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Café Tacuba, Mexico's rock 'n' roll survivors

June 20, 2009 |  4:01 pm

CAFE_TACUBA_3_ Reporting from Los Angeles and Mexico City — Ever since the Fab Four started playing the Cavern Club in Liverpool, certain rock acts have been linked inextricably with certain cities. It practically defies imagination to picture Lou Reed honing his downtown Manhattan hipster-poet's chops in, say, Yazoo City, Miss.or Kurt Cobain and Nirvana slouching toward grunge-dom while drenched in the sunshine of South Florida, rather than soaking in Seattle's melancholy drizzle.

For the last 20 years, the definitive Mexico City band Café Tacuba has set a series of high-water marks for progressive Spanish-language rock, collecting critical hosannas along with Grammy awards and other trophies by the truckload.

Constantly innovating while relentlessly assimilating new influences from hip-hop to traditional Mexican regional folk and indigenous music, the quartet -- vocalist-guitarist Rubén Albarrán Ortega, keyboardist and guitar player Emmanuel "Meme" del Real Díaz, guitarist José Alfredo "Joselo" Rangel Arroyo and bass player Enrique "Quique" Rangel Arroyo -- has shed its musical skin and sprouted new ones as routinely as an iguana.

It subtly has refashioned its identity almost as frequently as the diminutive, peripatetic frontman Albarrán has changed stage names (he currently goes by the moniker Ixaya Mazatzin Tleyotl).

With L.A.-Argentine mega-producer Gustavo Santaolalla, the George Martin of Latin rock, shepherding its studio releases, the Mexican quartet has even been awarded the ultimate sobriquet by one critic who dubbed them the Beatles of rocken español.

Yet throughout its evolving two-decade career, at least one constant has remained: the band's close identification with its Mexico City home and the (occasionally manic) energy and myriad influences that it absorbs from that sprawling, gritty, baroque megalopolis of 22 million.

"The city's a very large theme for our music," Quique said in English in a backstage interview with his bandmate Meme before a concert last Saturday at Mexico City's vast Foro Sol. "A lot of the things we have lived in this city is what we talk about. And I think after all these years we still speak as people from a neighborhood on the suburbs of Mexico City, living with these people."

Even now, Meme said, he feels excited but "very nervous" whenever he plays before the hometown crowd.

"There are many feelings involved with our families, friends, closest friends since we start 20 years ago," he said. "There are going to be tonight everybody, and there's something that it can't be reproduced in any other city."

Considering the slangy colloquialisms that pepper its lyrics, its distinctly concrete-jungle fashion attire, the fierce, proprietary loyalty it inspires among legions of followers in the nation's capital -- an intense partisanship reminiscent of a tribe of fútbol fans -- Café Tacuba is unequivocally a Mexico City band, albeit now one with a global following.

The group brought its urban chilango sensibility to the Foro Sol, which was packed with 55,000 delirious, screaming fans. At one point in the nearly four-hour show, Albarrán paused from leaping around the stage, his longhair whipping around his shoulders, to ask the crowd how they planned to get home because the Mexico City public transport system shuts down late at night. "Ring your mom and tell her to come get you," he joked.

Presumably, they'll bring the same mix of informality and genial irreverence to Universal City's Gibson Amphitheatre on Wednesday, one of 20 scheduled stops on the band's current 20th anniversary tour.

Since Café Tacuba came together in 1989, its popularity across Latin America has grown steadily. Along with such other rocken español pioneers as Los Fabulosos Cadillacs of Argentina, the band has continued to make records and mature with its audience, even while attracting twenty- and thirtysomething adherents. In recent weeks, it has played in Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Cuba, and after L.A. it is scheduled to continue on to Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, London and Barcelona.

Cracking the U.S.

The group's stateside success has been harder won and slower to arrive. Throughout much of the 1990s, Café Tacuba was stranded in a kind of marketing and radio no-man's land. Mainstream Spanish-language stations preferred to stick with more commercial Latin pop. And although Café Tacuba played on mixed concert bills with indie rockers like Beck, it struggled to crack the U.S. record market. Even today, some native English speakers who dig the band's indie-experimental daring probably can't understand its lyrics.

But the group has gained a powerful promotional boost in the United States from its awards success. Its album "Cuatro Caminos" won a Grammy in the best alternative Latin rock category in 2004, and last November it scored two Latin Grammy Awards for rock song of the year ("Esta Vez") and best alternative song ("Volver a Comenzar").

More important, perhaps, a younger, bilingual generation of U.S. Latino fans that uses Internet social networking and other technology to stay abreast of music trends south of the border has demonstrated its willingness to embrace Mexican and other Latin alternative bands such as Café Tacuba, whatever language they sing in.

"For all the immigrants that are out there, we are sharing a postcard from home," Quique said.

While many Spanish-speaking Latin artists have sought to make "crossover" records in English, Café Tacuba has stuck with its mother tongue. In explaining why, the band members adopt the thoughtful, low-key manner that appears to characterize their approach to every aspect of their careers.

"In America, there's a lot of people who [won't listen] to our music because we sing in Spanish," Quique said. "But that's the way we do our music. And we grew up listening to a lot of American and English bands. We have heard a lot of music from Brazil or from Far East. And it's sung in their own languages -- or not. There are a lot of musicians from Europe, from Sweden or Iceland, that sing in English, but that's their choice to speak in their thoughts and their feelings that way. Our choice is to still sing in Spanish."

Meme said when the band returns to play in certain U.S. or European cities, it sometimes sees familiar faces among the English-speaking fans who, like their Latin counterparts, are sophisticated enough not to find foreign languages off-putting. "So we enjoy to play here, there and, as the Beatles say, everywhere," he said.

Rock ambassadors

Though Café Tacuba never has affected the role of musical ambassadors, the band members are aware that they're sometimes regarded by foreigners as Mexican cultural emissaries. They also understand that their homeland's image, fairly or not, has been tarnished of late by a string of vicious drug-related killings and the swine flu outbreak earlier this year.

But these setbacks, too, will pass. Like its crowded, earthquake-ravaged hometown, the oldest capital in the Western Hemisphere, the rock band named for a still-existing 1912 Mexico City restaurant has proved that it can survive, and thrive, amid the uproar.

"When we started, we never thought, 'Where are we going to be in 20 years from now?' " Meme said. "It just happened. And it happened because of our needs to create music, to enjoy it. Then we realized that it has becoming our profession, our way of life. And now we are 20 years from that. So what's going to happen? I hope I can still work on the music, with the band, with the audience."

--Reed Johnson and Deborah Bonello

TRAILBLAZERS: Formed in ’89, Café Tacuba is known for its fusion of musical styles. Photo credit: AP