The Latin Flare
Del Castillo, Los Lonely Boys, Grupo Fantasma: River city gets 'Latinized'
When Del Castillo won Band of the Year at this year's Austin Music Awards, no one booed, no one gasped, no one joked that hell had frozen over. Not that the local group isn't deserving, particularly when the Band of the Year mantle was accompanied by awards for Best Cover Art, Best Record Producer, Single of the Year, Album of the Year (tied with Kevin Fowler), and Best Mexican/Traditional Band.
The sweep was no surprise to Del Castillo's ardent fans, all of whom go gaga over one of Austin's hottest bands. Pulsating Latin rhythms and blistering guitar work courtesy of brothers Rick and Mark Del Castillo are married to deeply spiritual lyrics, alternately written by the Del Castillo brothers and lead singer Alex Ruiz. Yet when taken in the larger context of the Austin music scene, Del Castillo's armload of Music Awards was still something of a shock. A band, singing all in Spanish, taking home Band of the Year in Austin? Who'd a-thunk?
In the Chronicle's annual AMA preview ("Long May You Run," austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2003-03-07/music_feature.html ), Jerry Renshaw concludes that "sweeping changes in the Austin Music Award winners are good, a sure sign of life." No one can argue with that. What someone could take issue with is that there's been nary a word about how and where Latinos and Latino music in all its configurations fit into Austin's musical landscape.
While Del Castillo was running away with the most significant awards, other Latino bands (or bands fronted by Latinos) walked away with awards for Best Rock Band (Vallejo) and Best Latin Band (Grupo Fantasma). Is it then fair to say there's a Latino music movement in Austin right now? If so, how best to define it?
Ignoring for a moment his metamorphosis from metal rocker to clean-cut country crooner, Kevin Fowler's popularity as defined by his own truckload of Music Awards isn't terribly surprising in a town that defines Texas roots music as country and blues. Yet Del Castillo, like Grupo Fantasma and others, is turning heads in a new way. The question remains, however, is it a passing fancy or something more enduring?
Musicians and music insiders agree there's a definite Latin fervor in Austin's music scene at this particular moment in time.
"Well, musically, we're all over the place in Austin," says KGSR personality and Austin music commissioner, Kevin Conner. "There are not a lot of bands that draw a consistently good audience, but Del Castillo is one that does. There are a lot of bands in town that complement each other -- Del Castillo, Los Lonely Boys, Vallejo -- and Steamboat seems to be the place where it's happening."
"It's weird," nods Alejandro Vallejo of Vallejo, "but the Latino band scene seems to be getting a lot more buzz. At least that's what I'm hearing the most noise about lately.
"I think as people search for different things, Latino sounds and musicians are bringing something new that people are ready for. Take hip-hop and rap. They used to be considered fads, but then they started to work and work together till there's a history."
Clubs are closing and reopening, the economy tanking, and the U.S. is at war. As for the actual music itself, however, things are percolating. The spread of new voices through traditional and new media has created an appetite for new music. A kid in Iowa can listen to punk from Russia or conjunto from Japan on the Internet. Someone idly flipping through channels could land on the Austin Music Network or Primetime Tejano on cable access, which in recognition of the changing atmosphere, has expanded to include Latino music.
In fact, there are now eight Spanish radio stations in town, not including KOOP or KLRU, which offer Latin-themed programming. Austin, like the rest of the country, is getting "Latinized," as Isidoro Lopez, host of KOOP radio's Fiesta Musical, likes to say. Naturally, then, when bands with a "Latin flare" begin to turn heads, people take note. It's an easy explanation, sure, but incomplete. As Adrian Quesada of Grupo Fantasma said when accepting an AMA, "I hope this brings more attention to Latin music, because there's a lot more than just us."
Latinos of all ilks have been making music in Austin and in Texas for a long, long time: Beto y los Fairlanes, Alejandro Escovedo, Davíd Garza, Ruben Ramos, Little Joe y la Familia, Willie Santiago, Leyendas, Alfonso Ramos, Neto Perez & the Originals, the Nash Hernandez Orchestra, Flaco and Santiago Jimenez, Sun Vocina, La Tribu, Manuel Donley y los Estrellas, Los Jazz Vatos, Conjunto Aztlan, Son y No Son, Centzontle, Correo Aereo, and many, many others. This is certainly not a complete list and not all are still around, but they paved the way. There's an onda all right, and it doesn't come out of a vacuum.
"Latin bands are nothing new to Austin and have been around a very long time," says Dave Rios of the Texas Chapter of the Recording Academy. "Some of the largest music festivals -- like the Travis County Rodeo or the SXSW outdoor stage -- headline with Latin acts. Traditionally, however, the majority of these bands are of Mexican regional and Tejano genres, which cater to the Hispanic population. Thanks to Austin-based bands like Vallejo, Del Castillo, Grupo Fantasma, and Los Lonely Boys, Latin music in Austin is finally getting acclamation from a general market. Old or new, it's something Austin should be proud of."
As an advocate of Latin music in Austin, Luis Zapata wears many hats. He's an Austin music commissioner and executive producer for the Latino Rock Alliance, which coordinates the Rock en Español showcase for SXSW. As marketing manager of Roadside Productions, he plans and executes yearly events like Mardi Gras, Victorian Christmas on Sixth Street, and the new Festival de Calle Seis this May. He agrees there's a buzz around Latino music in town and believes it has staying power.
