A little traveling music

Times Staff Writer

True music lovers thrive on the thrill of the hunt. They spend their nights compulsively cruising for MP3s on the Internet and their weekends rummaging through record stores, down on their knees flipping through the dusty under-stock in search of rare and undiscovered gems, the best music nobody's heard of yet.

But if you're a Latin music lover, the search for something new and different becomes as challenging as a safari. The hunting grounds for Latin music stretch across three continents and two dozen countries, covering music capitals from Barcelona to Buenos Aires.

Today, just as in the U.S. pop market, a growing number of Spanish-speaking artists are making music outside mainstream industry channels. They are signed to small labels with limited distribution or they release their albums themselves, sold at concerts or through their own Web sites.

Often, this is the best music Latin America has to offer. But fans in Los Angeles have little chance of hearing it, since Latin radio sticks mostly to commercial fare released by the big Miami-based multinational labels.

As the majors cut their rosters and release less material, challenging artists increasingly get left behind -- with rare exceptions. In his native Colombia, acclaimed singer-songwriter Juanes had labored for a decade in the anonymity of a heavy metal band. He shot to international stardom in 2001 after Universal Music took a chance on his debut solo album, "Fijate Bien."

Freewheeling Argentine

The biggest buzz in the Latin business this year involves an extraordinary singer-songwriter from Argentina with a distinctly American name, Kevin Johansen. With his satirically grave baritone and his band, the Nada, this Argentine American has released two bilingual albums on the Buenos Aires-based Los Anos Luz label (www.laldiscos.com).

His second album, "Sur o no Sur," was out a year ago in Argentina but is only now becoming available in the U.S., released by Sony Discos. The label's decision marks a rare gamble on an unknown and unusual artist like Johansen, whose songs are replete with Argentine colloquialisms.

This is Latin music like none you've heard before. It's a freewheeling blend of genres -- milonga, cumbia, funk, folk -- concocted to convey Johansen's quirky, Randy Newman-esque worldview, a delightful gringo/gaucho hybrid.

In his autobiographical title cut, literally translated as "south or no south," Johansen wonders where he really belongs, in the south or the north. He tells us he'd really love to stay home, but he no longer knows where home is.

That's understandable for a man born in Alaska of an American father and Argentine mother, raised in Arizona and California, then taken to Buenos Aires as a teenager after his parents divorced. He moved back to New York a few years ago and was hoping to break into the business here, but his wife convinced him to move back to Argentina.

When he arrived, his unfinished music demo under his arm, everybody thought he was crazy. Argentina was amid economic collapse and everybody was looking for ways out. The irony of this reverse migration informs the artist's topsy-turvy perspective.

Johansen's early work, partly recorded at CBGB's in New York, wound up on his 2000 debut album, "The Nada," yet that work is not available in the country where it was conceived and created: the USA.

Johansen himself shared copies of his first CD during a recent stop in Los Angeles. Though not as polished as his follow-up, it allows listeners to trace the artist's evolution.

Coincidentally, another American expatriate is also at the helm of an exciting new band, this one from Mexico, enigmatically named Nine Rain. I first heard of the group from David Mills, the producer of the narco-drama "Kingpin," which aired as an NBC miniseries last spring. Mills, a novice to Latin music, discovered the obscure group while exploring songs for his show. I interviewed Mills about the tracks he eventually picked for the series, and he was so enthused about Nine Rain that he later sent me a sample of what he calls "thrilling avant-garde Euro-Mex rock."

Months later, I came across an official copy of the band's second album, "Rain of Fire," courtesy of Opcion Sonica, a Mexican indie label with a large, eclectic roster and a small L.A. office. The label specializes in the offbeat and experimental, a perfect home for this progressive quartet founded by keyboardist-saxophonist Steven Brown, formerly with the cult group Tuxedomoon, who moved to Oaxaca to escape American culture.

Nine Rain is more dark and eerie than the Nada. But like Johansen, Brown explores the boundaries of crossover in reverse, absorbing Mexican culture from the inside. His band includes a German electronics expert and two Mexican musicians on guitars, flute and harmonica. Recorded in Mexico and Havana with Cuban guest musicians, "Rain of Fire" is not for everybody. But it certainly commands attention -- if you can find it.

Opcion Sonica imports most of its releases from Mexico in tiny, experimental quantities, as few as 100 copies at a time. The label recently took on new U.S. investors in hopes of boosting promotion and distribution here, at least for key future releases.

On a more traditional note from Mexico, consider last year's beautiful "Mi Tierra" by Susana Harp, a singer who was born in Oaxaca of a Mexican mother and Lebanese father. Harp offers exquisite renditions of Mexican folkloric classics, such as "La Sandguna" and "Cancion Mixteca." But here, the familiar songs have been transformed by the orchestral banda arrangements of the Banda Sinfonica de Musica del Estado de Oaxaca.

I happened to find the CD during a lunch-hour stroll through Olvera Street, in one of the arts and crafts shops that has a small music section. In a city like L.A., musical gems are often tucked away on cramped, dusty shelves that seem designed to discourage browsing. For more comfortable shopping, two major retailers, Amoeba and Virgin, have large Latin music sections worth perusing for hard-to-find imports.

Help from some friends

But the best source for rare material is often other music enthusiasts. You can discover a lot of new music just by debriefing friends and associates after their trips abroad.

Salsa DJ Kathy "La Rumbera" Diaz turned me on to "Cacao," an unusual salsa/rock opus from Spain by Santiago Auseron (a.k.a. Juan Perro). Fellow critic Enrique Lopetegui prompted me to discover the pop poetics of Uruguay's Jorge Drexler. And independent publicist Gil Gastelum shared his copy of 2002's "Tres Cosas" (Three Things), the latest by Argentine singer Juana Molina (not his client), which hasn't been released here but which he finds far superior to one of her earlier albums that did come out in the U.S. this year.

Or you can just let your keyboard do the walking, checking the listings on EBay or Amazon. Internet explorers can chance upon undiscovered artists such as the Dominican Republic's Xiomara Fortuna, an Afro-Caribbean singer-songwriter whose sophisticated style shatters the island's merengue stereotype.

When possible, nothing beats going to the source. During a trip to Spain last summer, I discovered a flamenco fusion band called elbicho (www.elbicho.com). The group's bewitching debut album, with its hoarse and soulful vocals on songs of loss and yearning, ranks among my favorites for the year.

Every week, more and more videos by such independent artists are winding up on the desk of Jose Tillan, vice president of music and talent at MTV Latin America. Without major label support, he says, bands must rely on imagination and originality to get his attention and get their videos on the air. Consider the case of Hermanos Brothers, a virtually unknown hip-hop group from Chile who "blew our minds" with a homemade video of "Santiago 2002," in which the musicians use thrilling break dance moves during a raucous soccer game on a dusty field.

"If you don't have the resources, you have to come up with an exciting concept," says the Miami-based executive. "Technology is making it possible for these bands to be on the same playing field with the majors. It's giving more power to independent artists and that's exciting, because creativity doesn't have a price tag."

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