At Home Away From Home Canadian Latinos Carve Their Own Niche

At Home Away From Home Canadian Latinos Carve Their Own Niche
Who I am is a product of my upbringing within two worlds. In the first world is my mother and her bare feet as she danced in the kitchen, singing and slapping out a rhythm on the breakfast arepas grilling quietly on the stove. I can smell the fresh Colombian coffee brewing and picture the faces of my parents as we sat around the table eating and laughing. It's a reminder of how far my parents travelled in hopes of raising their child in a better world than what they knew.

The second world, the one they thought was better, is outside, heavy with pop culture and its empty consumerism, where confused young Latinos like myself try to fit in. It's a muddled sense of self; you're expected to be a certain way, as a Latino — by Anglos and Latinos alike. You hear salsa and cumbia from the kitchen and hip-hop from your bedroom. Anglo kids call you spic and Latinos call you gringo. From these two extremes, you want to cull something of your own but don't want to turn your back on your Latin roots or your Canadian future. Over the years, you try on different looks, different sounds: you're a hip-hop head, a punk, a party kid, a clubber, an explorer. That is, until the day you meet a group of Latinos who don't dress or look like J-Lo or Ricky Martin.

These Latinos are into more than just salsa, cumbia, mernengue and bachata; they don't just want to shake their bon-bons. They know where they're from and where they are, with an awareness of the political strife they've left behind. Their music drives with a familiar clave groove, but there are guitars, breakbeats and dubby bass lines too. You're at home in a place where piercings, dyed hair and tattoos mix with native beads, Spanglish and sneakers, where timbales and congas intertwine with turntables and mixers. You are amongst your people. You are an Alternative Latino and you finally have a soundtrack.

In this community I found a home, and there are many other Latino-Canadians out there who believe the same thing. People like Juan Carlos Valencia, whose group Plan C won Canadian Music Week's best Alternative Latin band for their soulful re-arrangement of traditional Colombian music. Like Fernando Pinzón, whose band Sonora Calavera is beginning to tear shit up in Montreal with their combination of Latin-ska-reggae-rock. Like Cuervo Loomi, whose group Black Caco have been making some serious noise in the hip-hop scene for being some of the first in Montreal to mash up the hip-hop mentality with Caribbean-Latino rhythms. Or Paula Gonzales, also known as La Bomba, whose work over the years in Toronto as a lyricist and musician has allowed her to experiment with and explore all that the Canadian cultural panoply has to offer.

Over 30 years ago, my parents immigrated to Canada. Arriving in Toronto, they created a new community with other immigrant Latinos; they danced and sang and worked together to make this a new home. Their children have had the luxury of that established community, and set out into the Western world that seemed like our birthright. But many young people born and raised in Latin America see this same pop culture as both a symbol of spiritual weakness and an ironic invader of the developing world. But to all of us, Alternative Latin is a combination of our musical, political and spiritual roots, and the modern influences of culture and technology.

Cuervo Loomi, founding member of Black Caco, one of Montreal's most respected hip-hop en español groups, felt the move to Canada at the age of 17 both held him back and pushed his music forward. "I came from my country a few months before I was to finish high school," Loomi says. "I had to learn French and it slowed me down. I had an idea of what I was going to do in my own country, but life can throw curveballs. You get here and you get used to everything — the weather, whatever. If you decide you're going to do something, you can do it if you're ready to apply all your energy toward having and reaching these goals. As a musician, I learned a lot about technology that my country never had and took advantage of it as much as possible."

Much of the Alternative Latin or Alter-Latino sound is layered thick with sampled beats and heavily influenced by many electronic elements, something that stems from the extensive exploration of music than many immigrants embark upon immediately. The ability to access hip-hop, R&B, soul, funk, house, drum & bass, punk rock, metal and country with a turn of a dial or a subway ride downtown is one of the first things that made the trip to Toronto, alone at the age of 19, a bit easier for Plan C's Juan Carlos Valencia.

"It wasn't a negative move, because if I hadn't come here I would never have been exposed to all the music here," Valencia says. "All the music was starting to come to Colombia, but it wasn't at the level that it's at here. Here it's a giant movement. I was exposed to the world because Canada is a country where the whole world can be found. I loved that."

Exposure to these artistic opportunities has pushed many wide-eyed Latino musicians to involve themselves in a variety of scenes, like Toronto's La Bomba. After her family left Chile as refuges, Paula Gonzales arrived in Toronto and was immediately taken by the punk scene. In 1988, La Bomba began to play bass in all-girl punk group Chicken Milk and a few years later she joined Smear, whose first gig was opening for D.O.A. Smear got some attention in Toronto and New York, but Gonzales grew bored with the increasingly trendy punk scene and wanted a change.

