album comes out on Tuesday, I'm putting it here. Enjoy!
The Latin rock scene has produced some of the most vital, exciting music of the last 20 years. But where the first wave of Mexican and South American bands, like Café Tacuba, Maldita Vecindad, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs and Caifanes insisted on singing in Spanish and thereby establishing the “rock en Español” genre, a new generation of equally impressive Latin acts is writing and performing in English. In some cases, this causes some controversy in their home countries and with older listeners, but in others, it’s seen as a positive sign that cultural barriers are being broken down through the universal language of music. Three such performers appeared at South by Southwest.
Hometown: Mexico City, Mexico
Album: Tre3s (Arts & Crafts)
Check out: “Roni”
Mexican indie pop band Chikita Violenta’s songs have strong melodies that are occasionally washed over by waves of sweetened guitar noise. It’s no surprise they worked with Broken Social Scene’s producer, Dave Newfeld, or that they’ve toured the US with Ra Ra Riot and Built To Spill; all of those bands’ anthemic guitar rock can be heard as influences on their sound. The group’s third album, Tre3s, sits comfortably alongside alternative/indie rock from any country.
Indeed, if the average listener heard a Chikita Violenta song without knowing the band’s country of origin, their Mexican-ness would come as a surprise. And this is partly the point. Says guitarist Esteban Suarez, “There’s French bands that sing in English, Swedish bands that sing in English, there’s bands that make up their own language [safe to assume this is a reference to Sigur Rós, not Magma - ed.], and I think we’ve earned our place after 10 years of being a band in Mexico, establishing our scene and sound.”
Vocalist Luis Arce says of their decision to write and perform in English, “Music-wise, it’s a language we feel more comfortable with, even though we’re proudly Mexican and our native tongue is Spanish. But for our music, ever since we started composing and doing our own stuff, it just came naturally. If we ever come across a song and it comes out in Spanish, we’ll do it in Spanish, you know?”
They’ve encountered some resistance from Mexican radio, according to keyboardist Armando Ortigosa. “It’s hard to break their preconceptions about how Mexican bands have to sing in Spanish, because they take it as a sign of disrespect to Mexico.” Fortunately, the fans don’t seem as concerned, and the band feels that their music is succeeding on its own terms—which is all they really want. “With Tre3s, I think we’ve managed to put together all the elements we’ve been looking for for a really long time and say, this is what Chikita Violenta sounds like. For all of us in the band, it’s the first time we’ve listened to a complete album and said that’s what we want to hear. Where we’re going from here, who knows?”
Hometown: Guadalajara, Mexico
Album: Ximena Sariñana (Warner Bros.)
Check out: “Different”
Ximena Sariñana started out as a child actress, appearing in several movies and telenovelas. She released her debut CD, Mediocre, in 2008, and sang a Spanish-language duet with Jason Mraz on his song “Lucky” (Colbie Caillat sang the English-language version). She’s also been a frequent collaborator with her offstage boyfriend, guitarist Omar Rodriguez Lopez of the Mars Volta; she can be heard on several of his solo CDs, and has toured with his group.
Sariñana’s second solo CD, a self-titled effort, fits more or less into the female singer-songwriter subgenre, as heard on VH1. The lyrics to songs like “Wrong Miracle” and “Different” are introspective, yet quirky, not unlike the work of artists like Sara Bareilles (with whom Sariñana will be touring in 2011) or Feist, and the arrangements are piano-based with additional elements coming from laptops and other instruments as necessary.
“There was a lot of writing and producing at the same time, where on my first record I wrote the songs for piano and voice and we added stuff on them,” says Sariñana about the creative process behind the disc. “There was a lot of writing for different instruments, and production while writing, and I think that changes the way the songs sound. It’s a bigger, more electronic and more produced sound.
“It’s a harder industry in the US, because it’s more competitive than in Mexico,” she continues. “It’s way harder to make a record. For the first record I wrote 15 songs, for this one I had to write 30. The first record took me a month and a half to record, this one took a year and a half.”
Hometown: Valencia, Spain
Album: Getting Down From The Trees (Nacional)
Check out: “Fireworks”
Spanish band Polock (named for painter Jackson Pollock, and yes, the misspelling is deliberate) have just released their first full-length CD, Getting Down From The Trees, following a self-released EP keyboardist Alberto Rodilla describes as the low-budget product of a pure desperation to be heard.
Bands from Spain have it tough; the Latin music market is dominated by acts from Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America, and the country itself is still culturally somewhat conservative, a holdover from Franco’s decades-long rule. But things are looking up; says Rodilla, “It’s not that easy to get into the North American market coming from Spain, because there’s never been bands that have toured the US or England. We’re now beginning to create a movement where bands are getting in, like Delorean or El Guincho, or right now us.”
The band has hints of Television’s arty guitar interplay, mixed with the atmospheric synths of Pink Floyd and Joy Division. Listeners who enjoy Interpol could easily find space for Polock in their iPods. These are the sounds that the bandmembers grew up on, and that’s what influenced their decision to sing in English. “It’s not about the market only,” explains Rodilla. “I mean, it is as well, but if you hear rock music it’s the same in Spain or in the United States, you know. Everybody gets Lou Reed, Television, the Doors, it’s always English music. It’s the language that goes with that kind of style. So we didn’t really think about making it in Spanish.”
Las Robertas were all over SXSW as well and are one of the best Latin rock bands doing the English thing right now. Another to watch out for is Mentira Mentira, who just dropped an incredible album.
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