Coachella may be known for getting rock bands like Radiohead, The Cure, and Guns N’ Roses to play in the middle of the California desert, but when it comes to rock en español, the 16-year-old festival has nothing on Rock Fiesta.
The one-off event taking place in Quartzite Friday, March 18, and Saturday, March 19, is a two-day campout in the middle of nowhere that packs together 20 of the biggest names in Latin rock, which organizers hope will draw sizable crowds from both sides of the border.
But Rock Fiesta isn’t just a concierto for people who are already fans of the legendary acts performing (like Caifanes, Cafe Tacuba, El Tri, Molotov, and more). It’s an illuminating snapshot of the broad rock en español movement through a Mexican lens – a 48-hour history lesson on the country’s past and current contributions to this ever-evolving genre – ideal education for anyone who considers themselves a fan of rock in any language.
Although the political and socio-economic factors affecting each have been vastly different, it’s easy to see rock en español as a continuum of sonic transformations not unlike those that have happened over the years to English-language rock, moving from the classics like Led Zeppelin to the grunge of Nirvana to the electronic infusions of Muse.
Once called “nuestro rock” or “rock en tu idioma,” rock en español emerged in Spanish-speaking countries during the early ’80s out of the ashes of harsh policies (especially in Mexico) that restricted rock concerts due to their associations with student rebellion and political activism. Finding inspiration in popular American and British rock bands of the time, many artists used the sounds as fodder for songs that protested their government, incited fellow citizens to vote, and told sad realities of both rural and urban life in their respective countries.
The ’90s saw the launch of alternativo, or Latin rock, and the last 15 years have brought an even wider fusion of genres and instrumentations under the vast umbrella of rock en español. Mexico’s voice in this 40-year-old movement is constant – some of the most important bands have come from there, setting the pace for fusions of blues, punk, pop, electronic, and more with everything from rap to ska to cumbia to reggae.
All this will be on display at Rock Fiesta, where both legendary and new-school Mexican bands (plus a few from South America!) are on the bill. Catch up on a bit of rock en español history by getting to know the five most important Mexican rock acts that are headlining the festival, then get to the stages early to watch electronic, metal, and emo bands like Kinky, Nortec Collective, S7N, Silverio, Finde, and more showcase contemporary interpretations of a genre that was nearly banned.
Tickets are $159 for the weekend, and camping is an extra $40.
Alex Lora is, unequivocally, the godfather of rock en español. And unlike many of English-language rock’s godfathers who are no longer with us (R.I.P. David Bowie), Lora is still out there slaying stages with his aggressively hoarse vocals and heavy blues-steeped rock. The wily-haired, 63-year-old Poblano has made a career out of giving a middle finger to convention. According to lore, his first band, Three Souls In My Mind, had its first show in October 1968, just 10 days after the student massacre at Tlatelolco, Mexico City, which launched the Mexican government’s ban on rock concerts. TSIMM split up in 1985 and Lora reformed with some members as El Tri, which because of its high-energy singer and bluesy tinges, often gets called Mexico’s Rolling Stones. But El Tri is far more political than its British counterparts. With songs that speak to the harsh realities of everyday life in Mexico, Lora is known for criticizing inequality, mocking politicians, and taking a stance on America’s border policies, a legacy he continues to reap with each new album.
El Tri plays Friday, 8:45 p.m. -10:15 p.m., Camel Stage
Look at any photo of Caifanes from their late-’80s heyday, and it’s easy to think you’ve come across a lost promo shot of The Cure. Dressed like a post-punk British band, three of Caifanes’ four original members rocked Robert Smith electrical-socket-incident hair, black eyeliner, and a brooding look that told you these aren’t the guys playing the peppy corporate pop that dominated radio at the time. Over four albums, singer Saúl Hernández and company played dark New Wave ballads infused with pre-Hispanic mysticism that also doubled as arena-rock-ready anthems. Their last release, 1994’s El Nervio Del Volcán, was such a successful opposition to the decades of sanitized rock that came before it that it is considered at least partly responsible for making rock en español a viable market that record labels and the media could no longer ignore. Caifanes broke up in 1995 and Hernández went on to form the internationally popular band Jaguares, but Caifanes’ legacy is still a powerful one; when the band reunited to play Coachella in 2011, the quick sellout of passes was attributed to their eager fans. Now they tour regularly, playing arenas and festivals across Latin America.
Caifanes plays Saturday, 9:25 p.m.-11:25 p.m., Camel Stage.
At the same time that Caifanes was playing songs that could have been slapped onto a John Hughes film soundtrack, Maldita Vecinidad was pumping out a groundbreaking rock en español of an entirely different sort. With a singer who dresses like an East L.A. pachuco and songs that emphasize wailing saxophone (not guitar) riffs, Maldita Vecinidad takes the two-tone sounds of ska-punk masters The Specials and fuses it with the heavy brass that defines regional Mexican music. The band also incorporates classical Spanish guitar, Cuban son, and other Latin tinges into its infectious songs, with lyrics that celebrate the Mexico City street culture and songs that continue to influence contemporary Mexican ska bands.
Maldita Vecinidad plays Friday 7:10 p.m.-8:40 p.m., Hi Jolly Stage.
Café Tacvba’s 1994 album, Re, tops most lists for best rock en español album, and deservedly so. The 20 songs – from “La Ingrata” to “Madrugal” – reflect a fuck-all punk attitude that turns rapid-fire genre switching into not just an experiment, but an entirely new (and entirely Latin-American) sound. More than just making English-language rock in Spanish, Café Tacvba puts a sonic stamp on the frenetic energy of their cosmopolitan hometown of Mexico City, using unconventional instruments and tapping into genres as disparate as punk, hip-hop, bolero, banda, tango, metal, and folklorico. Each album they release more deeply explores this incomparable approach to making globally relevant music, keeping them popular with audiences outside of Latin America, too.
Café Tacvba plays Friday, 10:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m., Hi Jolly Stage.
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Sometimes called Mexico’s answer to Rage Against the Machine, multi-Latin-Grammy winners Molotov are a kinda rap-rock, sort of nu-metal band with an unrivaled grudge against their country’s government and society at large. With catchy, anthemic songs and well-enunciated lyrics that maximize dissemination potential, Molotov has made a career out of writing lyrics that call out police corruption, talk trash against TV stations for refusing to play their videos, and accuse Americans of being the source of Mexico’s drug problem. “The Man” is the forever enemy to Molotov, and the band is no stranger to controversy. Expect a lot of cursing (major hits include “Chinga tu Madre” and “Puto”) and a massive, throbbing pit. Molotov plays Friday, 3:15 p.m.-5 p.m., Hi Jolly Stage.
Rock Fiesta in Quartzite takes place Friday, March 18, and Saturday, March 19.