Spotlight on the Alternative Latin Scene 

The Mission Creek Music and Arts Festival highlights some of Latin music's underground acts.

Growing up in Oakland's Fruitvale district, Camilo Landau remembers norteño music coming out of houses, bamba blasting from car stereos, and cumbia roaring on street corners. But in his own band, Carne Cruda, whose sound he describes as "post Latin," Landau also adds surf and rock to elements of salsa and cumbia.

"Latin music is defined by a number of different genres, and we play all genres, just not in traditional ways," Landau said. "These genres are our influences but we add our own twist on it."

You could say that Carne Cruda, whose members also cite influences of everything from grunge to funk, personifies the diversity of Oakland culture. Although they've played to crowds of more than 50,000, they prefer local venues such as La Peña and Luka's, where their theme song "Oakland's Tight" gets a huge response.

Thus, the band was a perfect match for Convergence, a showcase of California-based alternative Latin music acts, part of the 13th annual Mission Creek Music and Arts Festival, running July 15 through 24. Started by promoter Jeff Ray thirteen years ago, the independent music festival has featured Latin artists in the past, but the Convergence showcase will bring the scene to a new level.

"This is the third year Latin music has been introduced but it wasn't properly being represented within the festival," explained Ray. "The festival has gotten larger and it's designed to include a wider group of people."

Ann Blankenship, the Latin music curator for the festival who has been producing shows since 2007, wants to be an "omega," much like the artists she plans to present to the Bay Area at Convergence. Carne Cruda, which will headline a show at the Blue Macaw in San Francisco, is more experimental in its explorations of Latin music, adding a local twist to traditional Latin sounds. "I'm not looking for mainstream Latin acts that generally come to the Bay Area like Juanes or Shakira," said Blankenship. "They're good but I don't think they're very interesting."

As more and more Central- and Latin-American-influenced music crosses the border into California, artists like Juan Son (Juan Carlos Pereda), Convergence's headliner, are gaining in popularity. Son plays to crowds of thousands in Mexico but says the expected attendance of 300 at Convergence will be just as exciting. Additionally, this will be his first time in San Francisco, a music scene he says he has always wanted to investigate.

"I've always been kind of nervous going up on stage," said Son. "It's like being in a bull-fight ring. I'd rather have small crowds. It's like being in a studio composing. In this time in my life I'm more comfortable with composing."

Son's solo act — he is formally of the band Porter but started touring solo in 2008 — embodies the uniqueness of the Latin sound in the Bay Area. Blankenship describes his voice as "bizarre" and "underground." "Juan's voice is so distinctive," she said. "I've been producing music for a long time and never came across singers where I got to thinking, 'If there's a formula here where bands can be experimental and successful, maybe bands will be less hesitant to take chances.'"

While Latin music is pretty prolific in the Bay Area, alternative Latin music acts get far less exposure. The Latin community comprises 21.6 percent of the total population of the Bay Area, but Alex Zepeda, promoter for the Convergence showcase, thinks the Latin music scene is finally on the brink of true expansion.

"I think more bands from Mexico that are big are really proving there's a fan base for groups to come here to the states," Blankenship said. "There are sold-out shows and there's really a market for alternative music."

Having put on productions all over the state, Blankenship describes the Bay Area as "virgin territory," where the demand for alternative music is perhaps finding more fertile soil than cities like Los Angeles, where audiences are so overloaded with different kinds of music that more obscure bands get lost in the mix.

The greatest thing to be gained from these festivals is the opportunity to grow a fan base and a chance for exposure that seems to be a brick wall in other mediums such as radio, where there are few Latin stations and no alternative Latin segments. Zepeda says bands have to learn to promote themselves because they can't rely on mainstream media or sponsors to do it for them.

Juan Son will be participating in the festival without pay, as all proceeds from his show will go back to the nonprofit, Mission Creek. That's a huge sacrifice for musicians like Son, who's just getting his start in the states. But both the bands and promoters contend they are getting value just by participating in the festival.

"You have to work to get people interested in a show," Zepeda said. "The concerts will help the community become more aware. Just because we don't have the support, it's still important to bring interest to our music."

Interest comes mainly from the fact that this is not traditional Latin music, which mainly appeals to a specific demographic. Bands performing at Convergence will showcase a broad range of spin-offs that should grasp the attention of the next generation of Latin listeners — Zepeda's show at the Oakland Metro is an all-ages show.

This new generation will do more than just provide greater demand for incoming bands already popular in Mexico City, for example. Zepeda says perhaps the most encouraging thing about the new music being introduced to youngsters is that it will break the barrier and eliminate pervading stereotypes of Latin music.

"Most people assume all of us like traditional Mexican music such as cumbia and salsa," Zepeda said. "That's not the case, especially with younger Latino people. They like grunge, alternative, indie, rock. We have to bring out all the sounds, we have to show our diversity."

Landau admits salsa enthusiasts don't even like Carne Cruda's music. "Our crowd is more experimental indie rockers and Latino intellectuals who are interested in the fusion aspect of our music," he said.

But Landau is cautious because of American musicians' history of "stealing" music from abroad. He mentions Ry Cooder, who went to Cuba and met with the musicians who became known as the Buena Vista Social Club, picked some songs, added slide-guitar, and called them their own.

"We want to make sure we're not ravaging Latin culture but we still want to highlight it," Landau said. "We want to show people that these are our influences but we can't deny that we live in the US and we aren't those people. So we play our own stuff with influences from other places."


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