There's always been a truism in rock 'n' roll: sing it in English or don't bother to sing it at all. Despite fervent cults for German art-rock, French cabaret, and Japanese noise, native English speakers have relegated most foreign-language pop to the back of the musical bus. But the Spanish-language world is fighting back and it has a potent weapon: rock en Español. As with so much of the globe, many pop/rock musicians in Spain and Latin America (as well as Latino players in the U.S.) merely imitated their Anglo-American counterparts from the '50s through the '70s. There were exceptions, of course. From Ritchie Valens through Santana and Los Lobos, the West Coast began exporting a unique Latino rock subculture — though much of it was in English.
That started to change during the '80s, when musicians across Spain, Latin America, and the United States — raised on rock and ranchera, beatbox and bolero — began mixing it all up and singing about things that mattered to them, in Spanish — global commercialism be damned. Unsurprisingly, rock en Español got its initial start in countries with the closest ties to the United States or Europe, namely Mexico, Argentina, and Spain. Despite disdain or outright hostility from local authorities, "los roqueros" flocked around such acts as El Tri, a smoky-voiced Mexican blues-rock outfit whose roots go back to the '60s and Mexico City's working class, and Charly Garcia, a musical rebel with a cause in a clamped-down Argentina.
It wasn't until the early '90s, though, that this movement bubbled up from the underground and became a force with which the English-speaking world has had to reckon. Spanish folk-rock duo Duncan Dhu signed to Sire and teamed with Argentinian rocker Miguel Mateos for a small-scale U.S. tour that proved there was an audience outside their home countries. Meanwhile, back home, the socially aware salsa/punk/cumbia/Afropop of Maldita Vecindad (Mexico); sassy alternative rock of Soda Stereo (Argentina); dreamy, swirling rock of Caifanes (Mexico); electro-dance grooves of Los Prisioneros (Chile); punk folklorico of Café Tacuba (Mexico); punk-funk-ska of Los Fabulosos Cadillacs (Argentina); sublime, quirky pop of Fobia (Mexico); beautiful, post-McCartney pop of Fito Paez (Argentina); lightweight pop-reggae of Mana (Mexico); and heavy, Doors-like rock of Heroes del Silencio (Spain) began filling clubs and stadiums. No doubt the movement has been helped along by the collapse of the region's military regimes, the introduction of MTV Latino, and the large Spanish-speaking population in los Estados Unidos.
By the mid- to late-'90s, there was cool stuff coming out of Panama (Los Rabanes); Venezuela (Desorden Publico, Los Amigos Invisibles); Colombia (Aterciopelados); Peru (Pedro Suarez-Vertiz); and the United States (Maria Fatal, Los Olvidados, King Chango, Yeska). In fact, rock en Español could end up being a victim of its own success. With a Grammy category to itself, at least two slick California-based fanzines (Retila, La Banda Elastica), specialty record labels (Aztlan, Grita!), and increased media exposure, the young genre could find its unique, fiery cross-cultural musical and political attitudes crushed by hype and a broader, mainstream audience. However, until then, rock en Español — with its often ferocious, soccer game-style live shows, musicians who can skillfully play both sides of the rhythmic border, and lyrics honed by culturally divergent situations — proves that rock's innate spirit doesn't talk only in English and can speak to everyone.
Two compilations are absolute musts — Silencio = Muerte: Red Hot + Latin (PolyGram/Hola, 1996, prod. various) and Reconquista! The Latin Rock Invasion (Rhino/Zyanya, 1997, prod. various). The former, a high point in the anti-AIDS "Red Hot" benefit discs, pairs leading Latin lights with cutting-edge English-language performers: Los Lobos with Money Mark; Café Tacuba with David Byrne; and Los Fabulosos Cadillacs with Fishbone. The latter disc is more of a historical sampler of the genre, though compiler Ruben Guevara keeps things on the punk and political end of the spectrum.
