Bandstand of the Americas

Half a century after a son of Mexican immigrants founded local rock, a new generation of Latinos listens for its own song


Competing for advertising might seem a zero-sum game in Latino radio, and Dominican Republic native Maximo Mena, for one, confirms that he'll advertise his Nicollet record store, Mena's, with the new station--should it succeed. He admits this might draw income from Radio Rey in the short term. But Mena's, like everything else in the local Latino music scene, has been expanding for years--giving salsa dance lessons, opening a nearby hair salon, even booking the occasional show.

Mena says his newest customers are younger than those who shopped at his store a few years ago, and most are Mexican. "But they're open to everything," he adds. The Chicano youth milling about his store will probably turn out for his August 26 Caribbean Festival, which he has booked as a block party in front of his store. So, most likely, will the gringos who turn up at his dance lessons.

Businessman Selwin Ortega plans to buy KSMM-AM Radio (1530)
Diana Watters
Businessman Selwin Ortega plans to buy KSMM-AM Radio (1530)

After all, some things haven't changed since the River Road days. Monday nights at the Quest have grown into one of the most racially integrated events in town, featuring salsa DJs and the Caribbean and Mexican rhythms of Orquesta Sabor Tropical. Call it crossover in reverse, with the mainstream coming to experience Latino culture. Except that salsa itself, as OST singer Maya López-Santamaría points out, is also an essentially American invention, drawing on Cuban and Puerto Rican rhythms, but having originated in New York. In her indispensable CD and booklet Música de la Raza: Mexican & Chicano Music in Minnesota (Minnesota Historical Society Press), the frontwoman notes that Latino diversity has forced local DJs to stay similarly eclectic. The crossbreeding of genres, the essence of all rock 'n' roll, is perhaps inevitable.

In truth, whenever Los Conocidos or any other accordion heroes toss off a cover of "La Bamba" for an encore, they need hardly bother. Like the KDWB-FM (101.3) listeners recently puzzled by the same crossover gesture from pop superstar Enrique at the Target Center, the cumbia couples have redefined for themselves what American music means. They don't need rock 'n' roll, or even English. They have, in a sense, blurred the border.

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