A Trip through Latin American Rock & Roll

By Jake Strickler, Staff Writer

In 1965, a no-hit-wonder from Alabama named Gary Sanders released a song called “Ain’t No Beatle.” In it, he decries the US popularity of British Invasion bands – specifically the Beatles and the Rolling Stones – when the musicians and styles that these groups emulated or copied outright were distinctly homegrown. Certain areas of Alabama in particular produced a slew of talent like Percy Sledge and Wilson Pickett, and the Stones themselves would end up in the Alabama town of Muscle Shoals in 1970 to record their album Sticky Fingers. Needless to say, Sanders’ crotchety tune was not successful, but somehow, some way, a copy of the record made it into the hands of a group of young men in the state of Sonora, Mexico (just across the border from Arizona), who played music together under the name Los Apson.

Los Apson had already received some local notoriety for their straightforward Spanish-language renditions of popular American songs like The Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk,” Roy Orbison’s “Sweet Dream Baby,” and Chubby Checker’s “Popeye the Hitchhiker.” But when they took on “Ain’t No Beatle,” they did something radical. “Ya no hay Beatles/Ya no hay Rolling Stones,” they sang, “Pues formamos un conjunto/Y en verdad este es mucho mejor.” “The Beatles are no more/The Rolling Stones are no more/So let’s form a group/And do it much better.” In this song, Los Apson was concurrently appropriating a musical form and repudiating its most popular practitioners (who were appropriating the same form). Outside of the commercial pressures that the bigger bands existed under, this song made the argument that Los Apson could be more honest and authentic; could better embody the chaos and abandon that rock & roll reflected. It’s the height of irony that Los Apson’s version of the song is far better remembered and more highly treasured than Sanders’ original.

As a person obsessed with the history and implications of popular culture around the world, I was hooked from the moment I heard this song, and have spent the last five years collecting this music and charting the dynamics of influence between North, Central, and South America. What follows is an exploration of what I’ve learned about the flux of global culture from doing so.

Pre-history: Before the Electric Guitar

A group of vaqueros, late 1800s. Courtesy somosprimos.com
A group of vaqueros, late 1800s. Courtesy somosprimos.com

The beginnings of Latin American music commingling with that of Europeans in the Americas can be traced to the mid-1800s. After Napoleon’s conquest of Mexico, he installed an Austrian named Ferdinand Maximilian as Emperor of the country. Maximilian brought with him a love for polka, and this fast-paced, syncopated music (featuring prominent use of instruments like the tuba and the accordion) fused with Spanish flamenco guitar and indigenous forms of oral tradition and storytelling to form the norteño style that became popular in the north of the country. Mexican vaqueros were often employed by American ranchers on the cattle trails, and norteño fused with primitive country and western music as these cowboys sang together to pass the nights, and to keep the cattle calm in the darkness. This resulted eventually in a genre called tejano (Texan), the influence of which can be seen in early American country music and in Mexican corridos, which enjoy massive popularity today.

Xavier Cugat, with friend. Courtesy allaboutjazz.com
Xavier Cugat, with friend. Courtesy allaboutjazz.com

Along with the start of the Big Band and Jazz eras in the US, the country was also beginning its economic and military adventures in Latin America and the Caribbean. As countries in these areas became tied economically to the US, as well as major tourist destinations, their cultures flowed in. Here we see the rise of bandleaders like Cuba’s Xavier Cugat, Pupi Campo, and Desi Arnaz (of later I Love Lucy fame). The style that they brought with them – showing the heavy influence of African percussion – also led to the Calypso craze, popularizing American artists like Harry Belafonte and the Kingston Trio (if you’re ever in need of a laugh, look up the naively prim and proper Andrews Sisters singing Trinidadian calypso pioneer Lord Invader’s blatantly anti-American “Rum and Coca-Cola”). Modern jazz also felt the influence of these styles, with Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo teaming up with American be-bop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie to give rise to a genre known as “cu-bop” before Pozo’s untimely shooting death in 1948 as the result of a drug deal gone sour.

Ritchie Valens. Courtesy findagrave.com
Ritchie Valens. Courtesy findagrave.com

As black American musical styles moved into the mainstream (up until 1949, Billboard Magazine divided its “Top 100” chart into general records and “race records”), rhythm & blues stormed the country, birthing new genres like doo-wop and rock & roll. In the former category, record producer/homicidal maniac Phil Spector began incorporating Latin percussion instruments and forms into songs such as the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” and the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me.” And in the latter category, second generation Mexican-American Ritchie Valens (born Valenzuela) became enormously popular with his version of the traditional Mexican song “La Bamba.” At the height of his stardom, Valens tragically died along with Buddy Holly in a 1959 plane crash at the age of seventeen.


The Groovy Sixties and Psychedelic Seventies

The 1960s and 70s were a time of social and political chaos for much of the world. Popular music began to reflect this instability, becoming more aggressive and hard-edged. Rock & roll turned into something strange and threatening, a refuge for those who didn’t fit in with the modern, hyper-capitalized world; squeezed out of shape by the pressure of the constant threat of nuclear annihilation.

