Latin Alternative Music’s Movers and Shakers Meet
The Argentine songwriter Juana Molina sang oohs and ahs and la-las on Wednesday evening at SummerStage, while loops of guitar and keyboard lines meshed and billowed in beautifully hypnotic patterns around her voice. Wordless vocals were one way to bypass any language barrier, the persistent but not insurmountable challenge for the performers at the 10th annual Latin Alternative Music Conference, which ends on Saturday.
Since the conference started in 2000 it has become a showcase, strategy session, networking tool and pep rally. It brings together musicians and businesspeople who are devoted to music that straddles boundaries of style and nationality.
Josh Norek, who founded the conference with Tomas Cookman, said there were about 1,200 participants this year, a number that has held steady despite the recession and layoffs across the music business. “In 2000, the goal might have been ‘How can I get signed to a major label?,’ ” he said. “Now the questions are about self-promoting your band and getting it out there. Artists feel a lot more empowered than they did before.”
Over its five nights the conference presents polyglot music from across the Americas and Spain, with concerts in New York City clubs and parks, including another free SummerStage concert on Saturday by the Puerto Rican hip-hop and reggaetón group Calle 13 and the Colombian group Bomba Estéreo, which plays what it calls psychedelic cumbia. (It is replacing the Spanish songwriter Bebe on that bill.)
There were, inevitably, performers who simply sounded like translations of English-language rock or pop, as well as many songwriters who used English lyrics for at least part of their repertories. Yet Latin alternative music’s better impulse is not assimilation but a proud disregard for purism.
Bomba Estéreo’s set at the Bowery Ballroom on Thursday night — part of a six-band lineup — was kaleidoscopic and danceable, mingling the clip-clop bounce of cumbia and another Colombian rhythm, champeta, with echoey guitar, reggae backbeats and the singing and rapping of Liliana Saumet. “We are exploring the tradition, but in our independent way,” said Simón Mejía, the band’s guitarist, producer and composer. “We’re not thinking too much about the radio or making big hits. We want to break through the frontiers.
“Our idea is to take our music to the whole world.”
The conference brought plenty of other ingenious, resourceful music. Curumin, a singer from São Paulo, Brazil, shared Wednesday’s SummerStage bill with Ms. Molina; he led a sparse three-man band — bass, drums and sampler — in tunes that casually bridged 1970s samba-soul, hip-hop and electronica, mingling sun-drenched hedonism with hints of politics. (Curumin is at S.O.B.’s on Wednesday.)
In a 10-act acoustic showcase at S.O.B.’s on Thursday night, Los Deliqüentes, from Spain, played wry flamenco-pop that included passages for kazoo. The Mexican songwriter Natalia Lafourcade glided from lilting, Brazilian-tinged pop to abstract reveries in which her soprano voice started to swoop like a theremin. At the Mercury Lounge on Wednesday night, Los Hollywood (from Los Angeles) played bilingual punk-pop songs full of melodic hooks; Banda de Turistas, from Argentina, harked back to mid-1960s garage-rock and psychedelia; and Maluca, from New York City, revved up a techno-merengue-hip-hop hybrid complete with dance routines.
On Tuesday night there was a quintuple bill of Latin heavy metal. And throughout the conference — during its daytime sessions at the Roosevelt Hotel and between sets at concerts — disc jockeys played some of the most joyfully multicultural hybrids of all: electronic dance music that segued from Mexican ranchera accordion to synthesizers, from Bollywood pop to hip-hop. Dance rhythms, one of Latin music’s perpetual strengths, also leap past language barriers.
Latin alternative music — a purposely open-ended term — has demographics in its favor, as the Hispanic minority in the United States grows and spreads beyond established urban centers. There’s the promise of a growing bilingual audience for music that reflects its own American experience. Mr. Norek said he saw increasing geographic diversity at this year’s conference, including aspiring Latin musicians from places like Denver, Nashville, Minneapolis and Orlando, Fla., well outside the music’s old strongholds.
Still, Latin alternative music hasn’t become a Next Big Thing. More often than not it is stranded between commercial radio formats. “It’s not going to be exploding tomorrow and then gone nine months later,” Mr. Cookman said. “It’s not about one song, one band, one dance move, one fashion. We don’t need our Macarena moment.”
Instead it has percolated slowly and determinedly, making inroads in varied ways: club nights, appearances on “Austin City Limits,” blogs like clubfonograma.com, and placements in commercials and soundtracks. (ABC’s “Ugly Betty” is one television show that has been hospitable to Latin alternative music.) Mr. Norek recently began his own Latin alternative show on the Albany public radio station WEXT; the music has long been heard regularly at stations including KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif., and KUT in Austin, Tex., which are also Webcast.
Like other independent and niche categories, Latin alternative music now travels digitally; it is featured at online stores like iTunes Latino, Amazon and eMusic. Lately, more booking agencies have picked up Latin alternative bands. Mr. Cookman said he had noticed something new in this year’s conference registrations: representatives of major Latin labels that had previously ignored the music.
For Latin alternative music, the progress is not meteoric but incremental, which may make it more lasting. “As long as we’re not going backwards,” Mr. Cookman said, “it’s a beautiful thing.