Festival Review: The 2015 Latin Alternative Music Conference

By Ernest Barteldes

Latin Alternative Music Conference

Various Locations

July 8-12, 2015

335

I must say that at first I felt reluctant to register for the LAMC this year – after all I now have a day job that does not allow me to fully participate events like these – sure, I do enjoy being part of them, but I feel bad that due to my hours I am unable to say, attend panel discussions or late-night music showcases when I have to be at work for most of the day and up and ready to face classrooms full of students.

Maybe if I had a desk job I could spend the day drinking coffee and dealing with paperwork, but students notice when a teacher looks hungover from lack of sleep – and probably assume your appearance has to do with something else. So ultimately I did the Brazilian thing and registered at the last minute, and decided to cover the event to the best of my abilities – something I will have to do until this blog grows into something – ahem – gainful.

On Wednesday afternoon I headed to the Affinia hotel in midtown Manhattan hotel to pick up my credentials and the gift bag that comes with various goodies, which included a compilation CD of some of the artists showcased at the event, the official T-shirt for the conference and some things – including a power pack for smartphone provided by Verizon, one of the event’s main sponsors this year and sat down to study the program and made plans for the shows I would attend. I knew the indie showcase that evening would be impossible but there would be a lot I could check out with my time availability.

After I wrapped up my classes at work, I returned to the hotel to check out the vendors – Gibson had a beautiful display of new guitars, and I spent some time trying them out. I am a huge fan of the brand (I actually own two of them) and I was eager to check out the new semi-hollow Les Paul model. It certainly did not disappoint – it had that sweet, mellow sound of the 335 with a very lightweight body.

SofiaVic

Later that evening I headed out to SOBs to catch the acoustic showcase.  Each band or soloist plays two songs to give the audience (mostly LAMC attendees) an idea of what the music is about. The evening kicked off with Argentina’s Estelares, who played two tunes – some were singing along with them, and they played with great confidence although they were out of their more electric comfort zone. They were followed by Raquel Sofia, a Puerto Rican singer-songwriter who has worked with several big-name artists and is now doing her own stuff.  She accompanied herself on guitar, and sang with lots of soul. I stayed for just one more singer – Chile’s Rodrigo Solo, who came backed by a small ensemble behind him – unfortunately I had a few personal things to do and could not stay any longer.

On Friday Renata and I headed over to Prospect Park, where Chile’s Astro was already on stage. Their music blended Latin electronica with psychedelic influences and other sounds.  Their sound was heavy on percussion but went into various directions. Some tunes were synth-heavy, almost with a 80s feel. The band members are very versatile, switching instruments throughout the set  – at one point there was something wrong with their electronic equipment, and they just played a punk-inspired tune on guitar, bass and drums with no apparent embellishments, proving their ability to adapt when something goes wrong – other bands might have just stopped playing until the problem had been solved.

After a brief break, Argentina’s Los Autenticos Decadentes took to the stage. They started out with a strong disco-influenced sound but their music is not limited to that at all – they play traditional music, cumbia, rock, drinking songs and other genres.  The band has a total of 12 members, and they switch lead vocals throughout the show.  The band is clearly meant to party to, and the audience responded to that by jumping and dancing through most of the set – the only exception being ballad they played halfway through. They overstayed their time and a presenter tried to make them stop – they responded by going into a short encore that left fans asking for more.

On Saturday we headed to Central Park to hear Mexico’s Ximena Sariñana. We almost didn’t make it in because the security guard at the press entrance questioned me why I don’t carry press ID (I am a freelance writer, this has never been an issue EVER) and then took issue with a selfie stick that had been given to me at the Affinia a day earlier.   I got angry and was ready to leave, but Renata had a cooler head and suggested we go through the main entrance, where no one gave us any problems. We then headed to the press table and got our passes and headed inside, where Uruguay’s No Te Va Gustar were wrapping up their set.

