Never Too Old to Tango
Guitarist Ariel Sanzo sounds like a typical modern rock musician when he talks about his inspirations. Like any American kid who came of age in the late '70s and early '80s, Sanzo, who grew up in Buenos Aires and plays in both a three-piece punk group named Pez and the renowned ensemble Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, cites KISS and Queen as early influences. He also recalls going through a phase of discovering punk-rock bands like Black Flag and "freaks" like Frank Zappa, and admits he didn't like any of the jazz and classical music his parents listened to -- ironically, just the stuff Los Fabulosos Cadillacs has embraced (to a degree) on their latest album, La Marcha del Golazo Solitario (The March of the Solitary Goal).
"I didn't like tango," he says via phone from his home in Buenos Aires. "Now, I'm 29, and a few years ago I began to discover the complexity and richness of tango composition as well as the lyrics, too, which have a lot of nostalgia. I think in our city, there's a lot of nostalgia, so the tango is a major influence, even if we don't like it. It's in the air.
"The folk music of our country is another kind of music that has influenced us," he continues. "It's played with Spanish guitar, and I think that all that influences the band. A lot of the guys in the band listen to a lot of Caribbean music. Because our grandfathers are from Italy or Spain, there's a lot of European influence in our music, too."
When he joined Los Fabulosos Cadillacs four years ago, Sanzo was playing with Pez, a band he describes as "progressive punk." "Black Flag [also] played progressive punk," he explains. "Greg Ginn, the guitar player for Black Flag, has more to do with Robert Fripp than Joey Ramone." While Sanzo still hopes to find an American distributor for the three Pez albums that he has self-released in Buenos Aires (he's thinking of pitching Pez's latest album to Man's Ruin Records when he's in the States this fall), it's Los Fabulosos Cadillacs who will likely leave behind the musical legacy. Over the course of 16 years, the band has released 12 albums and, not counting the defunct Soda Stereo or the volatile and unpredictable Todos Tus Muertos, is possibly the most influential and important band to come out of Argentina.
After years of touring the States, they're not doing badly here, either. According to Sanzo, their last two albums have sold just as well in the U.S. as in Argentina, and the band was even rumored to play some dates with Aerosmith last year, but couldn't rearrange its schedule.
If you believe Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly and other mainstream media that have latched onto the Latin invasion as rock's next big thing, you would say Los Fabulosos Cadillacs have ridden the coattails of Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez. But Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, who prefer to sing in their native Spanish and seldom write any lyrics in English, have come by success through hard work rather than their good looks -- not that Sanzo is going to disrespect Ricky Martin.
"I don't think anyone expected Ricky Martin to amount to anything a year ago," says Sanzo. "Sure, he was on General Hospital and all of that, but he wasn't a huge star. It's a tricky thing, because we love Ricky Martin, but we play a different kind of music. We don't sell a pretty face, and we don't have marketing strategies. It's not a pose or a product."
Initially, the Cadillacs sported zoot suits before the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and the Cherry Poppin' Daddies turned the retro fashion into current-day kitsch. The group's albums from the late '80s and early '90s suggest that it didn't just jump on the ska bandwagon -- it played a role in getting the thing rolling and was well-versed in swing and ska well before they became fads.
"It's funny for us," Sanzo says. "The band began as a ska band, and there were three or four albums like that. But last year, when we were touring, we saw the ska explosion happening, and we had already tried to go to another place. We showed the Cherry Poppin' Daddies early pictures of the band, and we were wearing zoot suits, too. Now, we just play in shorts and underwear."
Los Fabulosos Cadillacs have wisely moved past ska and swing, but the changes have taken place gradually. Their biggest hit, after all, was "El Matador," an anthemic, horn-driven track that was voted MTV Latin's Video of the Year in 1994. By the time of 1995's Rey Azucar, the group had already begun to forge a connection with English-speaking rock acts. The album, which was produced by the Talking Heads' Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, features guest appearances by Blondie's Debbie Harry (who sings a version of "Strawberry Fields Forever") and the Clash's Mick Jones.
But then came Fabulosos Calavera.
