ON ANY GIVEN SUMMER SATURDAY, New York City's Central Park is a sonic traffic jam. Hip-hop beats and salsa rhythms blare out of boomboxes, busking folkies strum guitars, skatepunks skid along to ska. It's normal for such divergent sounds to bump and bleed into each other. What's odd is for them all to originate from the same band.
When Cafe Tacuba played Central Park SummerStage recently, a whole world of music crammed onto one stage. The lead singer, Anonimo, bounded around in a tropical embroidered shirt, firing off lyrics in rapid Spanish and shaking a little percussive egg. The band had that amiably unkempt look that says "musician" in any language: baggy pants, untucked shirts, sneakers, shaggy hair. Some of the songs had the jumpy beat of high-speed reggae; others had the slashing guitar of punk. Some had fat, cheesy keyboard riffs straight out of '70s funk; others had mariachistyle jarana guitar. What held this glorious mishmash together was a single, driving principle: cafe Tacuba rocked. This wasn't world music, some piously promoted, preciously marketed artifact of someone else's revolution. This was weirdly American music, crushed and retooled by a group of very smart Latin Americans who delighted in throwing it back at us.
Passersby were being introduced to the strange, hybridized universe of Rock en Espanol. For the last 10 years or so, bands from Mexico, Argentina, Venezuela and Colombia have been reworking not just rock and roll but all the different strains that feed into and spin off it, from reggae and ska to hip-hop and hard core, They work these influences into a Latin sensibility, complete with ranchera rhythms, mariachi brass and flamenco flourishes. Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, from Buenos Aires, are a wacked-out party band. Todos Tus Muertos (All Your Dead), also from Buenos Aires, are a gang of stomping Latino metalheads who could easily flatten any suburban kid with a Mohawk. Aterciopelados (Velvety Ones), from Bogota, have a slightly hippieish female singer and a folk-pop style with echoes of R.E.M. Uniting these bands--and this is a point of pride--is that they all sing in Spanish.
Now audiences are starting to latch on. And it's white audiences and culture hounds, as well as U.S. Latinos who crave an alternative to the gloppy, Anglo-style pop that dominates Spanish radio and TV. Imagine "La Bamba" times 100, or an entire community of bands like Los Lobos, wrenching apart conventional structures and sticking them back together. The best Rock en Espanol bands-especially those from Argentina, where the movement got its starts--have an innate understanding of what makes a song come alive. "Argentines, my God, they really understand rock and pop deeply," says Maribel Schumacher, head of Warner Music's Alterlatino department. "It's the only Latin American country that has assimilated rock to the same extent as the Americans or the Brits. There's a maturity in their compositions that to me is telling of a people who've grown up with rock from day one."
The movement is growing among Latinos and whites alike. Los Fabulosos Cadillacs are probably the biggest Rock en Espanol band: their new album, "Fabulosos Calavera" ("Fabulous Skull"), went gold in just two days in Argentina, and their songs have shown up in hipster films like "Grosse Pointe Blank" and Quentin Tarantino's "Curdled." The Red Hot Organization has released "Silencio = Muerte," the latest in a series of compilations to benefit AIDS charities. A brilliant mix of pop, hip-hop and Latin rock, "Silecio = Muerte" features a salacious sendup of Tom Jones's "What's New Pussycat?" by Los Fabulosos Cadillacs with Fishbone. U.S. major labels, which previously left the music to their Latin American branches, are joining in: Geffen just released the "Star Maps" soundtrack, which beautifully juxtaposes Rock en Espanol bands with Anglo artists like Big Star and Nick Drake. "There's artful, imaginative music going on, and the U.S. major labels haven't recognized it," says Geffen's Tony Berg. "This is a priority for us. It's our first time in this field, and we don't want to look stupid."
Still, like any renegade genre, Rock en Espanol has inroads to make. Mainstream Spanish radio won't play it; programmers are scared of the jarring electric guitars, punkish energy and stylistic twists. And when it comes to white audiences, there's an obvious barrier: language. Supporters find this disheartening. "This is rock music--the Language is secondary,'' says Yuzzy Acosta, of the U.S. independent label Grita! "You didn't go see 'Like Water for Chocolate' because it was a film en espanol; you went because it was a good film. You don't read Gabriel Garcia Marquez because it's literature en espanol; you read it because it's good literature."
The beauty of Rock en Espanol is that it does translate. What Cafe Tacuba or Todos Tus Muertos offer is the sense that this music really matters. Maybe that's because the music began as a rebellion against the repressive military regimes of the '60s, '70s and '80s. In Argentina there were blacklists, radio censorship and the constant threat of the military's closing down shows. "They were risking their lives to play above ground," says Javler Andrade of MTV Latin America. (In Mexico, rock and roll was actually illegal from 1971 to 1979.) But by the late '80s, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs were playing to huge, enthusiastic audiences in Argentina. Tomas Cookman, an American living in Buenos Aires, saw the potential. "They got about as big as a band can get in Argentina," he says. "I said, 'You know what, guys? I'm going to take this out and see what happens'."
Cookman booked them into rock clubs like L.A.'s Coconut Teaser and New York's CBGB. From there, interest kept building. Now Los Fabulosos Cadillacs have sold more than a quarter-million albums in the United States alone; Aterciopelados are the first Colombian rock act to have a gold album in their own country. Cafe Tacuba is currently the object of a fierce U.S. major-label bidding war. And Rock en Espanol shows--like the recent Rock invasion tour, which grossed nearly half a million dollars at two sold-out L.A. performances--are turning into raucous demonstrations of musical pride. "There's a tradition of shouting, 'Culero, eulero!' ["Assh---!"] whenever the band slows down," says Alejandro Flores of Cafe Tacuba. "But it isn't criticism. It's to spur the band on, as if to say, 'Come on, show us what you've got!'"
But a real measure of the genre's future here may be the dollar signs flashing in U.S. record executives' eyes. Imagine the early '90s feeding frenzy that happened in Seattle, spread out over several continents. Kevin Benson, the L.A.-based manager of the influential Mexican band Caifanes, says he's "mining" Colombia. "We found a band down there playing to a huge crowd in a soccer stadium," he says blissfully. "They didn't even have a record deal."
Cafe Tacuba "Re" (Warner, 1994) Los Babulosos Cadillacs "Fabulosos Calavera" (BMG, 1997) King Chango "King Chango" (Luaka Bop, 1996) Aterciopelados "La Pipa de la Paz" (BMG, 1996) Todos Tus Muertos "Dale Aborigene" (Grita! 1996) Red Hot + Latin "Silencio = Muerte" (H.O.L.A./Polygram, 1996) Star Maps Original motion-picture soundtrack (DGC, 1997)