"In 1994, I joined the all-female reggae outfit Women Ah Run Tings," she says. "I finally felt like I had found a cool bunch of women, also immigrants like myself, and also bold and loud. They taught me how to rhyme, and they taught me how to play reggae. I was an eager student, because they were such a fun crew, but also because they treated me with such respect and really taught me more than a few tricks on the bass.

"It was here that I began rhyming in Spanish, egged on not just by the band, but by the people who would come to see our shows. Most of the time we played to the Jamaican community and people really cheered when I rhymed, so I kept doing it, and getting better."

With not just an established Latino community, but support from other, similarly disjointed immigrant communities, young Latino musicians have a good shot at success here in Canada. But no matter how established the community is, it can't take the place of home.

Political and economic injustices have created a huge wave of immigration from Latin America. As a result, the words behind much Alter-Latino music have a political undercurrent influenced by the struggles of the musicians themselves. But it's not just words that feel that impact. Plan C's sound is a direct result of lead composer Juan's encounter with the style of music that would influence him to this day. While Juan was in college in Colombia, the country was suffering a storm of violence. Many displaced rural families from burnt villages, familiar with the threat of violence from paramilitary death squads, narco-traffickers and guerrilla fighters, began to flow into Colombia's major cities. Poor, uneducated and hungry, musicians began to play to survive.

"Incredible musicians started to flow into Bogotá, all tambor and gaita music. I decided to drop the rock band and start a jazz band that played contemporary jazz with a touch of rock and traditional Colombian styles."

For La Bomba, political resistance was learned at an early age. "My first live show was in jail, when my father did five years during the CIA-backed military dictatorship that took over Chile. All the political prisoners put on a show for their families in the visiting room, a huge room, long and dark, with high, grey brick walls, and armed guards at the door. I remember the room came to life as they played the charangos, guitars, quenas, zamponias and bombos, and for once, the sadness and the heaviness of being in a horrible jail lifted. Everybody was singing, and it was so intense."

For many impoverished citizens of the developing world, the song is their only weapon against the injustices of oppressive regimes. The protest song is one of the oldest traditions in Latin music and remains to this day a source of inspiration. This was the reality of the political climate in most, if not all of Latin America back then and in some places to this very day. It's a different mentality for first generation Canadians who experience these struggles as a hand-me-down. Alter-Latino music is an expression of lost people and new homes found. The songs cry for the country they left behind and the troubles that made them run away.

From its infancy, Latin music has been based on evolution through immigration. Original African rhythms were transplanted to Cuba by European slave traders. That rhythm, along with European melodic influences, spread throughout the indigenous populations of the islands and continents, creating a different musical hybrid in each barrio of each country throughout Latin America. Cultural clashes during the first wave of Latino immigration to North America created the next evolution of Latin music when blended with American jazz and R&B, creating the most familiar Latin sounds, such as salsa, the first style of Latin music created entirely outside of Latin America.

To this day, music evolves in ways that are very specific to geography and the influences absorbed by Latin American immigrants. New York City's large Puerto Rican and Cuban population has had an influence on the city's hip-hop sound, along with house and other electronic music. Mexicans in Los Angeles have had a heavy influence on West coast rock, punk and hip-hop. Miami's Cuban, Puerto Rican and Dominican population has helped maintain and progress the tropical sound still emanating from the Caribbean.

Here in Canada, the scene is in its infancy, but the good news is that several groups are already blazing trails. Toronto's Plan C help translate traditional Colombian cumbia music, which is akin to the slow groove of dub and ska music. Influenced strongly by Ozomatli's rhythm and Manu Chao's blues, Plan C incorporate a combination of reggae, jazz, hip-hop, R&B and electronic elements, along with that hypnotising cumbia rhythm. Their first studio release, Tercer Mundo (Third World), is a collection of tracks that flow from one global rhythm to the next, crossing borders and cultures with their tight groove-based music.

To Juan, being alternative is more than just being different. "Alternative, to me, is more a matter of options. Alternative, to me, is the variety of my music."

