Last weekend (March 17-18) was the Vive Latino Music Festival in Mexico City. Every spring, international and Mexican bands take the stage at Foro Sol, a massive outdoor venue that hosts the biggest rock shows in Mexico and doubles as a baseball stadium and racetrack.
This year, like most years, it was mostly rock en español with outliers like electronic music and rap, along with some famous foreign groups. The headliners on Saturday were two of Mexico’s biggest bands, Panteon Rococo and Molotov, and on Sunday Queens of the Stone Age and Gorrilaz.
I went with my wife and some friends on the first day, Saturday. Unlike other years, when we’d see a few bands on side stages and then spend the rest of the night watching the main stage, this year we wandered around catching music on several of the five stages. It was a hell of a lot of fun with a few pleasant surprises.
The first surprise wasn’t pleasant at first, but turned out to be a good idea. The beer and food vendors (and presumably t-shirt vendors too) accepted no cash. You had to get a wristband and add money to it at a booth. The vendors would scan it with their cell phones so you could pay for your beer or hot dog.
The problem was that when we entered Foro Sol sometime around 4 PM, there were no more wristbands. I had disturbing visions of spending the whole day with no food or drink. As we walked the grounds outside the huge bleachers of the main stage, I saw many other people trying to buy beers and hearing the same explanation. You need a wristband to buy it. No, I don’t know where the wristbands are.
Thankfully it didn’t take long to find a recharge station that had wristbands. As the night went on, I became a believer. You didn’t have to deal with change or tipping, and at the end getting a refund for the leftover money was fast and easy. I’ll admit that I felt like I was in a Black Mirror episode at times: the cell phone glowing over my hand, light reflecting off the piece of plastic tied to my wrist, and then the new lower number on the screen, counting down to zero. This one had a happy ending, though, a fresh beer every time.
Of course, the obvious reason for the wristband was that the workers wouldn’t be skimming money all weekend, and in that regard I’m sure it was a success.
After the wristband adventure and getting some food, we watched Pate de Fua first. This Mexican group plays a bouncy mix of jazz, tango, and rock. They’re good, but they were much better when I saw them from about 20 feet away at a much smaller music festival in Metepec near where I live.
Then we went to the main stage and watched a cover band with a symphony orchestra doing famous rock en español as the sun went down. We couldn’t really hear the instruments from the orchestra, but it was nice to sit up in the bleachers with a wide view of the huge stage, where I’ve seen many shows over the years, among them the Rolling Stones, Roger Waters, Metallica, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, and other Vive Latinos.
After that we headed over to a distant side stage to watch Venezuelan band Los Amigos Invisibles. I’d seen them years ago at the Cumbre Tajin Festival in Veracruz and knew that they put on a funky dance party. We got there before they started playing and the grounds were already packed. We made it as far up as the soundbooth. Unfortunately the volume was too low — in order to appreciate their music it needs to be loud and thumping, at least the bass and drums. Oh well, at least my wife got to hear their hit “Mentiras.”
Leaving Los Amigos Inivisibles, we cut in front of the main stage and were treated to our second surprise — Morrissey. Now, I couldn’t name one Morrissey song, and a band I wanted to see (that we were on our way to see) was happening at the same time. But on the way we stopped for a beer and listened for a while. It sounded good, kind of what you’d expect from a Morrissey concert if you had no idea what to expect, but in a good way: moody music and wailing voices, a big beautiful sound rising up from the stage. I even recognized a song. So, yes Morrissey, if you’re ever on the lineup of another music festival I’m at, I’ll give you my full attention.
No meat was cooked or served during Morrissey’s set, a condition he regularly imposes due to his staunch veganism. In fact, he cancelled his set during the 2013 Vive Latino because he smelled meat from the stage. Now he was back and ready to redeem himself, meat clause in the contract and all.
Here’s the sign outside the chorizo tent explaining that “the sale of products of animal origin will be suspended between 19:00 and 22:00. This is to not affect the participation of some of the artists in the festival:”
After Morrissey we went back to the Escena Indio stage where we’d seen Pate de Fua earlier. With at least 30 minutes until Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, there was still plenty of space up front. So after a beer recharge (we were wristband experts by now), we went up close to wait out all the pushing and shoving until the show.
