WHERE THE MUSIC LIVES
Life, Song & Fame in The City
A hometown leaves a mark on everyone’s personal history, but only a select group of talents – like these musicians – see their place of origin so strongly linked with their identity.
Text: CLAUDIO VERGARA ILLUSTRATIONS: JOSÉ PÉREZ
Buena Vista Social Club
They came back because they belong in the limelight. After a hiatus of nearly four decades, a group of expert musicians who regularly gigged at Havana’s Buena Vista Social Club in the 1940s and 50s came out of retirement to become unexpected stars in the 1990s.
In 1996, U.S. guitarist Ry Cooder traveled to the capital of Cuba to record a group of veterans who used to play this nightclub in the municipality of Marianao, and he teamed up with Wim Wenders to make a documentary that made best-selling artists out of Compay Segundo and Ibrahim Ferrer, both in their 70s at the time. It was a sharp rebuke to the notion that only the vigor of youth is rewarded with success.
This rediscovery reestablished Havana as the artistic epicenter of the Caribbean – a multicultural magnet that draws on the traditions of at least three continents – and expanded the city’s sense of nostalgia beyond the image of Che Guevara and the songs of Silvio Rodríguez. Cuba’s musical renaissance bore the weathered faces of legends who overcame obscurity to stake their claim to glory.
In an interview, singer Katy Perry momentarily imagined late rapper Tupac Shakur rolling over in his grave and Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson asking what the hell was going on – two California icons incensed by the historical supremacy of musical homages to the East Coast, with all arrows pointing to the splendor of New York.
To balance out the disparity, the Santa Barbara native wrote one of her biggest hits, “California Gurls.” It’s an ode to the golden girls of sunny Los Angeles, dressed in bikini tops and cutoff shorts. Her lyrics describe them as beautiful, sassy, and fierce, roaming the neighborhoods between the Walk of Fame and the Hollywood Hills.
If the Doors had to rewrite “L.A. Woman,” Perry would probably be the inspiration.
But life isn’t like music videos. Perry had a rocky ride to success. Following a number of name changes, an album of evangelical music released when she was 16, an attempt to make it in Nashville, and two breakups with record labels who doubted her potential, the singer had to relocate to Los Angeles to make it big. This much is clear: she was the right person to pay homage to the other city that never sleeps.
Until the 1990s, Bogotá wasn’t really considered one of Latin America’s most rockin’ cities, but a couple of musicians who met at the Universdad de los Andes began to forge a career that would kick off a golden age for Colombian music. Singer Andrea Echeverri and guitarist Héctor Buitrago formed Aterciopelados, a group that married their country’s traditional music with contemporary pop, coinciding with the rise of compatriots like Carlos Vives, Shakira, and Juanes.
Aterciopelados focused on urban tales that blended romanticism, everyday stories, and social consciousness. Their biggest hit, “Bolero falaz,” was accompanied by a video that showcased Avenida Caracas and the colorful busetas (buses) that ran down one of the capital’s main arteries. Bogotá has seldom looked better. Beyond the fact that they still live in the neighborhood of Teusaquillo, the band has continued to pay tribute to the city in subsequent works with songs like “Al parque,” an anthem dedicated to the Rock al Parque festival that they helped found, and “Río,” which advocated the restoration of the Bogotá River.
Music born and bred in the heart of Colombia.
Charlotte Gainsbourg, the singer-actress tormented by shyness who enthralls audiences with just a whisper, appears adept at skillfully camouflaging her true self. Gainsbourg’s introverted nature, both public and private, seems at odds with her determination to succeed.
When she suspected that the ghost of her father, the French singer Serge Gainsbourg, might become a stumbling block, she stopped listening to his albums and chose to sing in English. Since she realized that French culture had a powerful presence in her upbringing, Gainsbourg decided to play up her British heritage, from her mother, legendary actress Jane Birkin, and her Russian ancestry on her father’s side.
In interviews, Gainsbourg has declared that French capital can leave an indelible mark, so the only way to escape its influence is to renounce it completely. Although she was born in London, it was in Paris that Gainsbourg adopted the simple, chic style that she maintains to this day. And while she currently observes France from afar – from her home in New York – she continues to be defined the City of Light. No one escapes Paris that easily.
Forget geysers, glaciers, and volcanoes. If countries had to be represented by a single image in a geography book, a photo of Björk as shorthand for Iceland would make plenty of sense.
