Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Latin Invasion

By Franklin Soults

SEPTEMBER 8, 1998:  Go to any discriminating record store here in el norte and you'll probably find Mexican superstars Maná and Colombian up-and-comers Bloque grouped together in the burgeoning category of rock en español (at least once Bloque's worldwide debut comes out, on October 6). Anyone with a passing knowledge of rock en inglés who sat down to listen to the two groups, however, would instantly perceive a glitch: the gulf between Maná's high-gloss light rock and Bloque's jazz-based, pan-American dance music is even bigger than the one separating them from the average monolingual gringo. It suggests that maybe the rock en español category hasn't just burgeoned but exploded.

If so, Maná and Bloque demonstrate that the explosion can take many forms. Maná blew open new possibilities by going gold stateside on their last two albums -- half a million copies each, a feat no Spanish-language rock act had managed before. Even Selena's sensational pop success was linked to a traditional Hispanic subgenre, Tejano. In contrast, Maná's 1997 album, Sueños Líquidos (WEA Latina), sounds like a crossing of the Gipsy Kings with Duran Duran and the Police. That may seem like stale popcorn to many Anglos, but the combination strikes a chord with Latin youth as strong as the one struck by the Backstreet Boys among US and European teens.

No wonder, then, that Maná should tenderize rock just the way the Backstreet Boys soften up R&B -- by diluting it with international pop. Granted, Maná don't roll out the gilded hooks quite as heavily as the Boys do, but in their all-Spanish lyrics, they pour on the juvenile romanticism even thicker than the five heartthrobs ("She's a temptress"; "She's a siren"; "She was my deepest love, my deepest wound").

Still, Maná can claim they've earned the right in ways the Boys can't. "When we grew up, rock en español was suppressed," says drummer, singer, songwriter, and producer Alex González by phone from California, on a tour that will bring the to Avalon this Wednesday. "A lot of the bands that were trying to play rock were singing in English. You can't communicate with nobody if you're singing in English in Latin America, but Mexican bands singing in Spanish didn't have a chance. We paid our dues through many, many, many years of struggle. We toured the country in a van, and sometimes we didn't have money to eat, or to rent a room to sleep. But we pulled it off and showed that, yes, you can be successful being a rock band in Latin America. Rock and roll is a universal music. It's a music that as a kid you're always attracted to. We wanted to achieve those dreams like any American kid.''

In another explosion of rock en español -- the kind that breaks boundaries instead of sales records -- Bloque have come to see those dreams as part of the problem. Writing on the back of the advance copy to their Luaka Bop/Warner Bros. Bloque debut, the eight-piece band proclaim, "Our music fills the immense black hole that was created by the media revolution in the '60s, when Colombian people forgot to create their own modern music while they were busy trying to learn how to dance to the sound of the fucking Beach Boys.''

Despite the emphasis on Colombian culture versus the fucking Beach Boys, the real key to that mission statement is the notion of self-creation, especially modern self-creation. Half the band have experience playing with one of Colombia's biggest pop stars, the handsome blond TV personality and pop vallenato performer Carlos Vives. It was in reaction to helping Vives bastardize the folk art form of vallenato that Bloque core founders Iván Benavides and Ernesto "Teto" Ocampo started Bloque.

"There was a contradiction there with him," explains Ocampo by phone from Miami, the first stop on their virgin US tour, which will bring them to the House of Blues this Friday. "He wanted us to play something to sell. But we don't want to do that. We don't see our music as something to sell, as a commodity. We play because we have the need to play, just to feel alive.''

That doesn't mean playing the folk artist; it means naturally blending the variety of modern influences that reflected the group's diverse background -- half from the Caribbean-flavored, rural northern coast, half from the urban wilds of Bogotá. The result is an edgy but well-tempered combination of salsa rhythms, jazz chords, rock muscle, and folk lilt that combines and recombines in unexpected ways from song to song.

"I can say there are two kinds of music: real music and fake music," ventures Ocampo. "I think the pop we inherited from America's nonviolent colonization in the '60s is fake, it's a fake feeling, it's something planned. You can call real music any African music, any rock they never play on Colombian radio like the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin, any strong music from any culture in the past, from Bach to Salif Keita, or whatever. When we started Bloque, we wanted a real band playing real music for the real reasons you have to play. And that's what we've done."


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