Simply put, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds was awesome. It was a high energy, rocking show with tight music and larger-than-life hooks. Out of 15 songs, they played six Oasis songs (“Wonderwall” and “Don’t Look Back in Anger” being the biggest) and closed with a sing-along cover of “All You Need is Love.” I can’t claim to be the world’s biggest Oasis fan, although I had their first album on repeat back in the day. I knew none of the new originals. But it didn’t matter — the songs were good enough that you didn’t need to recognize them to enjoy them. We were close enough to see the band clearly, at least when everyone wasn’t holding their cell phones up over their heads blocking the view of everyone behind them. Anyway, this was a minor annoyance compared to all the drunks singing along with songs they didn’t actually know the lyrics to, mumbling out the English words at maximum volume: Blah blah blahblur-WALL!
Mexican ska/rock/funk band Panteon Rococo had already started on the main stage when the last notes of “All You Need is Love” rang across the crowded field. We found seats halfway back in the bleachers and caught the second half of the show.
Panteon Rococo is easily my favorite popular band in Mexico and I’d seen them a few times already, both at music festivals and smaller theaters. They’re fantastic live. “La Dosis Perfecta,” one of their best songs, gets stretched out with a long reggae intro.
Unfortunately, their show suffered from the same problem as Los Amigos Invisibles: not loud enough. Why?
The performance was good but needed to be cranked up one more notch, maybe not to 11 but at least to get the ears vibrating. Because of this, when they finished we wove our way across the bleachers to get closer for Molotov, a super popular Mexican rap/punk/etc. band that I’d never yet seen in concert, a glaring omission in my Mexican live music experience.
I’ll give it to you straight — we got a little bored during Molotov. Yes, we got to hear their classic songs that mix Spanish and English, songs I play on guitar with Mexican friends at parties, like “Frijolero” and “Gimme the Power.” They played a cover of the Misfits song “I Turned into a Martian,” translated to Spanish, so it was “me convierte en marciano.” The recorded version is a departure from the original, but live it was sufficiently fast and rowdy to surely earn Danzig’s grudging approval. The stage lit up with the colors of the Mexican flag during “Frijolero:”
But maybe, just maybe, punk rock isn’t made to be heard in a huge outdoor arena with 80,000 other fans. I’m sure it was exciting on the floor up front, but from high in the bleachers, we just weren’t feeling it.
So it was back to the nearby Escena Indio stage to be surprised again. It was well after midnight and no band was playing yet. We walked right up to the stage, where a few people were lingering.
Suddenly the lights shone bright and the speakers blared loud with frantic techno sounds that weren’t quite dance music, more like organized noise and craziness. But it sounded good. The members switched instruments, left the stage and returned. For a while there were only four of them, one on drums (which sounded nothing like drums, but triggered programmed effects) and the other three on keyboards, sometimes picking up a bass or guitar.
This was Titán, a Mexican electronic group formed all the way back in 1992 that, coincidentally, includes a former member of Molotov. I’d never heard of them before and I won’t miss them again. The field was totally full by the end, with stoners bobbing heads, drunks stumbling, and couples fighting.
So, another year, another Vive Latino. Even though the two bands I was most excited to see, Panteon Rococo and Los Amigos Invisibles, were way too quiet, other shows were unexpectedly fun. For me, the highlight and biggest surprise was Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, the only full show we saw, and from up close too. There were more surprises with Morrissey sounding excellent and the final head-trip of Titán. Good times had by all, I’m sure.
Next up in Mexico City in April: David Byrne and then LCD Soundsystem. See you there?
You’ll never learn Spanish from a book. You’ll never learn it in a classroom — especially if you don’t get a chance to speak. You need more.
But you also won’t learn Spanish just by living in Spain and drinking wine with locals. Yes, these things are important, but they won’t give you a complete understanding of the language.
You need to listen. And what’s better than listening to music in Spanish, in all its regional and stylistic variety. You don’t even need to buy anything! Youtube has everything you need.
Mere listening is not enough, however. You need a method.
First, find a song you like, in a genre you like, with clearly-sung words that aren’t too fast. Do you love rap and hip-hop? Me too, but it’s way too fast and full of slang to study Spanish with, at least at first. (More on that in the tips below.)
- Listen to the song while reading the lyrics. It doesn’t matter if they mean nothing to you. Follow the words closely so it’s not just gibberish. Don’t pause when you don’t understand something. At this point you aren’t learning Spanish, simply developing your ability to listen. You’re getting a feel for the pronunciation of words and the cadence of the language, which is quite different between Spanish and English*.
- Repeat step 1 until you can follow the lyrics from beginning to end without getting lost.
