J. Lo and Behold

A thumbnail guide to the Other Latin Boom.

This month saw the release of the first English-language record by Shakira, the young Colombian singer who is supposed to be the latest hit-making member of the much-hyped Latin Boom. Early word from the critics is that the record doesn’t sound particularly Latin. This is of a piece with the not-very-cross-cultural music produced by the vanguard chart-toppers in the alleged trend—such as Jennifer Lopez and ex-Menudo affiliates Ricky Martin and Marc Anthony. This is all a bit like dropping a thin slice of jalepeño into the same old house salad and renaming it the Fiesta Special: It’s not a fresh creation, it’s a marketing gimmick.

The good news is that lately a different, and far more interesting, Latin Boom has been under way. The artists in its vanguard—some Latino, some not—aren’t exactly smashing commercial records. But they are actually delivering on the promise of mixing Latin influences (from Mexico, Cuba, and elsewhere) with American pop sounds (rock to rap) and creating whole new flavors of music.

Multiethnic, multigenre party music: Let’s start on the West Coast, where a diverse collection of Los Angeles musicians has come together under the name Ozomatli. That band extends the sound of its 1998 debut record on the just-released Embrace the Chaos, a title that suggests the virtues of creatively combining black with white, Latin with Asian, traditional with experimental. “Dos Cosas Ciertas,” for instance, mixes drum programming, live horns, Spanish vocals, and a rap bridge (in English) by the L.A. rapper Kanetic Source. Chaos is, in fact, the main constant here, from the carnivalesque sound of “Guerrillero” to the more menacing, riot-going-on mood of the title cut.

Highbrow hybrid (West Coast): Both of Ozomatli’s records feature guest turns by David Hidalgo, and the new one includes production work by Steve Berlin. Both are members of Los Angeles’ Los Lobos, and it would be a mistake not to mention that well-known band and the less-celebrated Hidalgo/Louie Pérez side project Latin Playboys. The tunes on Latin Playboys (1994) and Dose (1999) draw on everything from ranchera music to Tom Waits. On Dose, a cinematic melody stomps over a bed of scratching on “Locoman,” a surprising violin break careens over a meandering guitar line in “Mustard,” and in “Paula y Fred,” Pérez’s deadpan, mostly Spanish vocal competes with a tempo so manic that he has to drop in an occasional word of English to keep up (“Fred no quiere Paula porque ama Lucy instead”). It’s all much more studio-centric and cerebral than most of the Los Lobos catalog, but it has its rewards.

Electronica border-crossing: A bit farther south are the various artists who, at least on the CD The Tijuana Sessions, Volume 1, refer to themselves as The Nortec Collective. All these musicians are based in northern Mexico, but they seem to feel little need to play up authentically Mexican instrumentation—it’s there, but it remains secondary to layers of techno beats. Bostich is one standout artist here, matching synthesizer and Caribbean percussion sounds with a quasi-traditional horn riff in “Polaris.” The spooky “Tijuana for Dummies,” by Hiperboreal, balances a jaunty saxophone with echoey vocal samples over a hypnotic rhythm track.

Downtown club mix: The recently released, self-titled debut of New York-based band Si Sé isn’t a Latin record per se, but that influence on the band’s diverse lineup—with roots that are Dominican, Venezuelan, Jamaican, and Irish, to name a few—is hard to miss. The two founding members—singer Carol C. and programmer/keyboardist Cliff Cristofaro, who goes by the name U.F. Low—are creatures of New York’s club scene. They’re particularly influenced by the atmospheric and subtle sound referred to as drum ‘n’ bass, with its modern, electronic-heavy, DJ-driven downtown vibe. Combine drum ‘n’ bass with the earthier and more urgent sounds associated with New York’s immigrant cultures, and you get songs like “Bizcocho Amargo,” with flamencolike guitar flourishes, a Latin beat, and Spanish lyrics, but punctuated by samples and scratches. Or the moody (English) “I Want You To …,” a commingling of electronic effects, sweet viola, and Carol C.’s diva-ish vocals. Or “Dolemite,” a crisp, post-disco duet of C.’s charismatic voice and Cristofaro’s machinery. An incredibly inventive record.

Highbrow hybrid (East Coast): Marc Ribot, the New York guitarist known for his work on records by Tom Waits, the Lounge Lizards, and others has put out two records with a backing band he calls Los Cubanos Postizos—The Prosthetic Cubans (1998) and ¡Muy Divertido! (2000). He’s obviously playing with traditional and jazzy Cuban influences, but you’re unlikely to confuse this music with anything in the ever-expanding Buena Vista Social Clubcatalog. As wonderful as the Buena Vista stuff is, after all, its success has more to do with discovering a past than with hashing out a future. The Ribot records are more forward-looking, part of a long line of experiments by a restless artist. (Completely un-Latin Ribot recordings include 1990’s Rootless Cosmopolitans, a personal favorite, and this year’s Saints.) On ¡Muy Divertido!, Ribot’s guitar sounds crystalline and comfortable—he stays in control of the material without ever trying to pass himself off as something he’s not. “Las Lomas de New Jersey” sets his urban guitar sound wandering in a rural Cuban musical setting; Frankie Vasquez croons the Spanish lyrics, while Ribot himself provides a spoken, deadpan, gringo translation of his meditation on the hills of the Garden State. In the high-octane instrumental “Baile Baile Baile,” Ribot’s guitar plucks out an incredibly catchy dance riff, working into such a frenzy at times that it tips over into raw fuzz. It’s another highlight.

And so are several covers of classic Cuban tunes, especially the pretty “Dame Un Cachito Pa’Huele.” Listening to that one, you get a sense of what makes Ribot’s playing so confident: When you’re doing an Arsenio Rodriguez song, and your guest musicians include vocals by Eszter Balint and organ work by ex-Attraction Steve Nieve, well, then you know you’re cool. And in Ribot’s case, that’s only enhanced by the fact that he, too, is a former member of Menudo.

Just kidding.