Americans who still think of Latin music as mariachi bands and gyrating Ricky Martins and Shakiras might want to lend a closer ear to the genre. This country's Hispanic population isn't just growing, it's growing more diverse. More and more unique musical styles are being gobbled up, and that should come as good news to alternative gringos hoping to spruce up their castellano. This year's Latin-music highlights come from all over the Spanish-speaking map. We'll start in the farthest geographic corner: an island in the Mediterranean.
Niña de Fuego
Afro-Spanish artist Buika epitomizes cultural and ethnic diversity. Over three decades ago, her parents fled political turmoil in the former Spanish colony of Equatorial Guinea and made a new life for themselves in a gypsy neighborhood on the island of Mallorca. After stints as a Tina Turner impersonator in Vegas and as the vocalist on some chic house and funk albums made for the European clubs, Buika has found her niche in flamenco and Latin jazz. This year's Niña de Fuego contains many of the same gitano elements found on her successful LP Mi Niña Lola, and pushes the boundaries further by adding Mexican ranchera. Only someone as strangely bohemian as Buika could pull together these emotive styles with just the right amount of melodrama.
THE PINKER TONES
Barcelona's Pinker Tones have traded most of their native Catalán for English -- both in language and in beat. On Animals, harmonic backing vocals combine with synthesizers and wah-wah pedals to produce 1980s-style pop and rock steady. The song titles couldn't be more fitting. "Hold On" starts with a choir and then hits the gas with an accelerated Beck-like groove. That's followed by the even more retro number "S.E.X.Y.R.O.B.O.T." and the happy-go-lucky reggae track "The Whistling Song." But Pinkertones do take pride in some forms of hip-swiveling: Be prepared to shake your mod booty to "Electrotumbao."
Going even more retro is Argentina's legendary Fito Páez. A pioneer of pop rock en español, Páez waxes nostalgic on this greatest-hits album. Millions of South American rockers are sure to hold up their lighters, arena-style, to the memories conjured up by Páez's whimsical combination of piano and poetic lyrics on songs like "La Rueda Mágica" and "Mariposa Tecknicolor."
Since dropping the "Tango Club" title from its name, this electronic-music collective has broadened its musical horizons. They now include the African rhythms of Uruguay's candombe, Andalusian hip-hop as presented by Spain's La Mala Rodríguez, and a healthy sampling of North and South American pop and blues, represented here by contributing artists such as Britain's Elvis Costello, America's Nelly Furtado, Mexico's Julieta Venegas, Argentina's Gustavo Cerati and Uruguay's Jorge Drexler. The movie-like symphonics are enough to liven the winter doldrums of any holiday party.
Yet another Argentine outfit manages to walk the line between commercial pop and alternative rock. Babasónicos' Mucho has much to offer a wide range of listeners, with a sound reminiscent of the late 1980s and early '90s, when the group first experienced success. The opening tune, "Yo Anuncio," sounds like a bit like Jellyfish, while "Pijamas" is a reminder of the new-wave movement, and "Estoy Rabioso" packs enough punch to generate a relatively safe mosh pit. Gotta carpool or share the stereo with officemates? This album is likely to keep the masses pleasant in tight quarters.
Travel to Colombia and pop life gets even funkier. On Río, it's evident that Aterciopelados haven't forgotten their indigenous, rebellious urban roots. As always, frontwoman Andrea Echeverri's slightly nasal voice harmonizes divinely over a cool collection of alt-rock laced with reggae, cumbia and other Andean styles. The band undulates from spacey and mysterious to hard-driving and happy as it tackles everything from motherhood ("28") to immigration ("Bandera").
Los de Atrás Vienen Conmigo
Puerto Rico's five-time Grammy and Latin Grammy award-winning veterans segue from straightforward hip-hop to an alternative reggaetón that incorporates everything from rock steady to cumbia. It's ballsy to the point of requiring a parental advisory, but nonetheless thoughtful in the way it busts out ironic chants and ragamuffin rhymes. Given the band's dark humor, it's not surprising that this album received musical contributions from cheeky Panamanian salsa god Ruben Blades on "La Perla Feat" or legendary Mexican rockers Café Tacuba on "No Hay Nadie Como Tú."
(Phantom Sound and Vision)
This Cuban hip-hop outfit's high-energy music shows that the band is culturally bound to the island no matter how far its members have dispersed across Europe (last we heard, one was in Paris, another in Milan, and another in Madrid). The raps here are hard-driving and the beats are punchy, but the underlying rhythms are as Cuban as the Buena Vista Social Club. No need to scratch your head when you come across the term a guarachar in Orishas' lyrics. You'll find your body doing exactly that to this CD's groovy beats.
Reggae's popularity in Spanish-language countries is celebrated with a diverse cast of Latino artists including Puerto Rico's Cultura Profética, Argentina's Los Cafres, Chile's Gondwana, and Spain's Macaco and Amparanoia. Sure, these alternative tastemakers are well aware of the cool ways they could have melded music from the Andes to Andalusia into their own brand of skanking. Instead, they've paid 'nuf respect to reggae's roots by staying true to the genre's original sound and socially conscious lyrics.
Umalali: Garifuna Women's Project
Edging farther west, you'll find a blend of Babylonian music all its own. The Garifuna people were born of shipwrecked slaves and Carib natives in St. Vincent, then exiled by British colonists to the Atlantic Coast of what is now Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. Remixed by forward-thinking Belizean producer Ivan Duran, the music on this compilation album is as complex as the women who sing it. Elements of rock, blues, funk and even Cuban son intermingle with the Garifunas' beat-based punta music to drive home messages of suffering and survival. You don't have to speak a lick of the Garifunas' unique native tongue to understand the emotion behind their singing and chanting.