Bustling Latin Music Festival In NYC

“No Human Being Is Illegal,” read the T-shirt worn by the rapper Residente, leading the Puerto Rican group Calle 13, as he started the band’s concert at Celebrate Brooklyn! on Friday night. Calle 13, which swept the Latin Grammy Awards in 2011, revved up an exultant global party. Residente and the singer Ileana Cabra Joglar, his sister, jumped all over the stage to music that drew on idioms from across the Americas and beyond, from the Andes to the Middle East and from hip-hop scratching to a theremin solo by Calle 13’s other leader, the composer and producer Visitante. Meanwhile Residente’s lyrics delivered a socially conscious manifesto: sometimes wry, often hardheaded. “Let’s dance the way the poor people dance,” one song urged.

Residente of the Puerto Rican rap group Calle 13.
Calle 13’s show, drawing a beyond-capacity crowd to the Prospect Park Bandshell, was the largest event at the 13th annual Latin Alternative Music Conference. From Wednesday through Saturday this gathering of musicians and their dedicated business infrastructure — about 1,250 conference attendees — brought performers from Spain and the Americas to clubs and outdoor stages in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. Residente’s T-shirt came off long before Calle 13’s finale: “Latinoamericano,” a tribute to Latin American struggle, unity and tenacity. It was a fitting centerpiece to the conference’s concerts, which often returned — in this election year — to thoughts of self-determination, immigration and political power.

Tenacity and self-determination are also themes for the annual conference. Latin alternative music is the open-ended term for non-mainstream rock, pop, hip-hop and dance music, both imported and made in the U.S.A. It’s a music-business underdog because it largely defies current marketing niches and radio formats, particularly in the United States, where lyrics in Spanish face a language barrier.

At its best Latin alternative music is a hybrid and a harbinger, devising and flaunting multicultural possibilities as the Latino and bilingual population grows in the United States. At its worst it’s American and British pop in translation, a reminder that economic power assists cultural dominance. But for many performers Anglo styles are just one more useful source. “Our English is not so good,” the Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux told the audience at Celebrate Brooklyn! on Friday night. “But we know what is the most important: Spanglish.”

In the Spanish-speaking world hip-hop has retained its social fervor. Conference shows featured two spitfire Spanish-language rappers — women who could teach American rappers a broader perspective, not to mention a sense of melody. Both Ms. Tijoux, who shared the bill with Calle 13, and the Spanish rapper Mala Rodríguez, who headlined a concert on Wednesday at Central Park Summerstage, switch easily between rapping and singing, and they performed with live musicians. More important, both had more to offer than boasts.

Ms. Rodríguez’s songs merged tough-gal self-affirmation with tales of urban poverty and desperation in a set that was a crescendo from funk and reggae into incendiary hard rock. Ms. Tijoux had an even stronger voice, musically and polemically. She sang with a tart, jazzy tinge (reminiscent of Erykah Badu) and rapped with forthright insistence, often constructing her lyrics to change from double to triple time, underlining their urgency with the built-in acceleration. Her songs mingle autobiography with openly political exhortations: remembering Chile’s dictatorship, warning against quiescence and corporate control, welcoming the activism of younger generations. At Celebrate Brooklyn! she infused it all with confidence and hope.

Kinky, the Mexican band that headlined a Central Park Summerstage concert on Saturday afternoon, was more ominous but no less propulsive. Its songs ride funk and rock riffs that hark back to the dance-rock of the early 1980s, with a rough edge on keyboards and guitar — but punctuated, every so often, by accordion lines out of Mexican border music. Meanwhile its lyrics fling images of consumerism as brainwashing and distraction, and of partying toward self-destruction, none of which stopped fans from dancing. Kinky shared the bill with Los Auténticos Decadentes, an Argentine band formed in the 1980s, whose songs were far more cheerful about bad-boy behavior; they bounded ahead, mingling ska with cumbia, as a good part of the audience shouted along.

Saturday’s bill also included 3BallMTY (pronounced “Tribal Monterrey”), a Mexican group that had a major Latin hit with its debut album, “Inténtalo,” released at the end of 2011. Its music pushes the clip-clopping rhythm of cumbia into electronic dance music, mechanizing and modernizing it into a beat the group calls “tribal guarachero.” The album offers pop songs with guest vocalists, but onstage 3BallMTY was all electronic club fare: three producers at laptops and a mixer, layering beats and samples for a kinetic set that segued amid house, electro, hip-hop and Latin percussion before finally unleashing its pop vocal hooks.

The current epidemic of simplistic synth-pop has not spared Latin America. Smaller conference showcases at the Mercury Lounge and the Gramercy Theater had more than their share of forgettable programmed ditties.

But they also included performers forging Pan-American music with both roots and contemporary ideas. The Mexican songwriter Carla Morrison — who won, rightly, the conference’s Artist Discovery Award for this year — used her sweet, clear soprano in pristinely romantic love songs, with hints of 1950s ballads and of Mexican tradition; she dedicated one of them to Mexico’s student resistance movement. La Santa Cecilia, from Los Angeles, touched on folky Mexican styles, 1960s soul and a Mexicanized version of the Soft Cell hit “Tainted Love” — a Los Angeles radio favorite — all held together by the volatile dynamics of its lead singer, Marisol: delicate, richly tremulous or flat-out bluesy.

Martín Buscaglia, from Uruguay, made himself a one-man band with a looping machine, playfully syncopated guitar and slyly literate lyrics; one mentioned Stephen Hawking. And La Vida Bohème, a Venezuelan band making a return appearance after last year’s conference, rocketed through songs with tumultuous post-punk momentum, some anthemic choruses and a proud vow, in English: “Latin America is the future.”

–Courtesy of New York Times

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