In terms of individual acts, here's the essential list: Maldita Vecindad, El Circo (BMG Latin, 1991, prod. Gustavo Santaolalla), a perfect introduction to the genre with its heady blend of cross-continental styles and social observation; Fito Paez, Circo Beat (WEA Latina, 1994, prod. Phil Manzanera, Fito Paez), the Beatles meet Elvis Costello in Buenos Aires; Plastilina Mosh, Aquamosh (Capitol, 1998, prod. Tom Rothrock, Rob Schnapf, Plastilina Mosh), Beck meets the Beastie Boys meets Esquivel in Mexico; Aterciopelados, La Pipa de la Paz (BMG Latin, 1996, prod. Phil Manzanera), inventive, intelligent rock fronted by the charismatic Andrea Echeverri; Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Rey Azucar (Sony Discos, 1995, prod. Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth), a propulsive pastiche of ska, reggae, and punk with some top-shelf guest stars (Mick Jones, Deborah Harry, Big Youth); Caifanes, El Silencio (BMG Latin, 1992, prod. Adrian Belew), moody yet hooky Cure-like art-rock; Soda Stereo, Cancion Animal (CBS Discos, 1990, prod. Gustavo Cerati, Zeta Bosio), muscular pop-psychedelia alt.rock; Los Amigos Invisibles, The New Sound of the Venezuelan Gozadera (Warner Bros./Luaka Bop, 1998, prod. Andres Levin), a party-rocking blend of disco, acid jazz, and bossa-nova lounge; Todos Tus Muertos, Dale Aborigen (Grita!, 1996, prod. Todos Tus Muertos, Guillermo Picolini), ultra-political Bad Brains-ish punk-funk from a group fronted by two Afro-Argentinians; Fobia, Amor Chiquito (BMG Latin, 1995, prod. Gustavo Santaolalla, Fobia), clever and quirky pop-rock; Café Tacuba, Café Tacuba (WEA Latina, 1992, prod. Gustavo Santaolalla) and Avalancha de Exitos (WEA Latina, 1996, prod. Gustavo Santaolalla, Anibal Kerpel), both fun stylistic hodgepodges, ranging from Mexican traditionalism to Beck-ish post-modernism, marred only by the sometimes screeching vocals of Cosme (who changes names every album); and Mana, Donde Jugaran Los Ninos? (WEA Latina, 1992, prod. Fher, Alex Quintana, Jose Quintana), the best album from the Guadalajara outfit whose mix of Police-lite reggae, environmentalism, and suave good looks has made it a major act at home and the first rock en Español band to move to the arena level in the States.
Finally, rock en Español is as diverse as its English counterpart. There's ska, rap, and even Celtic-Hispano rock. One of the best of the ska-influenced bands is Desorden Publico, whose two U.S. albums — Canto Popular de la Vida y Muerte (Sony Discos, 1995, prod. Carlos Savalla) and Plomo Revienta (Sony Latin, 1997, prod. K.C. Porter)—are breezy and infectious. Pura Eskañol: Latin Ska Underground (Aztlan, 1997, prod. various) is a solid compilation of U.S.-based acts. Rap en Español exploded in the mid-'90s thanks to albums such as Molotov's Donde Jugaran Las Ninas? (Universal, 1997, prod. Gustavo Santaolalla) — whose title is a take-off on the popular Mana album mentioned above — and Control Machete's Mucho Barato (PolyGram Latino, 1996, prod. Jason Roberts, Antonio Hernandez), both Mexican acts very much influenced by Cypress Hill and the Beastie Boys. The best, though, may come from Spain's Latino Diablo, whose El Mundo No Es de la Gente Humilde (Grita, 1998, prod. Latino Diablo) pounds hard yet has subtle touches. Also from Spain, Celtas Cortos combine a love of both Celtic and Spanish cultures on the knockout En Estos Dias Inciertos . . . (WEA Latina, 1996, prod. Eugenio Munoz, Celtas Cortos).
Some of the most striking music in the genre doesn't get released by American labels, and Latin divisions of U.S. companies are notoriously dim-witted about promoting rock en Español. That means seeking out mom-and-pops or small chains in Latino neighborhoods that carry imports from Latin America to find such gems as Spain's Los Planetas, whose Super 8 (BMG Mexico, 1995) is an explosion of Replacements/Nirvana-style riff-o-rama.
Source: MusicHound World: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 2000.