Sariñana came on backed by a six-piece band and kicked off with two fast-paced tunes, quickly going into a funky tune. Her set was packed with her singles including   “Sin Ti No Puede Estar Tan Mal,” the lead single from her 2014 album “No Todo Lo Puedes Dar” and also “Different,” an English-language tune from her second self-titled album.

Ximena

She is a highly talented artist who is poised to be the next Shakira if audiences are willing to pay attention. She is quite charming and is also a skilled keyboard player. She has yet to develop the stage presence of someone like Ivete Sangalo or Julieta Venegas, but at 29 she is definitely on the write path.

Vicentico

The evening closed with an appearance by former Los Fabulosos Cadillacs’ vocalist Vicentico, who brought a mix of hard-hitting rock songs and romantic ballads reminiscent of Eros Ramazotti. He had fans singing along with him for many of the tunes – including some from his former band. One of the highlights was “Tengo Derechos,’ a poignant song about those who disappeared during Argentina’s brutal military regime, which he sang solely accompanied by his own acoustic guitar and a crowd of thousands.

The Latin Alternative Music Conference has been instrumental in bringing these and many Latin artists to the spotlight and also has brought some great stars to larger stages. I would probably not be aware of many of the bands I have written over the years if not for this conference – which I haven’t missed since I first heard about it.

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Film Review: “The Return” by Adam Zucker

By Ernest Barteldes

Last weekend Renata and I braved the bitter cold outside to attend a screening of The Return, a documentary by Adam Zucker that was partially financed via a Kickstarter campaign. We’d heard about the film through the Polish Cultural Institute’s 2015 program, and after a chance meeting with Zucker at a cocktail party downtown we decided to check it out.

The screening happened at the Lincoln Square Synagogue – it was only the second time I’d ever set foot inside one (the first was during a service for a friend about two years ago).  The movie follows four young women from Warsaw and Krakow who struggle with the concept of being Jewish in Poland – a country that was once home to over 4 million Jews but has now dwindled to about 25,000 mainly due to the horrors of the Holocaust.

Zucker filmed the documentary over the course of five years, and it was impressive to see how these women evolved. Two embrace Orthodox ways (not a spoiler, you can see that on the trailer) while the other two explore their Jewishness in very different ways.

Of the three women, only one – Maria – was apparently aware of her roots from the start. She was raised in a secular family, but after meeting an Orthodox man she embraces that way of life, quickly getting married and having children. The other three (Kasia, Katka and Tusia) only discovered their roots later in life, and embrace them in completely different degrees.

As the stories progress, we also see many manifestations of Jewish culture in Poland – there is footage of an acoustic set by Mattisyahu (who has a huge fan base there) and glimpses of the Jewish Music Festival in Krakow. There are also two Orthodox weddings and scenes from rituals inside a synagogue.  Though mostly shot in Warsaw and Krakow, there is also plenty of footage taken in Jerusalem (where both Kasia and Maria went to pursue their studies), Prague and Bushwick, where Tusia (a dual American and Polish citizen) lives while pursuing a Masters’ degree at NYU.

The imagery is very rich – we see various locales around the two cities – I recognized the tram we took in Warsaw and the area where our hotel was located, and also the former Jewish district of Kazimierz where Renata and I stayed during both of our visits to Krakow.

The main question the film makes is if Poland is a viable place for young Jews to live in, and the conclusion is up to the viewer.  During one of the various interviews, Katka states that today in Europe, one is seen as cool if you have “black, a Jewish and a homosexual one,” but in another moment she says it is “very hard” to pursue the Jewish lifestyle in Warsaw because there are “very few facilities and a very small community” as she walks around a residential neighborhood.

I thought it was a very touching film – yes, they make references to the Holocaust (we catch some glimpses of Auschwitz) but it’s not something they dwell on, because the film is really about being Jewish in today’s Poland, with all its intricacies and complexities. The film is being screened in various locations (you can check them out on the film’s website http://www.thereturndocumentary.com/) , and I highly recommend it.