Beyond cute faces, to the lyrics

Times Staff Writer

Latin music is undergoing a belated revolution.

Decades after socially conscious rock transformed pop culture in the U.S., singer-songwriters with a point of view are climbing the Latin pop charts once dominated by cookie-cutter romantic crooners. Raised on rock en espanol and rooted in the folk rhythms of their native lands, this new wave of Latin pop stars is transforming public tastes and even revolutionizing this country's Spanish-language radio, a stubborn bastion of conservative and formulaic music.

Although the change has been gradual and tentative, its arrival was telegraphed dramatically with this year's Grammy nominees for best Latin pop album. All five contenders -- Jorge Moreno, Donato Poveda, Sin Bandera, Diego Torres and Bacilos -- are new arrivals who write their own material.

"People understand that we're in need of change and in need of moving ahead," said Jorge Villamizar of Bacilos, the multinational folk-pop trio that won the Grammy last month. "The thing is that Latin music in the United States has been driven by nostalgia for whatever was in fashion at the moment the immigrants left [their homeland]. Now, there is movement of making new music in this country, a meeting point of different cultures."

The Latin American songwriting movement actually caught fire decades ago across the continent, fueled by a liberating '60s spirit and desire for social change. But political repression and marketing forces muffled that era's powerful voices in favor of harmless and homogenous pop.

Today's resurgence is tied to the spread of political democracy, and especially the impact of Latin America's feisty alternative rock scene, which prizes native genres just as the rock revolution in this country drew from U.S. folk music and the blues.

Like Villamizar, the front-runners of the youthful trend are from Colombia. Singers Shakira and Juanes, who both broke big internationally last year, are the first major pop stars to emerge from Latin America's vibrant but commercially marginal rock and alternative music scene.

Shakira may not be the most inspired songwriter, and Juanes may have had to tone down his angst and anger for the sake of airplay. But their success proved that Latin artists with a personal style and strong identity could break through to reach a mass audience.

And others quickly followed.

In recent months, singer-songwriters and their groups have popped up on the Latin pop sales charts -- Guatemala's Ricardo Arjona, Mexico's Sin Bandera, Argentina's Diego Torres and Miami's Bacilos.

Arjona, a veteran songwriter, scored his first No. 1 hit this year with his bitter take on heartbreak, "El Problema," from his new album "Santopecado." Though his work can be poetically pretentious, Arjona's album includes a chilling song called "La Nena" (The Girl), a stark narrative about one of Latin America's greatest evils, kidnapping for ransom.

"There's more room now for artists who are trying to express certain things," Arjona said in a phone interview from his home in Mexico City. "Having a hit doesn't depend so much anymore on the fashion of the day or a catchy chorus or a handsome face."

History of political repression

In Spanish, there's a special term for singer-songwriters, who are known as "cantautores," a contraction of the words "cantante" (singer) and "autor" (composer). The tradition of the guitar-carrying troubadour who philosophizes, politicizes and waxes poetic in song is deeply rooted in many Spanish-speaking countries.

The global rebellion of the '60s gave rise to the so-called New Song movement, with stirring voices such as Cuba's Silvio Rodriguez, Brazil's Chico Buarque, Spain's Joan Manuel Serrat and Chile's Victor Jara.

In those days, being an outspoken artist was a risky profession, especially under dictatorships. Serrat was harassed for singing in his native Catalan instead of in Spanish. Buarque was censored by military rulers. Jara was slain for his socialist-inspired songs during a CIA-supported coup.

Some argue that political repression stunted the evolution of the singer-songwriter in Latin America. In countries like Mexico, political monopolies and media monopolies were notoriously intertwined. Provocative artists found few mass outlets for their work and little label support, say Arjona and others.

The Latin music industry also had financial incentives to play it safe. In an attempt to maximize sales, multinational labels looked for artists who could appeal across the board in a fragmented and nationalistic continent.

For decades, labels actively cultivated romantic singers whose homogenized appeal transcended diverse ethnic cultures. Singers like Spain's Julio Iglesias or Venezuela's Jose Luis Rodriguez or Mexico's Jose Jose became international superstars precisely because they disguised their national origins.

Eventually, they all started sounding the same. Nowadays, those crooners seem almost as old-fashioned as Perry Como and Pat Boone.

More and more, contemporary Latin artists highlight rather than hide their colorful national differences, be it the belly dancing of Shakira or the folksy accordion of Carlos Vives, another Colombian who popularized the coastal country music called vallenato.

By historic standards, though, today's most visible Latin singer-songwriters may sound tame. The most commanding, and uncompromising artists continue to toil in the alt-Latino scene below the radar of commercial radio and sales charts.

The smooth vocal duo Sin Bandera, for example, still sticks mostly to romantic themes. Yet this songwriting team of Argentine Noel Schajris and Mexican Leonel Garcia (whose group name suggests they fly no country's flag) takes a fresh approach to the traditional Latin ballad. Theirs is a revolution of style, replacing melodramatic bel canto with R&B; soulfulness and jazzy bossa nova.

"For us," says Schajris, "the social topic that should touch us most is love. Because without love, what good is society?"

The new wave

Some recent albums by the new generation of Latin American singer-songwriters (for samples, visit

Juanes, "Fijate Bien" (Watch Carefully) -- The Colombian's acclaimed 2001 debut is passionate, bold, original and proud of its roots. Last year's far more conventional follow-up, "Un Dia Normal" (A Normal Day), is partly redeemed by the rousing, prayer-like hit "A Dios Le Pido" (I Ask of God).

Jorge Moreno, "Moreno" -- This debut earned a best new artist Latin Grammy last year for the talented Cuban American. Moreno seamlessly fuses U.S. and Latin influences in a contemporary, bicultural pop pastiche.

Diego Torres, "Un Mundo Diferente" (A Different World) -- This mellow Argentine uses soft samba and bossa undercurrents to sustain his upbeat vision, especially his anthemic ode to optimism "Color Esperanza" (The Color of Hope).

Shakira, "MTV Unplugged" -- The sensational Colombian/Lebanese performer writes better in Spanish than English. Here she offers acoustic versions of her pre-blond, pre-crossover hits, such as the biting protest song "Octavo Dia" (The Eighth Day).

Bacilos, "Caraluna" (Moonface) -- The Miami trio's appealing tropical-folk style hit a chord with a young Latino audience as multinational as the band itself. Catchy melodies, clever writing.

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