The 13th annual Latin Alternative Music Conference (LAMC) in NYC started off with spunk and spirit at the Mercury Lounge Showcase where artists sang to a mostly packed and enthusiastic audience. The MC gave away free T-shirts and microphones from sponsors, while concert goers and artists alike mingled and danced to what turned out to be a very 1980s inspired evening. Latin Alternative music isn’t a genre per se, but a gang of varying popular genres from Spanish or Spanglish hip hop and synth-pop to rock infused rancheras, boleros, bossas and cumbias. Nacional Records, headed by Tomas Cookman and Josh Norek, is the hosting motor behind the festival, curating the showcases and panels and fostering relationships with domestic artists and those across the border and beyond.
The sparky “CubaRican” songstress Xenia Rubinos kicked things off with broad and high reaching vocals in a Dirty Projector style delivery that sputtered and stalled like a video game complete with false endings toppling artfully into scat singing to match up with keyboard strokes on “Cherry Tree.”
Miami hip hop ensemble ArtOfficial featured vigorous sax solos from Keith Cooper that, like fireworks, outshone the innocuous urban rhymed lyrics of the songs.
Alex Anwandter brought his Brit-synthy-electro-dance-pop vogue moves to the party, all the way from Santiago, Chile, basking in the glory of his local fans eager to get down to his latest hit “¿Cómo puedes vivir contigo mismo?” (“How Can You Live With Yourself”).
Uruguayan electro-cumbia song and beat-maker Martin Buscaglia came on stage accompanied by his loop pedals and guitar to slow the party down by a few BPM and deliver fervent and impassioned songs of love and intrigue, which were more of a sound-art piece than a musical set.
The mood shifted slightly when Monica Lionheart took the stage, still intoning a 1980s synth-pop feel but with understated vocals to counteract her overstated hair, and a haunting bilingual set of harmonies and dynamics to pull us close.
And although La Santa Cecilia stole the show for me, Gepe came in a close second, performing solo like a Chinchinero, a Chilean street performing one-man-band, instrumentally adept and completely focused on words of longing that in “Alfabeto” matched perfectly the charango opening and quena flute close. Many of his songs are influenced by traditional Andean instruments and rhythms from the 1960s and 1970s that he fuses together with a pop ballad sentiment.
The band I was there to see didn’t appear until almost 1:00 am, but it was well worth the wait. La Santa Cecilia was effervescent, joyful and celebratory in its performance with two different accordions, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, percussion, drums and bass. The singer, Marisoul Lead, took over the stage with her broad smile, vintage cat eye glasses and colorful fashion palate, and her voice has that classic sound like Etta James or Sarah Vaughan that you instantly trust and recognize for what it is: naturally free. The band played cumbias, boleros, Rancheras, Afro-Cuban numbers mixed with rock and they even played their own version of “Tainted Love,” the song made famous by Brit synth-pop duo Soft Cell in 1981.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in LA listening to that song, or maybe it’s because I’m a product of the New Wave era, but La Santa Cecilia’s combination of Spanish and English lyrics mixed with the Mexican American instrumentation and dance energy topped my chart for the night, the only band to play a begged-for encore. Check out their Grammy-nominated song and video “La Negra” produced by the multi-Grammy and Latin Grammy winning producer Sebastian Krys.