Latin Alternative Music Finds a Niche in the US
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. 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 US,” 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.
“Gaby definitely represents that new model of the relationship between Latin America and the US. The spirit is very Latin, but the career really got jump-started in the US,” said Ernesto Lechner, author of “Rock en Espanol: The Latin Alternative Rock Explosion.”
Spanish rock and alternative groups hit a golden period in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the likes of Mexico’s Cafe Tacuba and Colombia’s Aterciopelados blended European and US rock with their own countries’ native beats. Yet the movement never took off the way some had hoped. Now, alternative Latin musicians are finding new audiences in the United States thanks in part to an online scene and the growth of second-generation Latino audiences.
Lechner’s nationally syndicated radio program, “The Latin Alternative,” was launched in 2009 out of a public radio station in Albany, New York. It’s now broadcast by more than 30 stations across the country.
Cookman and Josh Norek, a Nacional executive and co-host at Lechner’s radio show, launched the Latin Alternative Music Conference in 2000 in New York to shine a light on these artists; this year it will be in July.
Based on the conference’s success, they founded their label in 2004, mixing more established artists like Aterciopelados’ Andrea Echeverri with newer finds like Venezuela’s indie punk band La Vida Boheme.
“For anyone looking for more — or who has inkling that there’s more in terms of Latin music out there — I almost look at it as my mission to help them find it,” Cookman said.