In commemoration of its 15th year running, or what they endearingly call its quinceañera, the organizers of the Latin Alternative Music Conference made like Miami royalty and secured only the best acts in rock, hip-hop and EDM to celebrate their darling teenage brainchild. Based in New York City and founded by Nacional Records owner Tomas Cookman, the conference offers a platform for international Latino artists and music industry reps to show us their chops. When compared to years past, the 2014 lineup represents a broader spectrum of performers across nationality, style and age.
Friday night’s festivities kicked off with an acoustic showcase at Sounds of Brazil, otherwise known as S.O.B.’s in Downtown Manhattan. Equipped with a kazoo and combat boots, Cuban pop powerhouse Diana Fuentes struggled to keep the chatty crowd’s attention while closing the showcase. But under the hot lights of the Gramercy Theatre later on that night, her high-octane stage presence was commanding enough to hush the audience. Backed by a full Afro-Cuban jazz band, Fuentes burst into a blithe, free-form stream of salsa moves during their intoxicating instrumental breaks. Sung in tribute to the many Cuban refugees lost at sea, Fuentes’ performance peaked at “Otra Realidad,” her every vocal lunge stressing the great risks her people have taken to broaden their horizons.
Although Fuentes is a pretty hard act for anyone to follow, Colombia’s theater geek-turned-indie-heartthrob Esteman opened his set with an air of suspense. His band emerged, their faces obscured behind positively creepy masks with exaggerated brows and sinister smiles. They commenced with what sounded like the first few bars of “Rawhide.” Like the Phantom of the LAMC, Esteman let the audience wait a few minutes before he surfaced from behind the curtains, staring us all down from behind his mask and easing into his folky 2013 single, “Aquí Estoy Yo.” The masks came off and band ran through a string of tropicalia-infused indie pop gems that channeled the sophisticated beach party vibes of Esteman’s slim, jungle-print slacks.
As the lone hip hop artist in this evening’s showcase, Monterrey MC Milkman delivered a charged performance, but seemed misplaced among the cast of characters at Gramercy Theatre. His odes to booty claps and McDonald’s cheeseburgers had me wishing Ana Tijoux could roll in to serve her own breathy feminist smackdown. But instead, we were all liberated by a crew of intergalactic EDM heroes: touching down from outer space/Mexico City, came The Wookies! Churning out one long, decadent disco jam, the quartet of electric wizards grooved beneath gold capes and shaggy Wookie masks.
The lineup took an even more eccentric turn when LAMC Artist Discovery Award winner AJ Dávila stormed the stage with his ragtag team of punks, Terror/Amor. Despite the raw power of Terror/Amor’s live set, it seemed like a travesty that they were playing here and not a dive bar or a dingy loft in Brooklyn. Having already tended to his more punk rock proletarian fans the night before at Radio Bushwick’s event, Solo Dame Indie Pop, Dávila’s spirit was a little more bored than boisterous. Yet he still mustered up flirtatious quips to a screaming lady fan and doused the audience with water while performing his cheeky single, “Dura Como Piedra.” People repeatedly shouted “Boricua!” as a small pogo pit formed at the front of the stage. Up the Puerto Rican punx, down with venues where the cheapest beer is nine dollars.
Well past the witching hour, the lights dimmed down to a smoky blue for the final act. Los Macuanos reticently greeted the audience, providing little more engagement than downward gazes and nods towards their own respective iPads. And yet, for what their rather postmodern performance lacked in visual showmanship, they gained in the crowd’s response. Instead of expectantly facing the stage, the remaining audience members turned to each other and danced raptly under the influence of the Macuanos hypnotic beats. At the end of the day, it just goes to show that alternative music, in Spanish as in any other language, is not about record sales and appearances; but it’s about providing a more complex, expansive musical experience than what heavily-mediated, popular music usually offers.
Last but not least, here are some Superlatives for the LAMC Class of 2014:
Most Likely to Succeed: Diana Fuentes
Best Dressed: a tie between Esteman and The Wookies
Class Drama King: Esteman
Class Clown: Milkman
Biggest Flirt: AJ Davila
Most Likely to Start an Industrial Commune in a Ghost Town: Los Macuanos