The first cover piece I ever wrote (many moons ago) was for the SF Weekly, on a Mexican rock band called Maldita Vecindad, which was going on its first US tour, and on the (then) growing phenomenon of home-grown Latin American rock. This predated the marketing term "rock en español" by a couple of years.
The blooming of RNE scenes in the early to mid-90s in Latin America and the US was a heady experience to live through. I'd grown up a Dominican rockera/punk, which even in NYC made me a freak. So hearing Mexican kids worship the electric guitar and sing in DF slang felt like home.
I became part of the SF rockero scene, befriending bands, writing about them in the alternative press and in a local zine, going to every show from Berkeley Square's Rockola on Sunday nights to warehouse shows in San Jose. I even wrote a piece in Spin that claimed that RNE was one of the ten harbingers of the future in rock. 1995 was a good year.
More than a decade later, though, aside from Aterciopelados, Café Tacuba and Kinky, few Latin American bands (and no U.S. Latino bands) are known outside of a small subculture. Part of that is the fact that the U.S. music public has pretty much splintered into nothing but subcultures -- with the exceptions of globalized hip hop/pop -- but part of that was the colony collapse disorder that hit the U.S. RNE scenes starting about 1997.
What made me think about this was a recent Mun2 piece forwarded to me by Enrique Lavin trying to retrospectively analyze what happened to Latin American rock. The writer interviewed several folks who were in the trenches from the get-go, like Elena Rodrigo, who was a manager, show organizer, and worked at the first Latin rock indie in the US, Aztlán Records, and Ed Morales, who at the late, great Village Voice was like me one of a handful of Latino writers championing the "movimiento"; label peeps Tomás Cookman and Camilo Lara and other scenesters, organizers and promoters.
Their basic post-mortem is: RNE was a niche music, the term was a marketing imposition, reggaetón/hip hop is more "universal" and easier to market, the industry never properly supported the genre.
Of the comments on why U.S.-based bands never blew up the way Latin American bands did, I agree the most with Ed Morales' comment:
As much as I liked bands like Pastilla, Volumen Cero and Maria Fatal, I think the bands that developed in the U.S. didn't have as much quality and grassroots support as bands from Latin America. When bands like Caifanes, Fabulosos Cadillacs, Tacvba and Aterciopelados toured the U.S., I saw tremendous enthusiasm. I also saw them play in Latin America and there was even more enthusiasm. These bands represented the passion of Latin American kids who, for the most part, have a more difficult life than kids in the U.S. They also represent an organic part of a local Latin American culture. The U.S. bands did not represent "community" in the same way, despite their talent and passion.
Here are my dos cheles of analysis. It was basically a failure of infrastructure.
The industry: Definitely there was never the proper support, bc labels saw Latinos as a niche market, and Latin rockeros as a niche within a niche. They're just barely catching on to how big Mexican regional (another marketing invento) is. And as Morales points out, by the time RNE arrived, the major label ship had already sprung a big leak. With few exceptions (usually on public/independent radio), neither rock nor Spanish-language radio ever made any space for RNE. Only places like Tower or Ritmo Musical carried the stuff. And the mainstream music press fell into the "perpetual novelty" syndrome. Even into the early 2000s, I was asked by editors to explain that, yes, Latin Americans and Latinos listened to and made rock music.
Venues/touring: In the halcyon days of the mid-1990s, SF had several weekly/monthly spaces that booked bands from abroad and local bands. LA had even more. And NYC had a few: Brownies, the Spiral, La Kueva (which I always despised), and a couple of others. La Kueva still exists, in a seriously diminished form, and D'Antigua in Jax Hts has some shows but finding a show takes a lot of active effort. When there is a regular venue where you can expect a certain kind of show to happen, you keep up with their bills. Even in the email list/MySpace age, it takes a lot of effort to find where and when shows are in NY. Only LA really still has a vital scene. But even back then, few bands toured beyond their immediate area. Lack of venues made it difficult to put together a tour, so bands lost out on one of the tried-and-true ways to build a public.
Scenes/Audience: While there were significant regional differences, I don't entirely buy the idea that East Coast, West Coast, Miami, Chicago and TX were too dissimilar to amount to a cohesive "scene." Witness the punk/hardcore "movement" of the 80s. There were massive regional differences, yet people felt connected to a larger thing. I had that same feeling at the start of RNE (btw, I hate the term too, but it's a convenient shorthand), but I never saw the level of DIY I had seen with punx.
Musical quality: This is a big bugaboo, which a couple of the Mun2 interviewees mention (esp. re: Pastilla, Maria Fatal, Volumen Cero). A lot of US-based bands either stayed safely within the confines of their subgenre (power pop, heavy metal) without making their music as polished as a glass marble, or took on the mestizo aesthetic (Latin American traditional rhythms plus electric guitar or ska) and never fully digested all their influences. As I think Kiko has said to me, the seams always showed. Most gave it up before making a breakthrough. Remember when Luaka Bop signed local heroes King Changó and we thought that was it? RNE needed its Malcolm McLaren, its Bernie Rhodes, its Ian MacKaye.
When people say that the Latin American groups were better, they forget that what we saw here in the US was the cream of the crop of the entire continent (that's where MTV Latin America and the Latin American subsidiaries of labels come in).
Maybe it's that old desire for "transcendence," to fit into an international market, that ends up compromising the sound/vision of the groups. I'm thinking of No Wave which was tiny, tiny movement, but some people argue was tremendously influential. (It was for me, and it did give the world Sonic Youth, though I think the claims of ultimate "importance" are a little overstated).
Are there good Latin American rock bands now? Sure. And I don't just mean the usual suspects. Are there good US-based bands? Probably, though I basically have to stumble on them online. They have ZERO industry resources available to them, since the labels have decided that the best bang for the buck is with bands from the big countries (Mexico-Colombia-Argentina) who have large national audiences, play well in other parts of Latin America and play well in the US. Never mind bands from Central America or the DR/PR, or Andean groups, eg.
Clearly, I could go on for days on this subject.
[image of Maldita's self-titled debut album via wikipedia; Kinky pix by hookm3up via flickr; Ian MacKaye pix via Aquarius Records]