Cafe Tacuba rocks on, but it's lonely at the top

Times Staff Writer

This is a whirlwind weekend for Cafe Tacuba, the cutting-edge band from Mexico City that spearheaded the rock en espanol revolution of the 1990s. The acclaimed quartet plays Central Park's SummerStage in Manhattan today as part of this year's Latin Alternative Music Conference, then jets cross-country to appear Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl for KCRW's World Festival hosted by Nic Harcourt.

Phew! A little hectic for a group of Mexican rockers on the cusp of middle age. It makes you feel old just to think that some of today's teenagers may not have been born when Cafe Tacuba was formed in 1989 by two suburban college friends, a brother and a neighbor, a group that is still intact.

Some of those hip teens will no doubt come out to see the band considered the Beatles of Latin alternative music, the only Latino act to headline the Bowl this summer. Such exclusive billing is a testament to the continued creativity and international appeal of Los Tacubos, as the band is affectionately nicknamed.

But it raises the question: Where is the new generation of Mexican rockers?

The very fact that this 18-year-old group remains the marquee name in Spanish-language rock speaks volumes about the state of the genre. Their wave of roqueros (rockers) whose vitality and vision promised to transform Latin music has receded since the turn of the millennium. Nobody has come along to seriously challenge the stature and influence of Cafe Tacuba.

Not that there are no new groups in Mexico. The capital has a busy indie rock scene that is finding outlets on the Internet, partly through Mexico's new MySpace site, But the new generation has abandoned the fundamental principles that gave rock en espanol its power and broad appeal.

Today's Mexican bands reject the concept of fusing rock with native forms of Latin American folk music, a concept articulated in the early '70s by pioneering producer Gustavo Santaolalla, who has worked with Cafe Tacuba and other major groups in the field. The upstarts don't care to incorporate Mexican music or reflect Mexican reality in their songs, as bands such as Cafe Tacuba and Maldita Vecindad did in their very names.

Nowadays, Mexican bands often pick names that disguise their identity and country of origin. They call themselves Allison, Los Dynamite, hummersqueal and Motel. In fact, some don't even care to sing in Spanish anymore.

"I feel kind of bummed about that because it's what I've been fighting against all my life," Santaolalla told me this week. "I think it's an example of cultural dependency and many sad aspects of globalization."

I caught the famed producer by cellphone Wednesday as he ferried from Naples to the Italian island of Ischia, site of a film festival where he was to be honored for his work, including Oscar-winning scores to "Brokeback Mountain" and "Babel." He had just performed the night before in Copenhagen with Bajofondo Tango Club, his innovative fusion band that blends tango, milonga and other South American styles with electronica and rock.

The band is based on the same vision that has guided the guitarist since he was 16 -- to make music with an identity that shows "who we are and where we come from." The formula is still working for him, as evidenced by the packed houses Bajofondo has been playing on its current European tour.

Santaolalla's slogan: "Pinta tu aldea y pintaras el mundo." ("Paint your own village and you'll paint the world.")

It's a good lesson for young rockers still stuck in their MySpace pages, because the world isn't waiting for a Mexican version of My Chemical Romance or Nirvana. Imitation is just a form of flattery, not creativity.

These groups could also take a cue from the U.S. and British bands they emulate. Original rockers don't look to other countries to see what they can copy. They believe in themselves and their culture.

Some have hailed the arrival of the latest wave of Anglocentric indie bands in Mexico City, citing forces from globalization, NAFTA and the Internet. The fact is, the trend is as old as colonialism itself.

When I was a student in Mexico City in the late '60s, my classmates at the preparatoria in Coyoacan played guitar and sang songs by the Lovin' Spoonful, mouthing mangled lyrics they probably didn't comprehend. The Internet didn't exist, but they were keenly attuned to the latest in English-language rock and pop.

The desire to be something other than Mexican has long been the cultural curse of the Mexican middle and upper classes, whose kids are called fresas, or strawberries. Many slavishly follow American and European fashion, hairdos and dances, while looking down on their own culture. But self-hatred makes for lousy music.

Cafe Tacuba's guitarist Jose Alfredo "Joselo" Rangel is not so judgmental. He's trying to give the new generation a fair hearing and points to bands that have impressed him, such as Bengala from Mexico City and Porter from Guadalajara.

It's all a cycle, he says. When the Tacubos were starting out, it was revolutionary to incorporate Mexican music into rock and they were criticized for that. Now, it's old hat, and the kids push the pendulum the other way.

"I don't get the need to sing in English, but I'm not going to demonize a trend just because I don't understand it," Rangel said from the Mexico City studio where the band is working on a new album, due in the fall. "Because if I did, it would feel like people treated me when I was young, just because I was doing something different."

Cafe Tacuba performs with Groove Armada as part of KCRW's World Festival, 7 p.m. Sunday, Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Avenue, Hollywood. Tickets $7-$95. For information call (323) 850-2000.


Short shows from Ruben Blades

Salsa star Ruben Blades has revitalized his long-dormant website,, with a weekly series of video programs filmed at his home office in historic Panama City, where he serves as minister of tourism. In informal, 10-minute episodes titled "Show de Ruben Blades," the actor and musician holds forth on a variety of topics from songwriting to politics. He also answers e-mails, offers advice for aspiring musicians and gives a remembrance of the late Tito Gomez, his one-time co-singer from Ray Barretto's band.

Most important, Blades takes the opportunity to share his discoveries of new artists, including video and music clips. It's a great introduction to talent throughout the world that has captured his imagination. They include the thrilling flamenco fusion group Quinto Parpadeo from Spain; haunting jazz vocalist Beverly Rego from Venezuela; and a funky salsa/timba band from Japan, NANA cantarina and 7musica, featuring a solo by a rare female trumpet player.

The segments are occasionally too casual, as Blades addresses his producer off camera and makes cryptic asides. But the star's rambling gives it a conversational flavor, and that's the point. So far, four episodes are posted, with a new show due Monday.

For more videos and music links, go to and


Gurza covers Latino music, arts and culture. E-mail with comments, events and ideas for this weekly feature.

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