Montreal's Sonora Calavera is another Alter-Latino group trying to crack the world music market while staying true to their influences. "Our sound is basically a mix of Latin rhythms with reggae and rock," says guitarist Fernando Pinzón. Fernando was inspired by the developing rock en español scene in his native Panama and began to learn guitar and bass at an early age. In 1996, Fernando decided to move to Montreal to be with his family, where he met band-mate Mariano Franco, an immigrant from Mexico's hardcore scene who had a semi-successful metal band, Sueño Acida (Acid Dreams), back home. Fernando and Mariano began to collaborate and in 1998 they formed Mi Santa Sangre (My Holy Blood) a hardcore Montreal version of Latin America's rock en español scene. The intensity of Mi Santa Sangre's music was fuelled by the anger they felt as strangers in a strange land. They released an independent self-titled album and were successful enough to tour Quebec and parts of Mexico, but the group soon decided to change directions.

Sonora Calavera is a more international affair, a danceable fest that mashes ska-dub with rock and folkloric elements with a touch of Quebecois flair, creating an incredible flow of deep rhythms and colourful movement in their music. With a sound that is cleaner and less angry, Sonora Calavera is a grown up Alter-Latino group who have suffered and survived together. Fernando and the rest of Sonora Calavera have found peace in their own community and have matured as musicians without losing that hardcore edge.

The Alter-Latino scene in Montreal is steps ahead of Toronto; for Fernando, it has a lot to do with the uniqueness and blend of the people in Quebec, which, like Toronto's immigrant communities, have welcomed these new arrivals. "For a Latin group we're still very different," says Pinzón, "but there exists a special acceptance amongst the Francophones of Latinos. They have an affinity for our experience and our language."
Another Montreal Alter-Latino sound comes from hip-hop crew Black Caco, founded by hip-hop veteran Cuervo Loomi. Their style of hip-hop is influenced by the rhythms of the Caribbean such as reggaeton, a mixture of Jamaica's reggae/dancehall rhythms with the Panamanian and Dominican grooves of heavy bass-lead merengue and salsa. Black Caco's style is a more street-influenced style of Latin music; their lyrics, like most hip-hop, touches on the hard realities of third world life. Hip-hop en español and reggaeton — although considered by many community elders as a lesser form of Latin music for its raw, confrontational way of touching on subjects such as violence, drugs and third world tribulations — are the more popular genres for the younger generation.

From traditional Andean music to punk, reggae and hip-hop, Toronto's La Bomba has seen and learned from an international array of musical influences. Her skills on the mic gained her even more attention, eventually landing her with Toronto salsa-R&B-hip-hop crew Los Papi Chulos for two years. Eventually, Paula Gonzales realised that her music needed to be her own.

"Amasonica Sound Force is my full band, plus seven rappers who rhyme in English and Spanish. I like to have all my people on stage, like a huge crew making people happy and dancing. I like big shows. I play all the music that I like: funk, traditional South American, reggae and rock. And I don't see myself changing that format any time soon."

In time, the specific influences of Montreal and Toronto will continue to make an impact on the evolution of the Alter-Latino scene. And while there seems to be little noise from Canada's western coast, it too will soon feel the influence of a demographic shift that is already underway.

Alternative Latin is an umbrella term that can cover a lot of ground but can also create tunnel vision for many outside the scene. It's a marketing term created to help categorise the music within the music industry, but that may too broad to truly capture the diversity of its sounds.

EMI Canada national marketing director Andres Mendoza is one of the major supporters of Latin Alternative in Canada. "I think it's just a buzz word, but the good thing is it came from itself," he says. "It grew out of the community, mainly in America, just as a way to be able to describe and move the scene forward. Unfortunately, as human beings we tend to categorise — the industry categorises a lot. I don't put too much into the tag as much as the music, and that's where it counts. Artists feel comfortable with the term or they may not — the important thing is they are artists. Let other people categorise it."

Susana G. Ossa, Music Director for CHRY and host of La Voz, one of the few underground Latin music shows in Toronto, believes the term doesn't begin to describe the new Latino experience. "Just because the music in question mixes genres and languages and defies borders does not make it, in my mind, alternative," she says. "We are Latinos. This is a part of our everyday reality — having to straddle two or more cultures. Even Latinos living in Latin America live and breathe this dichotomy. We are of indigenous descent, we are of African descent, and we are of European descent. So where is the alternative?"

Radames Nieves has been a DJ in Toronto's Latin club scene for almost 30 years. Now he runs one of Canada's only independent Latin labels MRP, and works as a consultant for Universal. "Latin Alternative is a misconception," he explains. "We have to understand that we come with this term, unfortunately, after the Anglos. The Anglos call rock alternative. When you say Latin Alternative it leads to a misconception because people don't know what it is an alternative to. Bottom line is this: Latin Alternative is the alternative to all things traditional in the Latin world. It's a new progressive edge to Latin culture."

