MIAMI – Gaby Moreno steps onto the stage of the dark Miami club, cradling her guitar. Glasses clink. Voices ricochet across the walls. The diminutive singer with a mop of dark curls opens her mouth, channeling Etta James, Edith Piaf and Dolly Parton — all in Spanish.
The glasses and voices fall silent.
The Guatemalan native’s eclectic mix of sounds has captivated more than people in intimate venues. She’s won a strong, devoted following in the United States and has had a taste of mainstream success with the instrumental theme of the NBC comedy “Parks and Recreation,” which she co-wrote.
Moreno is among a small but growing number of alternative musicians and rockers who sing mostly in Spanish but are gaining a diverse fan base across the United States.
These artists barely get play on commercial Spanish radio stations, dominated by hip-hop, salsa, regional Mexican music and by pop stars like Alejandro Sanz. Yet they are attracting new listeners through social media, public radio shows, cable TV and festivals.
Tomas Cookman, president of the independent label Nacional Records, likens the Latin alternative movement in the United States to new wave before the bands Blondie and The Cars made it on to the airwaves.
“There’s a major explosion of creativity, not just from music in Latin America but from musicians who happen to be Latino in the U.S.,” he said. “We are definitely still in the early stages.”
Moreno, who also sings in English, said big labels didn’t know what do with her — a problem for many Latin alternative artists.
“Every label wanted to turn me into something else,” she said.
In 2008, she finally released an album on her own, incorporating her first love, the blues.
“I just found the passion for it and never felt like, ‘Oh I’m Latin and shouldn’t be doing it,'” she said. “I’m just an artist doing blues” — albeit one who often sings en espanol and mixes Latin beats.
“Gaby definitely represents that new model of the relationship between Latin America and the U.S. The spirit is very Latin, but the career really got jump started in the U.S,” said Ernesto Lechner, music critic and author of “Rock en Espanol: The Latin Alternative Rock Explosion.” Lechner also co-hosts the nationally syndicated radio program, “The Latin Alternative.”
Spanish rock and alternative groups hit a golden period in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the likes of Mexico’s Café Tacuba and Colombia’s Aterciopelados blended European and U.S. rock with their own countries’ native beats. Yet the genre came of age just as hip-hop overtook rock in the United States, and as the major record labels were struggling to stay afloat with the explosion of online music and were increasingly risk adverse to untested sounds. The movement never took off the way some had hoped.
Now, alternative Latin musicians, some of whom have fan bases back home, are finding new audiences in the United States thanks in part to that online scene and the growth of second generation Latino audiences.
Lechner’s radio show, which features artists like Uruguay’s Juan Campodonico and Mexico’s Natalia Lafourcade, launched in 2009 out of a local Albany, N.Y., public radio station. It’s now broadcast by more than 30 stations across the country. Lechner and co-host Josh Norek take pains to provide context for listeners who may not speak Spanish or know much about Latin America.
In 2010, NPR also created an online podcast of Latin alternative music, and Pandora, the internet radio site that matches music to users’ tastes, is expanding its Latin alternative library.
Cookman and Norek, also a Nacional executive, launched the Latin Alternative Music Conference in 1999 in New York to shine a light on these artists; this year it will be in July.
Based on the conference’s success, they founded their label in 2004, mixing more established artists like Aterciopelados’ Andrea Echeverri and Chilean-French rapper Anita Tijoux, with newer finds like the Venezuela’s indie punk band La Vida Boheme.
Nacional also has homegrown acts like David Garcia, who grew up in Florida but whose parents are from Argentina. Garcia sings mostly in English and is popular in the adult alternative scene.
“For anyone looking for more — or who has inkling that there’s more in terms of Latin music out there — I almost look at it as my mission to help them find it,” Cookman said.
Cookman now spreads his gospel to a wider audience through shows on MTV’s bilingual channel TR3s and on Sirius XM Radio, in a program produced by National Latino Broadcasting. And Nacional partnered with Starbucks to release a Latin alternative music CD; it debuted at the top of Billboard’s Latin Pop and World music charts this week.
Marc Zimet, MTV Tr3s’ vice-president of music and talent, says these artists are finding fan bases through new media and the old-school way through festivals like South by Southwest Music.
“They are having success there,” he said. “It’s really exciting, all the different genres of Latin music that are being created and trying to find a home.”
Moreno is set to release her latest album “Postales” in September on the new independent label of veteran pop star Guatemalan Ricardo Arjona.
Asked how to describe the album, she laughed. As usual, it’s hard to characterize.
“It’s an eclectic mix,” she said, “a spaghetti western, a soul number, blues, ragtime jazz.”
Gaby Moreno: http://www.facebook.com/gabymorenoband
Latin Alternative Music Conference: http://www.latinalternative.com
Nacional Records: http://nacionalrecords.com
MTV Tr3s: http://www.tr3s.com
Follow Laura Wides-Munoz on twitter at http://www.twitter.com/lwmunoz