Easily the band's most experimental record (it's something like a Latin answer to Mr. Bungle's Disco Volante), it was much more disjunctive than its previous efforts. While Los Fabulosos Cadillacs have always mixed musical genres, breaking into salsa or funk on a whim (the group's 1994 greatest-hits package, Vasos Vacios, is proof that the band can blend two-tone ska with Latin rhythms without forcing a square peg into a round hole), on Calavera the Cadillacs' mix-and-match style of playing often sounds schizophrenic, confused and just as menacing as the spooky Day of the Dead iconography featured in the liner notes and on the album cover. On Calavera's first single, "El Muerto," the band shifted back and forth into sloppy hard-core and indulged in a by-the-numbers-metal-guitar solo before ending it all in a thunderstorm. Calavera wasn't completely useless -- the collaboration with salsa star Ruben Blades is solid, and "Lento" is an elegant ballad.
Sanzo says that Calavera was a transition album, in part because it represented his debut with the group. "Fabulosos Calavera was the first album I played guitar on, and I think [the other members of the group] turned my amp to the max to show everybody that they have a new player and that the Cadillacs could rock, too," he says. "With La Marcha, I've found myself in the band, and there's no need to show off a new sound or anything. We just got together and jammed, and the songs are cool. There's not so much thinking; we just got together and played a lot. La Marcha sounds more like the Cadillacs. Calavera is a break, and it began a new stage of the band."
Calavera, however, was still good enough to win a Grammy Award in 1997 for the then-new Latin-alternative-rock category -- but we all know that the Grammys aren't exactly the most reliable barometer of quality or talent. Shortly after the release of Calavera, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs headlined the Rock Invasion Tour, which featured such Latin rock bands as Maldita Vecindad, and Aterciopelados on a tour of U.S. arenas. In addition, the band teamed up with Fishbone for an irreverent cover of "What's New, Pussycat?" (for the AIDS benefit album Silencio=Muerte).
"We just sat down and smoked, and the vibe was okay," Sanzo says of playing with Fishbone.
While La Marcha isn't teeming with as much crossover potential as the group's previous efforts, it represents the band's most mature and musically accomplished album to date. Beautiful string and horn arrangements turn songs like "Aguila" and the Latin lounge number "C.J." into eloquent ballads that sound more like the band's refined Brazilian counterparts Caetano Veloso, and Gilberto Gil than the jumpy ska of No Doubt or the Bosstones. The band still indulges in frenetic hybrids -- the title track, a song dedicated to jazz great Thelonious Monk, sounds like a run-in between Queen, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and Primus. "Salvador y Los Cordonas Flojos" features the kind of funk grooves Parliament is known for, and the instrumental "Negra" has a distinctly Latin guitar solo that would make Santana proud. Even when the group changes pace in "Necesito una Nariz de Payaso, No Me Prestas la Tuya . . . ?" ("I Need a Nose of a Clown, Can You Lend Me Yours?"), a track that features sinister vocals and death-metal guitars, the transitions are smooth and well-executed -- not sloppy, like they have been in the past.
"With this last album, I had to figure out how to fit with the band," Sanzo says. "Only a few songs are electric -- there are more jazz songs and acoustic sounds. I had to learn my place in the music. I enjoy all kinds of music, so that worked for me as a player."
If anything, La Marcha signifies Los Fabulosos Cadillacs' recognition that Argentina's jazz and classical tradition isn't something to be rebelled against, but should be embraced -- even by punk- and ska-oriented upstarts. Sanzo admits that pigeonholing Los Fabulosos Cadillacs as a rock en español band (a tag that often serves to generalize the wide range of Spanish-speaking bands and almost instantly turns off English-only listeners) does a disservice to the group and Argentina's storied musical past.
"We have a history of rock in Argentina," he says. "The first rock album recorded in Spanish was by Los Gatos in 1967, so we have a tradition to uphold. It's not a stolen culture. We have our own and have had it for more than 30 years."
Los Fabulosos Cadillacs are scheduled to perform on Wednesday, October 20, at Celebrity Theatre, with Pastilla. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.
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