Latin alternative music finds a niche in the US
In this photo taken Thursday, March 8, 2012, singer and songwriter Gaby Moreno is shown in Miami. Moreno, a native of Guatemala, is among a small but growing number of alternative musicians and rockers who sing mostly in Spanish but are gaining a diverse fan base across the U.S. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
MIAMI (AP) — Gaby Moreno steps onto the stage of the dark Miami club, cradling her guitar. Glasses clink. Voices ricochet across the walls. The diminutive singer with a mop of dark curls opens her mouth, channeling Etta James, Edith Piaf and Dolly Parton — all in Spanish.
The glasses and voices fall silent.
The Guatemalan native's eclectic mix of sounds has captivated more than people in intimate venues. She's won a strong, devoted following in the United States and has had a taste of mainstream success with the instrumental theme of the NBC comedy "Parks and Recreation," which she co-wrote.
Moreno is among a small but growing number of alternative musicians and rockers who sing mostly in Spanish but are gaining a diverse fan base across the United States.
These artists barely get play on commercial Spanish radio stations, dominated by hip-hop, salsa, regional Mexican music and by pop stars like Alejandro Sanz. Yet they are attracting new listeners through social media, public radio shows, cable TV and festivals.
Tomas Cookman, president of the independent label Nacional Records, likens the Latin alternative movement in the United States to new wave before the bands Blondie and The Cars made it on to the airwaves.
"There's a major explosion of creativity, not just from music in Latin America but from musicians who happen to be Latino in the U.S.," he said. "We are definitely still in the early stages."
Moreno, who also sings in English, said big labels didn't know what do with her — a problem for many Latin alternative artists.
"Every label wanted to turn me into something else," she said.
In 2008, she finally released an album on her own, incorporating her first love, the blues.
"I just found the passion for it and never felt like, 'Oh I'm Latin and shouldn't be doing it,'" she said. "I'm just an artist doing blues" — albeit one who often sings en espanol and mixes Latin beats.
"Gaby definitely represents that new model of the relationship between Latin America and the U.S. The spirit is very Latin, but the career really got jump started in the U.S," said Ernesto Lechner, music critic and author of "Rock en Espanol: The Latin Alternative Rock Explosion." Lechner also co-hosts the nationally syndicated radio program, "The Latin Alternative."
Spanish rock and alternative groups hit a golden period in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the likes of Mexico's Café Tacuba and Colombia's Aterciopelados blended European and U.S. rock with their own countries' native beats. Yet the genre came of age just as hip-hop overtook rock in the United States, and as the major record labels were struggling to stay afloat with the explosion of online music and were increasingly risk adverse to untested sounds. The movement never took off the way some had hoped.
Now, alternative Latin musicians, some of whom have fan bases back home, are finding new audiences in the United States thanks in part to that online scene and the growth of second generation Latino audiences.
Lechner's radio show, which features artists like Uruguay's Juan Campodonico and Mexico's Natalia Lafourcade, launched in 2009 out of a local Albany, N.Y., public radio station. It's now broadcast by more than 30 stations across the country. Lechner and co-host Josh Norek take pains to provide context for listeners who may not speak Spanish or know much about Latin America.