Few artists have established as strong a bond with their native land, to the point of becoming a near-universal symbol for an almost-invisible nation.
Björk was born in Reykjavík, a capital of barely 121,000 inhabitants – that’s 1.4% of the population of London, for example – and in the 1980s, she became a leading light of the alternative scene in the bars and clubs of Laugavegur – the city’s famous pedestrian street, a short stretch of punk, Goth, and jazz fusion.
From this scene in 1986 came the Sugarcubes, the band that made Björk famous and served as the prelude to a solo career that to this day mirrors her remote homeland: enigmatic, indecipherable, mysterious, and steeped in Norse mythology.
Swagger is no challenge for someone who proclaims himself “the new Sinatra,” and who concludes, “since I made it here / I can make it anywhere,” in the opening verses of one of his biggest hits.
Jay-Z’s chart-topping “Empire State of Mind” (2009) isn’t just an exhibition of confidence in a genre in which the strongest survives; it’s also the story of an artist who conquered the world from the margins of the Big Apple, far from the neon lights and skyscrapers.
Ultimately, it’s the latest great tribute to Manhattan as a fertile ground for talents who shake off anonymity on their way to victory. On these streets, Jay-Z built an empire that made him one of the most prominent figures in international pop music.
The rapper got his start in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the point of departure for a song that tours areas as varied as Tribeca, Harlem, and Broadway, and visits old friends from the Dominican Republic, locals-only hangouts, and Knicks games. It all adds up to that same refrain: if you make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.
There was a time in March 1997 when the four members of Molotov had to hit the busy streets of their native Mexico City. It was the day they learned that several record shops had blacklisted their first album. The band would have to sell the record themselves.
It turned out to be a great strategy for success. ¿Dónde jugarán las niñas? may have been their debut recording, but the band already had a growing fan base in the city, thanks to years spent playing local bars, clubs, and discos. It wasn’t hard for Molotov to take the pulse of the street and represent the ironic, irreverent opinions of the average citizen.
In the wake of their latest album, Agua maldita (2014), Molotov continues to be the voice of the people, showcasing the wise attitude of their fellow chilangos: humor trumps hopelessness as a survival strategy in one of the most populous – and most creative – cities in the world.
A British musician conquers the United States and revolutionizes the rest of the world. The template seems timeless, an apt description from the time the Beatles crossed the Atlantic in 1964, yet it was perhaps best embodied in 2015, when singer Adele released her most recent album, 25, and set breathtaking sales records in the process. With more than three million copies sold in a single week, it was the best-selling record in the U.S. since 1991 and the most-purchased album around the world. A canny move to not offer 25 on streaming services forced fans to embrace the ritual of investing in the nearly moribund CD.
Adele’s accomplishments represent a victory for the average Londoner. She’s the product of a multicultural puzzle that includes a childhood in the neighborhood of Tottenham, home to a variety of ethnicities, and a stint in the southern town of Brixton, which boasts an Afro-Caribbean presence that encouraged her love of jazz and R&B. Today, the artist lives in the residential Greater London neighborhood of West Norwood.
In the end, Luis Alberto Spinetta and Buenos Aires were one and the same. After being diagnosed with lung cancer in July 2011, the singer/songwriter asked his family to spread his ashes on the River Plate, like those of his father before him. Spinetta died on February 8, 2012, and his son and fellow musician Dante Spinetta later confirmed that the remains of “El Flaco” had been laid to rest at a place where fans could leave a flower in tribute and contemplate the sunset.
But the symbiosis between the artist and his “City of Fury” had begun much earlier. In the late 1960s, rock in Argentina and the rest of Latin America simply replicated the canon of giants such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, but like Buenos Aires, Spinetta was defined by a constant cultural evolution. He produced work rich in influences, marked by an uncommon intellectual heritage and existentialist introspection.
And while Spinetta embodied the restlessness of his fellow citizens, his sober personality set him apart from the stereotype of the exuberant and loquacious porteño. Spinetta always maintained a low profile, never letting his music bend to trends or mass appeal. Perhaps that’s why he became the quiet moral compass and guiding light for those who followed in his footsteps, musicians like Charly García, Fito Páez, Gustavo Cerati, and the band Babasónicos. In the end, Luis Alberto Spinetta is the true father of Argentinean rock. in