Rock By Any Other Language

By: Christina E. Rodriguez

The basement is cool and roomy. Cigarette smoke, incense and perspiration mix in the stale air. An array of guitars and cases sit up against the wall. A blue curtain, what used to be a door, separates the basement rooms. The practice room is covered with blankets of different colors and patterns that drape the walls and couches that encircle the blue, shimmery drum set. Welcome to The Temple, Pure Remedy’s practice space and the laundry room for the Ocampo family.

Jose “Joey” Nava, 21, is the drummer and Jose Luis “Louie” Ocampo, 24, is the lead singer and guitarist for Pure Remedy. Their other two bandmates are guitarist Carlos Ortega, 22, and bassist Edgar Perez, 21. When rehearsing, the musicians position themselves like they would for a show, except for Carlos. He sits on a red, worn-out couch. They play toward a wall, their imaginary audience.

Joey uses so much energy and force while playing that he almost falls off the stool he is sitting on. His arms are like those of an octopus, and a draft resonates from each drum roll and cymbal hit. Louie’s hand moves up and down the guitar’s neck, gracefully touching each string, making his sparkly multicolored instrument sing. His right hand strums so fast that at times it looks like a blur. Under the red light, Edgar strums his bass, the effort, if any, shown in the way he purses his lips together. He removes his beanie hat and rubs his face, wiping away the tiny beads of sweat.

The band members joined forces during the summer of 2008 to create progressive, alternative and experimental music. Prior to founding The Temple, Louie played in a Spanish-rock band called Nora Wears Angora, with his compadre, Victor “Vic” Sanchez, 25, and his brother Juan Sanchez, Jr., 27.

All of Pure Remedy’s songs are in English, unlike Nora Wears Angora’s. For Louie, the transition from one band to the other, was a social statement. “Being able to play your own music changes people. It changes the tempo of things,” he says. “English is more universal. It’s easier for people to come together in English.”

The band plays anywhere from once a week to three times a month, usually sharing the spotlight with other bands. One of them is Black Roses, a progressive band, inspired by Guns ‘n’ Roses, The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Mexican rock band Caifanes. Vic Sanchez plays the drums, Adrian Jorge Campos, who’s often called by his middle name, lead guitar and Gustavo “Goose” Hidalgo sings and plays bass, a job which has been transitioned to Juan, so that Goose can perform his crazy antics on stage.

Goose, now 20, and Jorge, 21, were seniors at St. Ignatius College Prep on Chicago’s South Side when they came up with the idea for Black Roses. The fact that they occasionally took music lessons helped them develop their musical vision. But for Jorge, though, experiencing a Jaguares concert his sophomore year of high school, changed things. “I remember being in the crowd, watching the band play behind all this fog and flashing lights and people going nuts,” he says. “I remember saying, ‘Man, one day I’m going to be up there and be the cause for all this chaos.’”

The music that Black Roses create is inspired by anything from sex and death to Disney movies. Their sound is a concoction of blues, funk and a touch of punk. It has something that, in the Black Roses’ perspective, others lack.

“[Our music] has balls, which seems to be missing from a lot of rock groups nowadays,” claims Jorge. “It seems that after the 90s no one was there to pick up the ball where all the other great bands left it. I guess our mission is to pick up where they left off and keep running, hoping that others will run with us.”

While playing in Nora Wears Angora, the band began moving toward English-language songs because the Spanish rock genre, especially in the mainstream Latino world, was dying off. “There’s no genre for rock en español,”  Vic says. “Juanes is considered Spanish rock, but that’s pop to me. Everyone’s selling out.”

Local bands like Pure Remedy and Black Roses are following in the footsteps of many Latino, English-speaking bands before them, such as The Mars Volta, created by Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala, Rage Against the Machine and Los Lobos. Latino, English-speaking rock ‘n’ roll roots can be traced to Richie Valens (“La Bamba”) and Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs, who had the top 40 hit in 1965, “Wooly Bully.” They also mirror a similar trend in Latin America’s rock en español scene: the embracing of more Anglo sounds and English lyrics.

IN SEARCH OF A SPACE
The rock en español scene came to life in Chicago in the mid-90s. “Back in the [early] 1990s, the Spanish rock movement was not even around in Chicago,” says Rumis Corral, lead singer for Confusion, another English-language Latino band. “Most people were attached to new wave music, classic rock and new alternative music, although there were a few people working on the Spanish rock movement.”

“We formed Confusion, having many influences, and [were] hungry for expression. We looked for places to perform and be heard,” continues Rumis. “Pilsen was our target and we hit La Décima Musa, then El Viejo Café. We ran into other bands like Sobredosis, Elefante Blanco and Alebrije, among others.”

Hector Garcia, lead singer for Descarga, founded in 1996, and producer of the television show E>N>E: Chicago Rocks, has been active in the scene as well. E>N>E stands for Errores No Eliminados and airs on cable television channel 25 in Chicago. The program allows local Spanish rock bands to perform approximately 10 minute sets followed by interviews.

“Little by little, week by week, more bands were being added to the bill,” he says about those early days of Spanish rock. “Shows were packed because there was no other place to listen to it.”

Descarga has also started a transition to English songs. Hector and his guitarist, Everardo Rodriguez, decided it was time to evolve. As a teenager, Hector wanted to sing in Spanish as a way to go back to his roots. He wanted to prove that he could do it, although his Spanish songs would be translated from his English lyrics. “I wanted to write a song about a fork in the road,” Hector explains, “but I didn’t realize that you didn’t say it like that in Spanish, so now I have a song called ‘Tenedor.’”

He sees using English as another tool for his musical agenda. “If Spanish rock bands could sing in English, they would,” he states. “You use every weapon in your arsenal. If you speak English, why not?”

Black Roses, being of Mexican descent, don’t feel that their Latino culture plays a big role in their musical creation. “[Spanish rock bands are] committing suicide by staying in their circle,” says Vic. “[We] wanted to make music in Spanish because, ‘Oh, we’re Mexican,’ but then we realized that they weren’t listening to us.”

“Hence, our music is universal because it has a bit of everything and it’s in English,” adds Goose. “I’d like to think that I can sing in English and have everyone listen to it rather than be so in touch with my Latinidad, that I neglect the rest of the world.”

Pure Remedy, also of Mexican descent, doesn’t feel hindered by being Latino, but still tries to incorporate elements of their culture into their work. “We keep our roots intact,” says Louie. “There are no more rules [other than] being Latino.”

Although there is still a rock en español scene in Chicago, Hector calls it a blessing and a curse. Because of the readymade scene, the bands learned nothing about marketing. They weren’t getting honest critiques and leaned on promoters to handle their business. “The marketing wasn’t taught to us, but it was handed to us,” he says. Bands in other cities learned the way it worked because of the non-Latino bands that surrounded them. “They’re right next to the Anglo bands that had to do it,” Hector explains.

While many Latino bands play for Latino audiences, there are times when Pure Remedy and the Black Roses find themselves playing for non-Latino audiences in predominantly non-Latino bars and neighborhoods. Among them, the U.S. Beer Co. in Wicker Park in Chicago and O’Malley’s in Alsip, Ill.

“I don’t think of myself as being Mexican,” says Jorge. “I just want them to look at us as a band that wants to get somewhere.”

“I don’t want to be treated special because I’m a Latino,” adds Goose. “Just listen to the music.”

Originally published by Cafe Media, LLC.

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