Get into the Spanish indie music scene in this week’s music column. Economics senior and Mustang News music columnist Parker Evans gives you the lowdown on some artists to check out.
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Parker Evans is an economics senior and Mustang News music columnist.
If your relationship with Spanish music is limited to radio channel surfing, you might be forgiven for thinking the “genre” is composed solely of cheesy Mexican folk songs or overly energetic corridos.
Fortunately, that’s not the case. The Spanish-language indie scene may not receive much (or any) press in the United States, but enterprising souls have access to Internet radio, websites like Club Fonograma and podcasts like NPR’s invaluable Alt.Latino. For proper Californians who at least dabble in Spanish, music is a wonderful way to hone language skills, but fluency is certainly not a requirement to enjoy it. If your tastes lean toward the alternative side, here are a few artists to keep an eye on.
North America and the Caribbean
There are parts of the Southwest where the cultural border between the United States and Mexico is blurred. That’s where Calexico calls home, comfortably switching between English and Spanish and fusing elements of spaghetti westerns, Mexican folk and California rock.
Further south, Mexico City is a veritable hotbed of alternative music. When resident Natalia Lafourcade isn’t recording tribute albums to Mexican guitarists, her piano-driven pop (exemplified on the playful Hu Hu Hu) is the very definition of whimsy. Her frequent collaborator, Adanowsky, couldn’t be more different. Adanowsky’s songs are in no hurry, meandering along and steeped in melancholy, accompanied by little more than a reluctant guitar.
The Mexico City scene is actively attracting talent from around the world. Chilean artist Mariel Mariel relocated there to release her first EP, which is poised to turn her into a big name. Mexico City isn’t content with just emulating American music, and Mariel Mariel’s excellent “Foto Pa Ti” shows why. The song’s quiet club intensity spends a couple of minutes building slowly while Mariel’s nonchalant come-ons never rise far beyond a whisper. When the song does explode, it does so with an onslaught of guitar that wouldn’t be out of place on a TV On The Radio record.
Moving on to the Caribbean, there’s plenty to find if you’re a fan of reggae or its seemingly infinite variations. Fortunately, there’s some solid pop and rock hidden underneath the tropical outer layers. Puerto Rican fuzz-rock band Davila 666 is one such group. Fans of Wavves or Smith Westerns (former touring partners) will be at home with Davila 666’s unapologetically scuzzed-out lo-fi production, and tracks like “Eso Que Me Haces” show why the band has developed a following on the mainland.
One of the region’s most exciting exports is Jarina De Marco, a Dominican Brooklynite who brought the island with her to America. She was initially discovered by Wyclef Jean, of all people, who was so impressed with her, he signed her to his label and produced her videos. De Marco flits between English, Spanish patois and occasionally French (she spent time in Montreal), but the way she engages, encourages and subverts the “sexy, fiery Latina” stereotype is and will be fascinating to watch. More importantly, the early music she has released so far is excellent. Her captivating Santeria-driven cover (by the loosest definition possible) of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You” samples Biggie’s “Kick In the Door.” If that sentence isn’t enough to pique your interest, I don’t know what is.
If there’s a capital of Spanish-language indie music in 2014, the city with the best case is certainly Santiago, Chile. The crop of artists Santiago has raised in the past decade is stocked with depth and breadth of genre, from the Blitzen Trapper-inspired folk of Fernando Milagros to the youthful electro-pop of Denver.
Santiago’s current patriarch of indie pop is Daniel Riveros, better known as Gepe. His second album, 2007’s Audiovision, put Gepe on the map and highlighted a talent for effortlessly integrating traditional Latin and Andean sounds and rhythms into excellent pop. This is the man future Latin artists will point to as a chief influence.
Fellow santiaguinos Astro might be described as a pagan, nature-worshiping MGMT. The group’s enduring weirdness is infectious, as evidenced by Astro’s press beyond Chile’s borders, but we’ll have to wait and see if it can deliver a solid sophomore album.
Another rising Chilean artist with an affinity for the synth is Javiera Mena. After an impressively self-assured full debut in 2010, Mena is ready to drop her follow-up in the next few months. Her last album featured a collaboration with Jens Lenkman, which is a solid indication as to the level of respect this young artist already commands.
Those looking for a singer sans synth might warm up to Francisca Valenzuela, a Chilean-American singer, songwriter and pianist whose playful pop quickly brings to mind Regina Spektor. Given her immediate charisma and clever wordplay, it’s a wonder her music hasn’t yet exploded.
While Santiago holds the crown, South America still has plenty to offer. Looking eastward to Argentina, Onda Vaga’s communal folk is the stuff of campfires and joyous, drunken sing-alongs. You can’t go wrong anywhere on their best album, Fuerte y Caliente, but “Mambeado” in particular is a highlight.
The region’s best rock band, however, is in Caracas. La Vida Bohème manages to combine Latin rhythms, rock chops and a punk-inspired ethos without making any sacrifices. It’s hard not to be enthralled by singer Henry D’Arthenay’s sharp guitar and Venezuelan accent. Though the band’s most recent offering, Sera, is a slight departure from the Ramones-worship of La Vida Bohème’s earlier output, its scope and pacing more than make up for the change in energy.
Unsurprisingly, Spain has a richer rock history than its compatriots across the Atlantic. Only recently, however, has a sizeable indie movement surfaced after being buried underneath the mass of Euro-rock for so many years. A perfect example is Mujeres, a Murcian band who cites its biggest influence as San Francisco’s Thee Oh Sees, half a world away. Mujeres does justice to its idols, especially on the mostly English-language Soft Gems, which has enough finger-shredding riffs to hang with the West Coast psych-punk scene.
Spain certainly isn’t at a lack for singer-songwriters either. Listeners a bit more comfortable with the language should waste no time in checking out Sr. Chinarro, whose clever wordplay and measured, low tenor recall Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields. This past year, Destroyer’s Dan Bejar released a five-song EP that covered the work of Sr. Chinarro, but couldn’t do justice to the magnificent songwriting of the Sevillian artist.
Jero Romero is another name to watch out for. Formerly the lead singer of alternative group The Sunday Drivers, Romero’s subdued solo debut Cabeza De León flew under the radar, but should be familiar to fans of M. Ward or Rogue Wave.
Those looking for a more straightforward pop/rock band should seek out long-standing Spanish scene fixture La Habitación Roja. The group’s Britpop leaning represents the best of Spain’s old guard, but the new kids are taking over.
For a more complete picture of alternative Spanish-language music, check out Parker’s Spotify playlist below.