"I think it all comes down to one thing: The DNA in America is changing and the strongest chromosome is Latino," hypothesizes Zapata. "Maybe we'll start seeing low riders in Thailand; people right now are dancing salsa in Russia. There's a lot of different things going on now. The syncretism is going to enrich everything."
If there's an ambassador to Austin's new syncretism, it's Paul Oveisi at Steamboat, winner of this year's Best New Club. Relocated at Riverside and Congress from its former longtime digs on Sixth Street, the club now sits at the crossroads between West Austin and the outward end of East Riverside, where a mile or so down the road, clubs raking in healthy door revenue from Tejano and Norteño fans go virtually unnoticed by the mainstream press. Steamboat has developed a reputation as a venue open to new bands and genres.
"We were kind of born and bred at Steamboat," Vallejo says of his band. "They have a reputation for nurturing bands to a good level. They take a chance on all kinds of artists, not just Latino, but Anglos, blacks -- it's a good place to work it out and get better."
"We like to cross-pollinate," Oveisi says of his booking strategy. "We may book a straight up rock & roll band right after Del Castillo, and people who never heard of them go, 'Wow! Who are these guys?' The thing is, in the past Latin music was produced and marketed to Latin audiences. Now, that's changed."
The change isn't due to some spectacular marketing strategy as much as it is to the musicians themselves. Perhaps the reason groups like Vallejo, Los Lonely Boys, Grupo Fantasma, and Del Castillo are making such a big splash right now is because they've managed to maintain their cultural and musical heritage even while dipping into other established forms.
Although Vallejo's and Los Lonely Boys' music isn't overtly ethnic, "the Anglo audience is feeling the energy that Latino bands fuel their performances with," posits Kevin Womack of Loophole Entertainment, which manages Los Lonely Boys. "[Meanwhile], the Latino audience is finding and accepting these bands as their own."
That, plus names, means plenty. Vallejo could have made up some cool rock & roll name, while Los Lonely Boys might have just gone by the Lonely Boys. Small gestures telegraph meaning to those who get a little prickly when their surnames go from Salazar to Suh-laser. Energy is another thing, but there are lots of great bands in Austin. The bottom line may just be Luis Zapata's syncretism theory that's making groups like Del Castillo stand out from the maddening crowd.
"Our music is kind of like the band, we all come with our own influences," says Del Castillo percussionist Mark Holeman. "We got a Gipsy Kings/flamenco groove, but then we've got this Steven Tyler-Mick Jagger lead singer out there. It was either going to work, or be the biggest train wreck of our lives. Luckily for us, it works."
"Preferences change with the times," states Oveisi. "Right now, 'Latino' just happens to be the defining genre, even if it's not new. It's partly coincidence that three or four bands are coming to fruition at this moment in time, so all at once there's a buzz. Because of it, more people are exposed to this music and other bands take note. In our case, we like to let the audiences decide."
Though all of Del Castillo's lyrics are in Spanish, it hasn't stopped non-Spanish speaking audiences from becoming fans.
"Ninety percent of the people who go see Gipsy Kings don't know what they're saying, because they're singing in so many different languages," says guitarist, Mark Del Castillo. "But you go there and you have this incredible positive energy. It's the same with us, I hope. It goes beyond language. It goes beyond what you know. It's all about feeling."
While mesmerizing rhythms and a raw, plaintive delivery by vocalist Alex Ruiz draw audiences in, that "feeling" is ultimately what's so striking in Del Castillo's live performances -- a sense of ceremony, a conjuring of spirit that strikes deep and is understood viscerally, universally. Go to Del Castillo's Web site (www.delcastillomusic.com), and you'll find that same spirituality in their lyrics.
"Go back even further, to the Incas and the Aztecs," says Ruiz. "They used music to heal people back then. Music is a healing art."
And who couldn't use a little healing in these dark days?
You might expect a crotchety response from an "old school" Latino musician like Ernie Durawa about all the fuss over the young bloods. On the contrary, Durawa is glad to see "these boys" get their due. As a veteran drummer for the Texas Tornadoes, Los Jazz Vatos, and a list of artists that reads like a Who's Who in Texas Music, he remembers when the lines of demarcation for musicians were more pronounced. When a music reviewer found out that a couple members of his then-new group Los Jazz Vatos were Anglos, Durawa and the band were trashed in print.
Latino Before Latino Was Cool
"We laughed it off," he says. "I put music first, race second. It's always about the music."
If any self-claimed purist wants to lament the bastardization of Latino musical traditions, Durawa will tell you that even with traditional forms like conjunto, one should remember: It's played with a stolen instrument.
"The Mexicans got a hold of that German accordion and look what happened?" laughs the genial drummer. "The bottom line is that all music is related. What's different is the interpretation -- jazz, blues, rock -- it's all intertwined. In two-four time, I can play you a German polka, a Mexican conjunto, a Texas two-step, or 'Hava Nagilah.' It's all using the same scales and common rhythms, but depending on who gets a hold of it, it becomes a whole new thing."
For better or worse, Austin is changing. But who says these aren't fortuitous times for Austin music, when ideas and music are coming together to perk and brew, and more importantly, to compete at any level.
"It's a beautiful thing that you can go to the Mercury when Fantasma is playing and look from the stage to see African-Americans, Haitians, Middle Eastern people, Anglos, and Latinos," says Luis Zapata. "That's the beauty of this whole thing. It's not just a Latino thing. It's about how music can really break all those barriers, how it brings people together."
Vatos singing Sinatra? Cubanos singing Patsy Cline? Redneck country boys singing boleros? Watcha! Bring it on.