Lafayette, LA – Mexico. Land of big-hatted vaqueros singing songs of love and nationalism, of mariachi bands playing sentimental melodies. A place where trends move slowly. Where traditional, country-style music or saccharine, plastic pop are the music of choice for millions of listeners north and south of the U.S. border.
But tune your ears below the mass market radar, and you'll hear something very different. There's a wave of alternative music coming from Mexico that belies the country's tradition-laden and glitzy commercial images, one that provides a soundtrack to a very different -- and very modern -- world.
It's boldly experimental, with artists tuned around the globe, bringing in electronica, hip-hop, ska, rock, punk and more, sometimes (though not always) mixing it with traditional Mexican genres and spitting it back out in a new Mexican sound. It's music that's open-minded, politically aggressive and sophisticated, music that rattles and echoes with the sound of a culture reinventing itself.
"The Internet has extended this sense of looking for and needing music from outside," says Toy (Antonio Hern ndez), DJ and producer of Control Machete, a hip-hop band from the northern city of Monterrey, a hotbed for new Mexican alternative music. "It continues beyond borders, so that it makes the future about understanding and searching for new musical ideas and information."
Gil Cerezo, turntablist and vocalist for Kinky, an electronica band also from Monterrey, adds "But what you express is your own identity. Whether it's punk or electronic or whatever, you're still going to express yourself as a Mexican."
The alt-Mexican sound ranges across styles and generations. There are older groups like Maldita Vecindad, a ska-punk band that emerged in the 1980s and was among the first to challenge establishment politics, and Caf Tacuba, whose musical experiments have led them to collaborate with the avant-garde classical ensemble Kronos Quartet. There's Molotov, whose politics are as aggressive as their rap-metal sound, and idiosyncratic, self-defined female singer-songwriters like Julieta Venegas and Ely Guerra.
Loosely allied groups like Tijuana's Nortec Collective and Guadalajara's Nopal Beat Collective mix electronica with traditional Mexican genres and make waves in the international dance scene.
Many of the new bands come from Monterrey, whose proximity to the border and technological sophistication -- it's home to Tec de Monterrey, a large technical university -- have made it a fertile breeding ground for alternative acts. In addition to Control Machete and Kinky, they include El Gran Silencio, which blends Mexican cumbia and norte o with ska and reggae for an effervescent global sound; grooved-out experimentalists Plastilina Mosh; and Inspector, a high-speed ska cumbia group.
The new music has its roots in broad changes in Mexican culture. The spread of Internet access and satellite TV have widened musicians' access to music from around the world, and increased their audiences at home and elsewhere. The growing exchange with the United States and its large Mexican immigrant population are turning artists toward El Norte as a source of audiences and ideas. As Mexico's once rigidly controlled political system and media empires have slowly begun to open up, the country's alternative artists are pushing through the cracks, spearheading the expression of a more critical, democratic and self-reliant attitude in the culture at large. People are becoming aware that they can do things on their own initiative in going against the system.
The roots of this defiant, experimental attitude go deep. Mexico has a long history of absorbing and converting other countries' musical styles. "It's a part of Mexican heritage -- for instance we've copied cumbia and vallenato from Colombia, and developed them in a way that's specific to our country," says Pato (Raul Chapa), rapper for Control Machete. "The same happens with rock bands or something more hip-hop or trip-hop. We do it in our own style."