El Gran Silencio Hosts a Street Party in Song


When Tony Hernandez talks wistfully about daily life in his native Monterrey, Mexico, he sounds like a man who's deeply in love with his barrio .

"We put some tables on the street and barbecue carne asada ," he says with a smile. "We take the boombox out and play the Beatles or La Tropa Colombiana. My wife, my mother, my father, people from the neighborhood. We talk about life, about the state of Mexico. We question ourselves. We're like Gypsies."

The barrio is an ever-present source of inspiration in the music of El Gran Silencio, the rock en espanol quintet with rap undertones that Hernandez, 30, founded with his brother Cano in 1993.

In fact, one of the most powerful songs in the band's new album, "Chuntaros Radio Poder," is a breathless, evocative rap describing the band members' return to the neighborhood after an extended tour.

"Everybody was so proud of us when we came back from our first big tour," he recalls. "My wife got all pretty for me. My friends came to my door so that we could go play soccer in the street. The old ladies from the barrio came to say hello."

The band will be previewing the new album (which EMI Latin is releasing on July 17) on Saturday at the Greek Theatre, where it plays as part of the touring rock en espanol showcase Planeta Rock. They will be sharing the stage with Aterciopelados, El Haragan and Los Rabanes.

A creative tour de force, the 35-track "Chuntaros Radio Poder" positions El Gran Silencio as one of the key bands in the rock en espanol field, a step or two away from genre veterans such as Fabulosos Cadillacs and Cafe Tacuba.

Although it took Tacuba and the Cadillacs a number of albums before they were able to reach artistic maturity, El Gran Silencio's development has been swift. "Chuntaros" is the group's second album.

"Libres y Locos" (Free and Crazy), its 1998 debut, created an instant buzz in the Latin rock community with its effortless combination of the rap lexicon with a ranchera sensibility. And unlike other rap en espanol acts, they actually performed their music live with real instruments.

One early fan was noted producer Rick Rubin (Beastie Boys, Johnny Cash, et al), who, after attending a Los Angeles gig, called them up and offered to produce their next album, according to the band.

Hernandez and company, however, felt it was important to launch their band from Mexico rather than the U.S., so they decided to produce "Chuntaros" themselves. And this time around, the music defies description.

The record creates a day in the life of an imaginary radio station, with an array of popular Monterrey DJs taking turns presenting the songs.

The rap element is not as heavy now. Indeed, the collection includes a couple of more traditional songs, some of which betray the group's weakness for the grandiloquent rock of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.

These influences, however, are buried underneath a barrage of swinging Latin American rhythms, from the norteno to Colombia's cumbia and vallenato .

Latin folklore has been a steady presence in rock en espanol since the genre's coming of age in the mid-'90s. But many of these purported homages were tongue-in-cheek. You were never sure if Cafe Tacuba or Aterciopelados was paying respect to the music of their parents, mocking it or doing a little bit of both.

El Gran Silencio, on the other hand, can't hide its heartfelt admiration for the rural music of Mexico and Colombia.

"When Tacuba released 'Ingrata' [a norteno- style song] in 1994, I really felt that they were mocking the norteno people and the music from the cantinas," says Hernandez. "And most of the rockeros I encounter think that cumbia is an artless form. But that's not true. Some of the best bass players I've listened to lately come from cumbia and vallenato ."

These Colombian genres are especially popular with Monterrey's working class. Their fans are sometimes called chuntaros , a derogatory term that the band has made its own by altering its meaning.

In the Gran Silencio aesthetic, a chuntaro is someone who is honest with himself, freely enjoys his own quirky taste and doesn't care about what other people think of him.

Not surprisingly, Hernandez explains, the one band that El Gran Silencio identifies the most with is norteno superstars Los Tigres del Norte.

Like Los Tigres, the members of El Silencio do everything in their power to avoid the trappings of fame.

"If I pretended to be a rock star and spent my nights partying at discos after the shows, right now I'd be writing songs about estupideces [stupid things]," Hernandez says. "That's why I'd rather come back home and spend time with my family. I watch a bit of TV, listen to my favorite DJs on the radio and record bootleg CDs of rare Colombian music for my friends in the barrio ."

* Planeta Rock with El Gran Silencio, Aterciopelados, El Haragan, Los Rabanes, Saturday at the Greek Theatre, 2700 Vermont Canyon Road, L.A. 7:30 p.m. $24 to $55. (323) 665-1927.

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