The term Alternative Latin is valuable for selling the music, but it does not begin to describe its complexity. Then again, the point of a marketing term is to make it easier for the industry, including artists and consumers, to recognise a genre of music without stress. It's a term that may be necessary to attract people to the scene, but when they listen, they'll be surprised at how many layers this new Latin music really has.

Population reports show that children born of immigrant Latino families in North America will represent the biggest demographic shift in the next decade. It's a shame that the older Latino-Canadian community hasn't been particularly supportive.

Radames Nieves sees it as a misunderstanding. "The population here is still a lot of people who are rooted in old traditions. Some of those traditions were created here. They came, they morphed, and they became what they are. A lot of people are threatened by change, a lot of people are holding pivotal positions in our culture and community, but as soon as those people understand that change is good and that you can evolve through change, I think we can go places."

There are many involved who believe in Alter-Latino, not just as a musical movement, but as a newly established identity that describes the angst and confusion of young Latinos.

"In terms of marketability, there is going to be an audience," says EMI's Mendoza. "The great thing about the music is that there are elements that are global to all audiences. It's not just for young Latinos but for all music lovers that love hybrids. I think Alternative Latin fits in to the lifestyle of all the influences and confluences of the cultures in Canada."


Flat bread made out of cornmeal, grilled and served with cheese and coffee.

A 4/4 rhythm-based dance music originating from the countryside of the Dominican Republic. The music was developed from early romantic guitar music. Today the music is made mostly through electronic samples and drum machines.


Traditional wooden Andean bass drum.

Andean wooden instrument shaped like a lute and has five pairs of strings.

Literally translates to "key" in Spanish, the backbone of Latin rhythms developed from early African drum influences. Played with "claves," wooden sticks that keep rhythm for the rest of the band.

A style of music whose source is the African rhythms transplanted to the northern colonial ports in Colombia, combined with the indigenous gaita music heard in Colombia's northern territories. Stresses the rhythm by focusing on the downbeat, unlike other Latin music.

Colombian flute, traditionally long in length used for traditional gaita music, along with cumbia.

The Dominican Republic nationalised this music, much like Brazil did with samba. It's a hip-shaking dance where partners rotate to the rhythm of the thundering tambor drum. Music is traditionally played on accordions but recently the preference is guitars.

Andean long wooden wind pipe.

Hybrid of the West Indies' reggae and dancehall rhythms, with the tropical rhythms from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

First Latin music genre created outside of Latin America. A fusion of early Cuban rhythms with American jazz, funk and soul creating a danceable style of music thought to be the most recognized amongst all of the Latin styles.

Traditional drum.

Andean panpipes.

Alter-Latino Pioneers

Manu Chao
The granddaddy of Alter-Latino, his ability to fuse a variety of world sounds into a soulful chant has made him a cross-border superstar. Born in France to Spanish parents, Chao started his musical career and broke through some of the first Alter-Latino barriers with his ska/punk group Mano Negra. His groups and his albums are an international affair that combine lyrics in Spanish, French, Portuguese and English with rhythm ranging from ska-dub to Spanish gypsy guitars to Brazilian soul. Check out Clandestino and Esperanza for the best introduction.

Born out of a political rally in Los Angeles, Ozomatli is a powerhouse of hip-hop, ska, reggae and traditional Mexican rhythms. Their albums are upbeat and conscious and also claim Jurassic Five's Chali 2na and Cut Chemist as part-time members. Their music is as mixed and mashed up as the band's ten members. Recently, their album Street Signs finds them mixing Middle Eastern rhythms with their usual funky hip-hop-ska hybrid.

Ojos De Brujo
Barcelona's mix of flamenco guitars with female MCs and a DJ, Ojos De Brujo are able to find a clear and happy middle ground between the soft and intense poles of flamenco with the many flows that hip-hop brings. Check out their album Bari, which won them last years BBC Radio 3 award for world music.

Mexican electro-pop group Kinky have pushed the boundaries of what Latin music really is with their blend of funk, rock and sampled beats and synths. Their most recent album Atlas was recorded in the middle of a Mexican jungle, helping them mash up of all these elements to create a rhythmic, sensual new Alter-Latino sound.

Colombia's native cumbia music was revived through UK drum & bass DJ Richard Blair and his project Sidestepper. Influenced by cumbia's hypnotising rhythms, mixed with drum & bass elements and a reggae MC, Sidestepper is one of the most exciting groups on the Alter-Latino global scene today. Check out 3 A.M. for a collection of groovy beats and haunting rhythms to nod your head to.