Music may be the universal language, but many in this country won't listen if they can't understand the lyrics. A group of Charlotte-based musicians are out to change all that with Carlotan Rock, an annual Latin rock festival that attempts to introduce a wide range of music in Spanish to Charlotte and beyond.
The members of La Rúa, Charlotte's premier blues/roots-rock Latino band, all grew up in Ecuador and Venezuela. Most of the big acts from the US and the UK go over to Spanish-speaking countries to play live shows, and English-speaking acts are as big there as music in Spanish. "You go, you're not thinking, 'Oh, it's music in English, I'm not going to understand it,'" says La Rúa's singing drummer, Juan Marin. "You sing along to the lyrics, even though you don't know what you're saying."
La Rúa guitarist Tony Arreaza, Marin and keyboardist Herman Marin (Juan's brother) came up with the idea in 2004 as a way to expand the public's musical consciousness. "We were thinking of a way that we could come up with a show that you could do year after year not only to promote ourselves but also to give other bands from Charlotte the opportunity to play on a professional stage with pro sound and good lights; put on a real show to showcase their talents." The first festival featured only three bands and drew only around 500 people. The second year, the festival featured seven bands on two stages and pulled in a respectable 1,100 attendees.
This year's show, to be held at the Neighborhood Theatre July 14, features international headliners Los Amigos Invisibles; four local acts, including La Rúa; as well as two bands from out of state, Papas Underground from DC and Palo Viejo from Baton Rouge, LA.
To many unfamiliar with the culture, Latino music only comes in one flavor -- Ricky Martin-style pop. It ain't necessarily so. "Really alternative music, industrial techno, electronic noises -- there's all kinds of music in Spanish," Marin says.
La Rúa's music sounds like old school rock from the '60's, '70s and '80s. Marin readily admits influences ranging from Led Zeppelin to the Doors, with room in between for U2, Santana ("if you consider that English"), Chuck Berry, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. And although La Rúa's music may be easily recognizable from its American rock roots, it's all sung in Spanish, at least on record. It's La Rúa's contribution to reinforcing the Rock en Español movement in Charlotte. "We want to make sure that the music is a universal language and even if you don't speak Spanish, you should at least give it a chance."
But live, Marin says every once in awhile the band plays a cover song from Lenny Kravitz, the Police or the Beatles in English and have even been invited to play the Beatles tribute show at Spirit Square.
Headliners Los Amigos Invisibles also sing in Spanish and have American roots tangled in their music. But the roots' source is from a very different species. Los Amigos call themselves a dance band and draw heavily from disco and funk. In the beginning, that took some explaining in their native Venezuela. "Because back in the time, if you wanted to say, OK, I'm a dance band, people would understand you were playing in a salsa band or a meringue band," says Los Amigos bassist Jose "Catire" Torres by phone from his home in New York City.
He laughs when asked why the band messes with disco when they can play funk as well as they do, explaining that the band was influenced by the African movement in England. "We figured that disco music, soul music, funky music were strong influences of that genre."
Yeah, that's true, I tell him, but in the States, musicians hated disco because it replaced them with electronic noisemakers, and it was more about robotic instruments than talent. "I remember that, and I remember watching burning disco balls, vinyl in the stadium, whatever," Torres says, laughing. "I think we were kids when that happened, so I don't think we have that bad influence." He says he doesn't remember the Venezuelan people thinking of disco as music that demanded less talent. "But yeah, when we got here, we realized that, wow, the United States is different. For us, the US is rock and roll town. That we figured out when we came here to live."
When they first got together in 1991, Los Amigos' music was considered underground. But unlike what happened in Mexico, there was no overt government intervention against rock. "No, of all the things we can complain [about], that isn't one," Torres says. "Nothing was said by the government, but it was definitely a bit underground," remembers La Rúa's Marin. "The more mainstream stuff, the more polished was what was really accepted."
Los Amigos set out to change all that by immersing themselves in funk. "We realized that the real old stuff was in here, the US. So we became fans of bands like Sly and the Family Stone, Cool and the Gang, James Brown -- we fell in love with that music. For a while we only played that kind of music."
That got them worldwide notice, thanks to David Byrne. "I would say he's guilty a 100 percent, your honor," Torres says, laughing. When the band came to New York to play in 1995, they left some copies of its record at a record store in New York. Bryne bought one, liked it and signed them to his Luaka Bop label. The mid- to late-1990s saw an explosion of Latin music worldwide, and Torres says David Byrne and Luaka Bop made that possible. Though the band parted ways with Byrne's label and put out records on its own label, Gozadera, in 2003, Torres says "without David Byrne and Luaka Bop, we would never have been able to be here doing what we are doing."
With or without Byrne, variations on the Latin theme have popped up all over the country. Baton Rouge's Palo Viejo plays a fast-paced brand of ska reminiscent of the Specials, sung in Spanish by a female lead singer. Marin calls it "fusion-tropical rock with ska thrown in ... Close to meringue or salsa, but done in a way that appeals to a rock audience."
DC's Papas Underground has more of a classic rock vibe that Marin says has a Bob Seeger feel but that also captures Bob Dylan's raspy drawl from the "Positively Fourth Street" days. The band, described by Marin as "old Latinos from DC, one of the pioneers of that region" performs its lyrics in a mix of about 70 percent Spanish, 30 percent English.
Charlotte's Bacalou Stars perform a breathless style of ska that sounds like a funkier, Spanish-speaking version of No Doubt. "They're very energetic, they're young, put on a great show," Marin says. "They just go for it -- they're a really cool band to see -- they're funny."
It's great music and the price is right. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door for seven bands. "Sometimes you pay more than 20 just to go and see Los Amigos Invisibles, great, world-renowned headliners," Marin says. "And, [Carlotan Rock] you have six other bands."