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Things We Like: Aterciopelados

I received a response to the recent post about Los Tigres de Norte from my dear friend, and an amazing film maker, Luis Albores (“Blue Eyelids” and a recent documentary on the Mexican music giants, Cafe Tacvba.) Luis said he was “…moved to goosebumps!!!” High praise from a wonderful individual, and a reflection of the importance of the music of Los Tigres. That brought to mind a time when we were stuck in traffic outside of Mexico DF heading into the city. Legendary traffic jam, I might add. And a perfect moment that moved me to goosebumps.

The year was 1999. There was (is still?) a marvelous radio station in DF that played much more adventurous and challenging music than is usually heard in the States. And that day, stuck in traffic, we were treated to a recent release from Colombian Rock en Español icons, Aterciopelados. In its entirety. The record was Caribe Atomico, a recording that to my mind is the equivalent of The Clash’s London Calling, or The Beatles’ White Album. It was broad, sweeping, wildly varied and anthemic. Their multiplicity of styles was arresting. Rock, vallenato music, cumbia, of course, and more. Much more. It’s an essential recording for any person interested in music, period. Who are Aterciopelados?

Aterciopelados (The Velvety Ones), also referred to as los Aterciopelados on some albums, are a rock band from Colombia. Led by Andrea Echeverri and Héctor Buitrago, they are one of the first rock bands from Colombia to gain international notice and are among the country’s top groups. They were the first rock en Español band to appear on U.S. television, with an appearance on The Tonight Show. Their music fuses rock with a variety of Colombian and Latin American musical traditions. Time Magazine wrote, “Aterciopelados’s true skill lies in its ability to take north-of-the-border musical styles…and breathe new life into them, all while giving them a distinctly Colombian sheen.”

Aterciopelados engages audiences all over the world with a socially-conscious message. Honored by the United Nations for their work denouncing violence in Colombia, Aterciopelados speaks out about myriad issues including political injustice, women’s rights, and environmental destruction.

The band had recorded 3 albums by the time I heard Caribe Atomico, stuck in traffic with Mr. Albores. In 1998 they recorded Caribe Atómico (Atomic Caribbean), in Manhattan with guest appearances by guitarists Arto Lindsay and Marc Ribot, and further expanded their sound into the world of electronica. Plus the breathtaking width and breadth that record offered. The stunning vallenato fusion of Maligno, the shifting polyrhythms of the title track Caribe Atomico, (now given new meaning as we all wait for the Gulf of Mexico to turn into a Dead Zone, courtesy of BP), the allure of El Estuche with its Latin horn riffs, or their unique sound represented on Reacio. A band that deserves, still, to be mentioned in the same breath as many bands people in the States venerate and honor. AN EQUAL.

Gozo Poderoso (Powerful Joy), their fifth album, is a melodic, moody manifesto for the vibrantly eclectic Latin alternative movement. It is new music for a new world. Recorded in Bogotá and produced by Héctor Buitrago, this album led the way to independence and development of their own true sound. Following the album’s release, Aterciopelados won a Latin Grammy award for Best Rock Group.

The group’s last album to date, Rio, released Oct. 21 2008, coincides with a proposed Colombian constitutional referendum that declares that access to water is a fundamental right for all Colombians and provides for maintenance and preservation rights. “When I was growing up, the Bogotá River was considered a mythic and iconic place, and now it’s a tiny stream,” says Ms. Echeverri.  With Rio, the artists take an increasingly forceful stand on the environment. Mr. Buitrago notes, “While on previous albums, we may have simply declared many of the world’s problems, we now strive to work in a more active way. In this case, it is with the recovery of Bogota’s river, as it is one of the most polluted rivers in the world.” On the album, Ms. Echeverri sings that, “The waters of the river come running, singing / They go through the city dreaming to be clean, to be clear.” This theme is carried throughout the album. In the song Aguita (Water), Ms. Echeverri sings that “the water belongs to everyone / Not to the highest bidder.” In August of 2008, the band promoted awareness of the issue by traveling down the Bogotá River gathering signatures for the referendum. By Sept. 15, over two million signatures had been collected, propelling the referendum to its next phase of the lengthy process.

Their website is currently “under construction.” A hopeful sign that we may all soon be in line for another stellar release from one of the world’s finest, and important bands in the world.