Times Sunday, April 21, 2002
Singing Their Own
With their nonconformist music, female Mexican artists
have become a pop force to reckon with.
By AGUSTIN GURZA
into a Kinky Groove
On the list of the top five best-selling Latin artists
last year in the United States, there's only one woman.
She's from Mexico, and she's No. 1.
Paulina Rubio, a sexy pop singer with blond hair
and fluffy material, outsold salsa heartthrob Marc
Anthony, mariachi monarch Vicente Fernandez and L.A.
banda bad boy Lupillo Rivera, according to year-end
sales reports from SoundScan.
Rubio, however, represents only the most visible--and
critics would say, most disposable--faction of female
performers who have emerged as a significant force
in Mexico in the past decade or two. Indeed, market-savvy
artists such as Rubio and Thalia, another high-gloss
commercial creation, tend to steal the spotlight from
a swelling movement of lesser-known but more challenging
artists who haven't drawn mass-media attention.
Chances are you won't see Mexico's most rewarding
female artists on Spanish-language television or hear
them on commercial radio. They don't have major-label
contracts and only rarely travel here on tour. But
the number of independent female performers making
original and nonconformist music in Mexico is approaching
critical mass, according to fans, promoters and independent
labels that have given many of these alternative artists
"Women are defining alternative Mexican music
today, much the same way male rock groups like Café
Tacuba did in the 1980s," says Betto Arcos, host
of "Global Village," a world-music show
on Los Angeles radio station KPFK-FM (90.7). "Their
music is different, it's good, and it needs to be
Mexico City-based Opción Sónica, an
independent label founded 15 years ago, has capitalized
on the trend with a series of three compilation albums
called "Mexican Divas." The albums focused
attention on Mexico's eclectic roster of female performers
working in styles from medieval chants to electronica,
They include top names such as Ely Guerra and Lila
Downs, who got her start on the label. Downs and Guerra,
along with Julieta Venegas, are among the handful
of women who have recently broken away from the alternative
pack to win higher profiles and international followings.
But the diva collections also contain works from
a group of talented women still laboring in relative
anonymity south of the border. They range from the
outlandish performance art of Astrid Hadad to the
cosmopolitan jazz vocals of pianist Iraida Noriega
to the hilarious, irreverent cabaret parodies of Liliana
Felipe. Southern California audiences will soon have
a chance to see some of these performers in person
for the first time. From Wednesday through Oct. 24,
several artists on the compilations will appear in
a series of monthly concerts titled Mexican Divas
Night Live at L.A.'s Mayan nightclub.
Mexico has so many female artists nowadays that the
diva collections feature as many as 14 tracks without
repeating an artist, and they keep introducing new
talent with every volume. The albums sparked collaborations
by artists who had previously worked on their own.
They include Noriega and singer-songwriter Magos Herrera,
who during their L.A. appearance plan to perform a
rare type of indigenous song from Michoacan called
pirecua, which was originally created for female duet
and often combines Spanish and native Indian tongues.
For the series, "the hope is to try to demystify
what Mexican singers are about," says Arcos,
who is helping publicize the events. "They don't
just sing boleros and rancheras. They don't just sing
dance music. We also have women who use their music
to make a statement. In Mexico, women are finally
being allowed to do their own thing rather than being
just a token in a man's band."
Vocalist and jazz pianist Iraida Noriega still labors
It may seem odd, at this late feminist stage, that
Mexican women are still obliged to grapple with stereotypes
about their place in society and the music business.
But many people still cling to notions about the subservient
female and the dominant male in Mexican culture.
Even prominent Mexican American writer Richard Rodriguez,
in an interview on National Public Radio's "Fresh
Air" this month, helped reaffirm the myth of
Mexican women as passive and long-suffering martyrs.
In Mexico, Rodriguez generalized, men are sentimental
about mothers but cruel toward women, and "casual
about their betrayals of the wife." The Mexican
male's main mission, he continued, is to have sons
"who are as dreadful" as their fathers.
Machismo may be alive and well in Mexico, but you'd
have to look high and low to find a modern Mexican
woman who would sit still for it. If you missed that
point, you haven't been listening to the voice of
Mexico's female singers.
In Felipe's wickedly satirical "Mala" (Bad),
today's spurned and mistreated woman comes across
as outright scary, even in translation.
Bad as censorship, as a hairless garbage mouse/ Bad
as misery or a thief in the house/ Bad as the signature
of Santa Anna / Bad as taking a stick to your nana/
Bad as strychnine, bad as cold soup/ Bad as a spider,
bad and blood-thirsty/ Bad as order and decency.
The song, done as a spoofy ballroom danzón,
ends with a flourish and a twist: "Bad, bad,
bad, bad/ But hey, fellas, what a pretty girl."
