Can Latin Music Bust Out of… Latin Music?

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd | July 7th, 2011

Iconoclastic ingenue Rita Indiana will play at both SummerStage (as a part of LAMC) and at The Spot this summer.

About five years ago, I saw the New York bachata group Aventura headline Madison Square Garden. Riding high off their mega-hit “Un Beso,” a tender ballad with virtuoso guitar work, the sold-out crowd was collectively palpitating, not just at the R&B-informed smoothness of heartbreaker lead Anthony Santos (they nicknamed him “Romeo” for a reason), but at the profound pride of seeing hometown sons, first-generation Dominicans from the Bronx, ascend to perform in this hallowed hall. They were joined onstage by a procession of Latin pop royalty, including reggaeton stars Wisin y Yandel and Don Omar, and the audience waved Dominican and Puerto Rican flags, a show of musical unity. That specific show was later made into a well-received live recording, and in January 2010 Aventura performed once again at Madison Square Garden, for a series of farewell shows that sold out so quickly they had to keep adding more. In the end, they played four last-shows-ever in the arena. Four.

So why, when a group like Aventura attains deified status and tops Billboard, does it seem like sometimes the Latin music conversation is only happening within Latin music? Major New York newspapers covered the show, but it still felt like a self-contained event. Even when Latinos comprise the second-most populous ethic group in the city (or first, we’ll find out July 12 when they government drops our state census numbers — I personally wrote in “Chicana”) it feels like a marginal situation. If mainstream media is to be believed, Latin music consists exclusively of salsa, Shakira and J.Lo. Oh, and mariachis, but only in restaurants, amirite?!

And when it comes to parsing out music scenes within various Latino groups in the city, things only seem to get stranger. Latinos in New York come together for big box event concerts — a Marc Anthony show is like a Latin American UN convention. But outside of the huge-draw musicians, it can be hard to connect sounds, styles, people and boroughs — particularly when it comes to flourishing subcultural and/or newer genres like digital cumbia, tropical, ruidoson and the ever-nebulous “global bass” music.

“It’s really difficult challenging preconceived notions of what a Latin party should sound like,” says Geko Jones, a producer and DJ for celebrated New York tropical night Que Bajo?, held at Santos Party House. “In the Heights, you have a lot more Dominicans, so you have to know what they like. In Queens, there are more Mexicans, Central and South Americans so there, too, you have to know how to play to win. Uptown in the Bronx you have that whole boricua roots, bomba plena y salsa movement, and again you face challenges. The reason we’ve positioned ourselves in LES is to serve as a middle ground for all these sounds to come together along with other forms of Afro-Caribbean and globally enhanced club sounds.”

In July, underground Latino music is having a banner month in the city, with the return of the Latin Alternative Music Conference (LAMC) and the debut of The Spot, a monthlong warehouse jam curated by Latin events and culture website Remezcla.com. Both are showcasing some of the best in modern underground/lesser-known-than-Marc Anthony Latino music, and both promise to bring together various factions of hip young Latinos — maybe first generation, maybe third or fifth, but who have a tie to their family’s country of origin and stay clued into American underground pop culture, too. Que Bajo? has become one of the best dance parties in the city, no matter the genre, while the Web sites Remezcla and Mex and the City throw great events and keep New Yorkers up on Latin music happenings.

What’s changing, says LAMC’s Tomas Cookman, who started the festival 12 years ago, is that like the rest of the music industry, Latin music has become increasingly DIY — and those people, are in turn, getting younger. “In Latino music, the gatekeepers were historically an older demographic,” says Cookman, who grew up on the Lower East Side but now lives in Los Angeles. “They didn’t live rock and roll in the early ’60s. Whereas when we get guys from say, Venezuela, saying rock music is still something foreign and still music you keep away from your daughter, the daughter wants to listen to it. So it’s opened up opportunities.”

One of the musicians perverting traditional styles into music your daughters want to jam is the phenomenal Rita Indiana, a mystical Dominicana whose digital take on indigeneous gaga music and streetwise merengue culminated in one of last year’s best albums, El Juidero. An iconoclast who started her career as a novelist (she wrote a celebrated novel as a teen that’s still part of the school curriculum in the DR), the former model’s music, presence and spirit is that of a singular ingenue, an innovative vocalist with a miles-deep mean mug and a tendency towards genderbending. She’ll be both at Central Park SummerStage for LAMC and at The Spot, a kind of liaison between the ideologies that drive each.

Meanwhile, the world turns. Nacional Records, the alt-Latin label Cookman runs, will begin airing La Hora de Nacional, a new show on MTV Tres, beginning July 17. Two days later, Dutty Artz, the record label Geko Jones co-runs, will release the new album by the performance artist Kalup Linzy and the super-achiever James Franco.

“There’s a lot out there,” says Cookman. “We’re not all painting bullfighters all day.”

LAMC is at various venues through the week, and The Spot is in Nolita starting July 15.