- Listen again, but this time underline words you don’t know. At this stage, it’s handy to have a printout. To find lyrics, type “group name song name letras” into Google. For example: “Molotov Frijolero letras.” Letras means lyrics.
- Look up the words in an online translator and write them on your sheet. I recommend Word Reference or Spanish Dict.
- Listen again and try to make sense of the song. What’s it about? A love song? A protest song? A joke? If you get stuck, focus on the chorus. Listen until you know the chorus by heart.
- Just like in English, Spanish words can have more than one meaning. (Quick examples: possible meanings of the words break, run, or sick in English.) Consider new vocabulary in the context of its verse, and the lyrics as a whole. Choose the most reasonable translation from the many possibilities. If there’s more than one likely option, write down both. With repetition, it should eventually make sense, or ask someone for help.
- Remember that songs are full of slang. (Example: so many songs in English, in all genres, use ain’t, which isn’t really a word, as your elementary school English teacher surely told you.) If no translation makes sense, the word is probably slang. Slang is regional, so if you want to learn Mexican Spanish, listen to Mexican music. If you’re going to Chile, find Chilean bands.
- Learn to recognize metaphor**, an essential part of countless songs. For example, in “Jefe de Jefes” (linked below), he sings “muchos pollos…quieren pelear con el gallo” — many chickens want to fight with the rooster. What does that mean? In “Rata de Dos Patas” — two-legged rat — the whole song is a metaphor.
- If you’re a total beginner and find yourself looking up more than half of the words and still understanding nothing, you need songs that are relentlessly repetitive (Me Gustas Tu, Manu Chao), ridiculously well-known (La Bamba), ridiculously simple (Feliz Navidad), catchy as hell (Lamento Boliviano, Enanitos Verdes), or all of these things (Oye Como Va).
- Also for beginners — don’t worry so much about what the song means. Instead, listen for words you recognize. Look up a few. For example, I estimate that 95% of Spanish songs have at least one corazón. Later, listen without the lyrics and let those words pop out at you. I promise you’ll notice them in conversation next.
Don’t know where to start? Here are four songs from Mexico I think you’ll enjoy. Take your time — repeat the steps of my method over and over.
* English is a stress-timed language, which means that entire Shakespeare plays can fit into the framework of iambic pentameter. Spanish is a syllable-timed language, with means that the syllables usually must be fully pronounced, and can’t be easily compressed like in English.
** Metaphor, simile, analogy, allegory — whatever you call it, it’s when you use two (seemingly) unrelated things to make a comparison. “Jefe de Jefes” has nothing to do with roosters and chickens.
For a music lesson about learning Mexican slang through songs, click here.
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Good luck! Tell me some more songs in the comments.
All over the world people listen to The Beatles, Bob Marley and Michael Jackson, mumbling out the lyrics in bad English while not understanding a word. Phil Collins’ Greatest Hits is played on repeat on a bus in the Philippines, teenagers pump fists to Bon Jovi’s Livin’ on a Prayer at a party in Mexico, and the words to The Real Slim Shady are slurred by drunken karaoke singers in Korea.
But, despite the wealth of musical diversity in the United States, Americans listen to very little music that’s not in English. The bulk of Rock in Spanish, which developed in the ’80s (Soda Stereo, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs), flourished in the ’90s (Cafe Tacuba, Molotov), and continues strong to this day, is largely unknown in the English-speaking world.
Perhaps it’s because crossover artists, those with enough marketing savvy and command of language to redo their songs in English, mostly come from pop (Skakira, Ricky Martin). And, if you ask me, pop sucks in any language. People who really like music, regardless of its genre, have to seek it out.
The world of Latin music includes many genres, from well-known salsa to equally important but lesser-known cumbia, bachata, banda, nortena, and many more. This becomes confusing, and consequently these distinct styles are lumped into the boundary-less category of “Latin music.”
The Spanish-language rock that interests me are artists who embrace the influence of these diverse Latin styles in their music. The following songs, some of which are reworkings of previous hits (La Flaca and Asi Es La Vida), include a compelling dose of genre-bending.
Las Tres Marias is cumbia, dance music with a strong, recognizable drum-and-bass interplay. La Flaca and Asi Es La Vida are rock songs with touches of salsa, especially in the montuno piano vamp/breakdown in La Flaca. And finally, Panteon Rococo, maybe my favorite Mexican group, plays ska mixed with rock, funk and reggae. Enjoy.
Please comment on what you like or don’t like. Y si tienes mas sugerencias, dejalas abajo por favor. Todavia estoy descubriendo grupos nuevos para mi.