Mexico has always produced excellent music by fine
female artists, from the lilting tropical boleros
of Toña La Negra to the weepy rancheras of
Amalia Mendoza. But it's the tragic figure of Lucha
Reyes (1906-1944), with her raw, gutsy style and revolutionary
persona, who has served as the key inspiration for
today's most daring and provocative performers, including
Hadad and Felipe.
Another model for modern divas was Consuelo Velazquez,
one of the first prominent female composers working
in what was then an all-male songwriting club. Her
standard "Besame Mucho" is included on Noriega's
beautiful 2001 album "Efecto Mariposa" (The
Butterfly Effect). It's a sultry song of desire and
abandon that was considered scandalous in its day,
says Noriega, who admires Velazquez's determination
to compose from the heart as a flesh-and-blood woman.
It all seems tame by today's pop standards in Mexico.
Yet the early work of these female pioneers paved
the way for the overt sexuality of Rubio and the raw
lustiness of rocker Alejandra Guzman, who will be
queen of next Sunday's Fiesta Broadway, the annual
festival in downtown L.A.
Most modern female pop performers in Mexico project
a strong, independent image. The problem, some critics
say, is that high-profile stars such as Rubio and
Guzman allow their sexuality to be exploited for commercial
gain. The new wave of alternative female artists,
on the other hand, offer more substance than their
pop counterparts. Many write their own songs and arrangements,
and play an instrument.
As a group, these women have coalesced into a definable
though unruly counterculture. They are not joined
by ideology, and they don't share a single genre.
They can be either folkloric or avant-garde. They
sing in Spanish or English or even dead medieval languages,
as in the case of singer and researcher Jaramar Soto
of Guadalajara. Some, such as Noriega, resist being
tagged as feminists. Others, like Felipe, identify
themselves as lesbians.
What unites them is an underdog spirit of survival
as artists, despite feeling shut out by Mexico's monopolistic
In Mexico, the story of pop music for the past 30
years has been inextricably tied to the story of Televisa,
the national TV monopoly that operated like an old-fashioned
political machine. Until recently, the network had
such a tight control on the mass media that it virtually
dictated pop music tastes. Pop stars were created
out of whole cloth by the Televisa hit-making machine.
Rubio and Thalia both emerged in the 1980s from the
teen group Timbiriche, manufactured by the network.
In terms of the Televisa monopoly, musicians saw
themselves as either in or out. And if you were out,
says Noriega, you were nowhere.
"The problem is not Paulina; the problem is
all the people behind the scenes who put brakes on
everybody else," says Noriega, 30, who started
her career at 17. "I'm not saying there should
be no Paulinas. I'm saying it's valid for people to
hear us too. There's a whole lot of artists here in
Mexico who are doing very beautiful work, with a lot
of depth, honesty and commitment."
The women of Mexico's contemporary diva movement--including
veterans Cecilia Toussaint and Eugenia Leon--carry
on the Lucha Reyes tradition of boldly asserting themselves
as women and artists. They don't want to sell their
looks. They want the public to accept them as whole
women, with ideas and convictions as well as passions.
Singer Julieta Venegas is among the few to win a wider
KEN HIVELY / Los Angeles Times
They had the talent, but until recently they lacked
the means to showcase their creativity. That's been
changing in Mexico, with more labels and more places
to play, such as colleges and cultural centers.
"Our work is to expose this talent and take
it as far as it can go," says musician Ana Ramirez,
who runs the L.A. branch of the Opción Sónico
label along with her husband, Felix Mejorado of local
Spanish rock band Felix and the Katz. "We have
to educate the public that our culture has more to
offer, because otherwise nobody will ever hear about
all these jewels."
As exposure increases, so do audiences. Ely Guerra,
for example, sold out a Sunday show at West Hollywood's
Key Club following a week of local appearances earlier
this month. Her success was seen as a sign that Latin
music lovers are hungry for pop alternatives.
Yet for every public success there are a dozen private
setbacks. Guerra and other alternative artists confess
to moments of self-doubt when they could see no options
and find no outlets for their art within the industry.
"Those of us who survived that dark period became
stronger," says the husky-voiced Magos Herrera,
whose elegant 2000 album "Orquídeas Susurrantes"
(Whispering Orchids) has strong Brazilian and Afro-Cuban
influences. "It was like a test of your vocation.
"If you stuck it out, it was because you really
wanted to be a musician. And so it created somewhat
of a cultural elite, artists who became very demanding
of themselves and of each other. It was like our way
of reaffirming our commitment to do the best work
we could do."
* * *
Magos Herrera and Iraida Noriega open the Mexican
Divas Night Live series Wednesday at the Mayan Theatre,
1038 S. Hill St., L.A., 8 p.m. $20 in advance, $25
at door. (213) 746-4287.
Agustin Gurza is a Times staff writer.
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times