The history of pop music has often been compared to a Ping-Pong game between England and the United States, with leadership bouncing back and forth between the two countries. A similar situation can be found in the world of rock en espanol , where Mexico and Argentina have taken turns stealing the spotlight from one another for the last 40 years.
In the last couple of years, it was Mexico that dominated the field with a series of remarkable albums by the likes of Cafe Tacuba, Julieta Venegas and El Gran Silencio.
But three releases from Argentina prove that the South American nation still knows how to rock. The albums highlight a Latin Pulse column that also touches on new music from two other South American countries.
* * * 1/2 Bersuit Vergarabat, "Hijos del Culo," Universal Latino. This eccentric, at times irritating, band has already caused plenty of controversy in Argentina with its provocative, politically charged lyrics.
"Hijos del Culo" is a kaleidoscopic exploration of the group's many musical fetishes--from the Uruguayan carnival rhythm known as murga to the working-class cumbia --enhanced by a surprisingly mature compositional approach.
Bersuit's aesthetic has always been defined by the crude sense of humor of its leader, singer Gustavo Cordera, who dedicates this album to, as he puts it in the liner notes, "the abandoned ones, the betrayed ones, the forgotten ones, those who were left out of the banquet and expelled from paradise."
Although Cordera has lost none of his appetite for crass, over-the-top imagery, this time around he has coupled his grotesque sense of humor with passionate, tender bits of lyrical poetry that are new to him.
The opening "El Gordo Motoneta," the story of a man whose inordinate zest for life renders him both indispensable and repulsive to others, includes some admirably vivid descriptions, all done with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
And the densely textured "Cancion de Juan," with its pop vocal choruses, buoyant brass section and mysterious touches of glockenspiel and violin, is as sophisticated as anything genre masters Cafe Tacuba and Fabulosos Cadillacs have done.
The band's reputation for tastelessness might cost Bersuit the acclaim it now rightfully deserves. A pity, because this is one album that reveals its multiple personalities and schizophrenic charms only after repeated listens.
* * * El Otro Yo, "Abrecaminos," Universal Latino. With its thorny, guitar-based rock, lo-fi anthems and indie attitude, El Otro Yo sounds like the rock en espanol answer to Sonic Youth.
Formed in 1993 by Humberto Cristian Aldana and his sister Maria Fernanda Aldana, the group has had a healthy disregard for commercial conventions since its inception.
In 1997, El Otro Yo, then a trio, caused a stir in Argentina by releasing a triple CD with 70 songs. Now a quartet with the addition of a keyboard player, the group hopes to find fans beyond home. Although the opaque "Abrecaminos" is a bit of an acquired taste, it is sure to delight followers of alternative-minded noise-rock. * * * * Fabulosos Cadillacs, "Hola" and "Chau," BMG Latin. Neither El Otro Yo or Bersuit can match the grandeur of Fabulosos Cadillacs, Argentina's best rock en espanol band and one of the movement's top three acts.
But it has been a tough go lately. Fans and critics agree that its last two albums, 1997's Grammy-winning "Fabulosos Calavera" and its follow-up, "La Marcha del Golazo Solitario," were obscure for the sake of obscurity.
Sure enough, those albums sold only moderately, igniting tensions between the band and its record company, BMG Latin. The Cadillacs' release of two separate live discs, "Hola" and "Chau," is a ploy to expediently fulfill their contract with the label.
In the process, the albums also provide a revised and cohesive perspective on the band's discography by mixing the new, experimental songs with the old hits.
With its traditional Afro-Cuban lineup of three percussionists and full brass section, the Cadillacs in concert are essentially a salsa band in the guise of a rock combo. Its percolating blend of styles--from ska, reggae and metal to tango, samba and salsa--makes for an exhilarating live experience.
But there's more to these collections than just the music. At the end of "Chau," singer Gabriel Fernandez Capello delivers a memorable farewell message to the crowd in a Buenos Aires stadium, condemning Argentina's political corruption.
"What we have here is the real world," Capello says, while the band performs the last bars of the moody "Los Condenaditos." "It's not the world of the [expletive] senators and [expletive] politicians. This is the world where we should live. The world of music and art. Our world."
It's an inspiring moment, proving that the Cadillacs haven't lost an ounce of idealism since their inception 15 years ago.
* * * * Various artists, "Putumayo Presents: Colombia Putumayo," Putumayo. The belief that Colombia has been responsible for the most stirring music to come out of Latin America for the last 20 years is amply supported in this exhilarating collection. The sequencing leaves virtually no space between tracks, turning the disc into a brisk journey through a variety of rhythms and dances, from the sweet cumbia of Los Warahuaco and the throbbing salsa of the Latin Brothers to the exquisite Afro-Caribbean fusions of Joe Arroyo and the jazzy porro of clarinetist Lucho Bermudez. If you are new to seminal Latin artists such as Fruko y sus Tesos, La Sonora Dinamita or Toto La Momposina, this is a good place to start.
* * * 1/2 Peru Negro, "Sangre de un Don," Times Square. U.S. listeners first became acquainted with Afro-Peruvian music in 1995, when Luaka Bop Records released the now-classic compilation "Soul of Black Peru." But veteran group Peru Negro has been committed to rescuing the African-influenced music of Peru's Pacific coast since the '70s. Recorded in Holland, "Sangre" seeks to woo fans of singer Susana Baca--the genre's priestess and a household name for world-music connoisseurs--with its polished production, passionate female vocals and a repertoire that includes standards such as "Toro Mata," a Baca concert favorite. This is captivating music, defined by the dry sound of the percussive cajones and the vocal choruses' hymn-like intensity. *