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Feature Fri Mar 28 2008

Ditch Your English: Chicago’s Latin Rock

Chicago, one of the most diverse places on the planet, is home to hundreds of different ethnic and cultural communities. How many have you come into contact with? In this new, occasional Gapers Block: Transmission series, I'll travel far and wide — within the city of Chicago, of course — to discover the best of our city's rich musical diversity from all over the globe. To start off, I spoke with several local latin rock fanaticos to get their advice for "Rock en Español" newbies. This included Linda Tortolero, a lifelong Chicagoan of Mexican heritage and Hugo Romo, an alternative "rock en español" DJ at the Spanish language Radio Arte (90.5FM - WRTE) in Pilsen, which is where I interviewed him recently using my rusty Spanish (and with a little help from my Spanish-speaking friends). Latinos make up the largest immigrant population in Chicago, most coming from Mexico, so naturally a lot of the Latin music in Chicago caters to that group.

Don't call it Hispanic

First of all, learn what the music is actually called. "Never call it Hispanic," says Tortolero. "Most people prefer to call it 'Latino' music, but more specifically 'rock en español' or 'pop en español,'" depending on what you're talking about.

And just because music is en español doesn't mean that it attracts audiences from all Latin countries. Puerto Ricans, for example, tend to prefer salsa, meringue and reggaeton, and most people in Latin America are tuned in to their regional music, such as mariachi in Mexico. In addition, it turns out that Spanish-language rock usually comes from only one of four Latin countries: Mexico, Spanish, Columbia and Argentina, because those countries have large urban populations. In fact, many groups "make it big in Mexico City first" and then go on tour through North America, according to Romo of Radio Arte.

L.A. and New York also have large Latin rock scenes due to their large Latino populations, but groups coming to Chicago tend to already be well-established (which is no problem for those simply wanting to get their feet wet). Venues such as the Aragon have started to triple bill bands appealing to somewhat different age groups in order to appeal to larger audiences, and surprisingly it works, says Romo. As an example, he recommends checking out the "Fusion Pop 2008" concert coming up April 19 at the Aragon, which combines Gen X singer songwriter Aleks Syntek and rock group Moenia with the newer Latin Grammy-nominated Mexican synth-pop band Belanova.

Belanova album

Know where to go

Chicago attracts mostly larger acts, look for them in larger venues such as the Aragon, Riviera, House of Blues (check out Beto Cuevas from the disbanded Chilean group La Ley 5/21) and even the Allstate Arena, where Columbian pop sensation Juanes is performing April 2. The Congress Theatre has its fair share of Latin pop/rock concerts, including Camila ("known to little girls everywhere who would also like 'N Sync," according to Tortolero) on June 14. The Metro and Double Door also feature the occasional, more indie Latin acts.

Unfortunately, Chicago has few smaller venues that might feature lesser-known, up and coming bands. The closing of the Hothouse was a big blow to independent Latin music in Chicago, according to Tortolero, but it will begin organizing and promoting concerts at other venues such as the Viaduct Theatre starting in April. The Old Town School of Folk Music also presents occasional latin music concerts as part of its free "Peña" series and regular paid concerts in its intimate auditorium in Lincoln Square. Not surprisingly, the concerts skew towards more traditional folk music, but once in a while you'll see an up and coming DJ or even rapper come through.

Both Tortolero and Romo say that they rarely see non Spanish speakers at the concerts they frequent. Occasionally, groups like Café Tacuba or Manu Chao will attract a wider, non Spanish speaking audience, but otherwise expect much of the crowd to be ordering Cervezas at whatever venue you're at (and that's part of the fun). Café Tacuba, the deans of rock en espanol, recently performed at the Metro and tour in Chicago quite frequently. They've been around for a while and have been called "Mexico's answer to the Beatles" by NPR. Chao, on the other hand, who is a French/Spanish/multilingual sensation, rarely tours and was just here last summer.

Festivals

The Viva! Chicago Latin Music Festival occurs in Grant Park in August. Hugo also recommends checking out the Latin American Film Festival (April 4-16), happening around the city At the very least, check out of the soundtracks of the films playing, since they usually contain great up-and-coming music. The World Music Festival always contains Latin acts, and there are hopes that Lollapalooza will expand their Latin music programming this summer. Finally, the Old Town School's Folk and Roots Festival has features some great up and coming acts in the past.

Latin Music Media

Don't feel too bad for always skipping the Spanish language radio stations on your dial; Most people who know anything about Latin music skip them, too. Three of the four Spanish language radio stations in Chicago, La Kalle (103.1FM), Que Buena (105.1FM) and Pasion (106.7FM) are all owned by media conglomerate Univision and don't play anything interesting (sound familiar?). Pasion is entertaining, though, because its specialty is "old school romantic…[but eventually] I'm just like whatever," says Linda. Radio Arte is the best bet to learn about what's happening in the Latin music world and is an independent gem, but unfortunately has very limited signal strength.

While Chicago has no websites or blogs devoted to the local scene, some general websites are a good source of information about the global scene:

- La Banda Elastica
- Boom Magazine
- Al Borde
- Tu Ciudad L.A.
- Latina Voz
- Pulso Rock


About the Author:


David Polk is a producer at 98.7WFMT-FM. Special thanks to Linda Tortolero and Hugo Romo who were interviewed for this article, and Gabriela Jirasek for translation help.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

Read this feature »

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