Mexico City in the 1950s. Courtesy snipview.com
Mexico City in the 1950s. Courtesy snipview.com

Latin America was going through a huge transformation, with cities industrializing and modernizing to accommodate the massive influx of people from rural areas into urban areas seeking work. Also at this time, the North American entertainment industries began seeing a large market outside of the country’s borders, exporting films, music, and literature into these secondary markets. With music, this often included cast-offs: the records that didn’t sell because they were too raw or unformed to find a mass audience. In the wildness of these songs, the youth culture of Latin America saw the drastic change of their societies reflected, and they began to form their own groups and emulate the sounds that they were hearing.

Mexican pulp art from the 1960s. A natural fit for psychedelic rock. Courtesy pinterest.com
Mexican pulp art from the 1960s. A natural fit for psychedelic rock. Courtesy pinterest.com

The festive nature of Latin American culture was a natural fit for the jovial attitude of rock & roll music. The bright colors, Catholic imagery, and residual indigenous traditions bestowed the region with a kind of inherent psychedelia. As a result, the further you go from the US border, the wilder the music tends to become. Mexican bands with names like Los Locos del Ritmo (The Maniacs of Rhythm), Los Salvajes (The Savages), Los Gatos Negros (The Black Cats), and Los Rockin’ Devils (no translation needed) performed renditions of popular English-language songs like The Stones’ “Get Off of My Cloud,” The Troggs’ “Wild Thing,” and The McCoys’ “Hang on Sloopy.” But their versions were imbued with Latin machismo, and an off-beat rhythmic looseness that’s largely absent from the mechanized four-four structure of the originals. In short, these versions are cooler, no doubt aided by the romantic character of the Spanish language.





Los Saicos. Courtesy University of British Colombia.
Los Saicos. Courtesy University of British Colombia.

Further south, in Peru, Brazil, and Colombia, the music produced during the 60s and 70s can be so bizarre and structurally unique that it makes for challenging listening even today. Colombian cumbia (African percussion styles fused with European instrumentation) and Peruvian chicha (cumbia beats mixed with traditional Andean music) went electric, embracing the most far-out elements of US psychedelia and surf rock. Peru’s Los Saicos released an album in 1965 that stood totally alone in its anarchic roughness until The Stooges in Detroit popularized early punk rock a full three years later. And in 1968 Brazil’s Os Mutantes, progenitors of the country’s tropicalia artistic movement, started playing psychedelic rock so off-the-wall that it makes Pink Floyd sound like James Taylor.

Brazil's Os Mutantes. Courtesy tropicalia.com.br
Brazil’s Os Mutantes. Courtesy tropicalia.com.br

As with all fads and styles, the popularity of these genres eventually waned, but the dynamics of cultural interplay remained the same with emerging styles like pop in the 1980s and rap in the 1990s. For evidence of this, we can look to the massive international popularity of artists like Los Lobos, Menudo, Gloria Estefan, Ricky Martin, and Pitbull. These, among many others, managed to gain followings both in the US and overseas by retaining much of their cultural heritage, but packaging it in slick commercial forms that have universal appeal, proving true the cliché that music is an international language.

Bringing it All Back Home

For those with an interest in musical genre, there’s a constant fetishization of the original and untainted. When did the blues take form and who is responsible? When did jazz start to assault the notion of popular music by becoming abstract and strange? There are a million such questions for every genre, and the implication is that the first to exhibit a certain style are the most honest and genuine. They did it for the love of the sound, and not as a function of profit motive, purely because there was no market for such a sound yet.

In this respect, the Latin American rock & roll bands of the 60s and 70s are a goldmine. These are kids who heard a Chuck Berry record and were so moved that they picked up guitars and started doing it themselves. Whether channeling their heroes by singing their songs in broken, phonetic English, or coming up with their own lyrics that often have nothing to do with the original song, what’s at the heart of it is a desire to connect with a larger outside culture that was in many ways changing the world. Sure, they may have coveted the fame and fortune of their idols, and hoped that they might achieve the same. But when you listen to many of these raw, unpolished recordings what becomes clear is that these groups were mainly in it to express themselves and to have fun. In these days of extreme cultural commodification, that realization can be very refreshing.

An excellent compilation of Mexican bands:

For good measure, a kooky collection of Peruvian chicha:

If you want more info, I can be reached at jake.strickler@tbird.asu.edu.

One thought on “A Trip through Latin American Rock & Roll

  1. Jake, this is an incredibly well researched and interesting article. It belongs in Rolling Stone magazine or something, not just in our humble Das Tor pages. Of all the groups you mentioned, I’m most familiar with Os Mutantes. They are so weird, the first time I listened to them I absolutely hated them. But the more I listened, the more interesting they became, and every time I listen I find something new to admire in their music. Thank you for this piece.

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