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Spanish rock vanishes

Only one Spanish band made it on Rolling Stone's list of 'best Latino rock albums of all time'

Issue 1,170 of Rolling Stone has a special section on Latin Music. Eight pages of editorial, in English, plus the Latino rapper Pitbull splashed on the back cover.

Conceived for the Anglo Saxon reader, the content makes sense: a writer who expresses himself in English (Junot Díaz), some hot girls (the actresses Sofía Vergara and Alexa Vega, the rapper Maluca), and groups that regularly perform in the US, such as Bomba Estéreo, Calle 13 and Café Tacvba, inevitably dubbed “the Radiohead of Mexico.”

What has sparked a wealth of online debate, however, is their list of “The best Latino rock albums of all time.” Brace yourself: (1) Café Tacvba, Re, 1994; (2) Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Fabulosos calaveras, 1997; (3) Julieta Venegas, Bueninvento, 2000; (4) Babasónicos, Infame, 2003; (5) Soda Stereo, Sueño estéreo, 1995; (6) Aterciopelados, Río, 2008; (7) Karnak, Karnak, 1995; (8) Manu Chao, Clandestino, 1998; (9) Os Mutantes, Os Mutantes, 1968; (10) Santana, Abraxas, 1970.

It was something of a suicide mission to try to sum up so many divergent rock trends in 10 records. Rolling Stone may have made a mistake by turning to a freelancer living in Los Angles, Ernesto Lechner, who has written a book called Rock en Español: the Latin Alternative Explosion, but is really more specialized in salsa and tango.

One is struck by the absence of Spanish (and Portuguese) rock on the list, apart from the special case of Manu Chao. It confirms the growing irrelevance of Spanish rock across the water.

It was not always so. Apart from the impact of Los Bravos, Spanish groups in the 1980s gave a boost to Mexican pop. The phenomenon of Héroes del Silencio was reproduced in the Americas. The insurgents of Iberian punk inspired thousands of Latin groups. Not to mention the success of Hombres G across the Atlantic. In the 1970s, all the Spanish balladeers worked the American markets. It was a natural field, and it was useful. With the exception of some heavy metal bands, the groups were more reluctant to tour. Well situated in Spain, they were comfortable there, and did not fancy the adventures of the road. This lethargy infected the industry: when the recording labels had Spanish owners, they accepted the need to export; when they were swallowed up by multinationals, they lost their drive. This perversity contradicts the radiant visions of the propagandists of global culture. Theoretically a group that belongs to a “multinational” has better chances of global success. In fact the Anglo Saxon products take priority. “Cultural exchange” with the periphery is rare.

This decline of Spain as a brand happened decades ago in music, coinciding with the rise of Miami as the capital of Latin America. But no one in Spanish officialdom — the Culture Ministry or the Cervantes Institute — reacted. Nor did the industry. They had it fairly easy: Spanish executives abounded in the Miami-based multinationals.

Unlike other European nations, Spain has no state agency devoted to the promotion of its own music, though the ICEX (attached to the Trade Ministry) helps out now and then. The only initiative came from the much-vilified copyright management agency LaSGAE. It facilitated tours and had a presence at major industry events such as MIDEM and South by Southwest.

Today LaSGAE is a stunned giant. And I suppose that the invisibility of Spanish rock is the last concern of Culture Minister Wert. The man likes to show off his knowledge of pop, but in recent days the social networks have been buzzing with a 1983 story from this newspaper, which reveals that José Ignacio Wert was, together with Álvarez del Manzano, one of the promoters of the campaign against Las Vulpes that put an end to Caja de ritmos, one of the very few TVE programs devoted to new Spanish groups. As Álvarez del Manzano would say, when we already have the glorious Spanish opera genre zarzuela, who needs new music?

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