While They Have Your Ear . . .
Aterciopelados Have Softened Their Sound — but Not the Points They Make
Their name may mean “The Velvety Ones” — an old joke between them — but the music and message of the Colombian duo Aterciopelados are anything but soft. They’re not afraid to agitate — whether that means taking a feminist stance against hip-shaking pop priestesses (yes, Shakira, this means you), protesting war or deriding the masters of the industry for crimes against the Earth. Ever since they surfed the Latin rock wave of the early ’90s, Aterciopelados have been the provocateurs of alternativa — post-punk and proudly political — gleefully mixing and matching influences that include Colombian folk music, bossa nova, rock, electronica, trip-hop and even Indian mysticism.
Unlike their Colombian compatriots, the aforementioned Shakira and the wildly popular Juanes, the Bogota-based Aterciopelados aren’t likely to be heard on local stations like El Zol any time soon. You might, however, hear them on NPR or stream them via online radio shows such as KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic.” Nor do Aterciopelados aspire to mass appeal, though their latest CD, “Oye” (“Listen”), hit No. 1 on both iTunes’ Latin Albums chart and eMusic’s Top Albums chart.
She — Andrea Echeverri, 41, tall, lanky, hippie-chickesque — brings the melodies. He — Héctor Buitrago, 40, compact, broody, with a slightly punkedout vibe — brings the beats. Echeverri plays guitar and sings lead with a distinctly melodious voice, the tranquillity of which belies the angry snap of her lyrics. Buitrago prefers to remain in the background, producing and playing bass. They were once lovers, a short-lived union that ultimately yielded a long-term musical partnership. It’s been five years since their last studio release, and now, with the critically acclaimed “Oye,” Aterciopelados are once again hitting the road, stopping in the Washington area recently for a gig at the State Theatre. (Aterciopelados hadn’t performed here since 2003, when they appeared in a free concert at the Kennedy Center.)
Life experiences have mellowed their sound, taking it from an electronic rush of guitars and drum tracks to the more organic noodlings of acoustic rock. She had a baby. He’s about to become a dad, any day now. But the onetime punk rocker isn’t about to stay in navel-gazing mode. “We’re also a country that has a lot of problems, political problems,” Buitrago says, speaking in Spanish from backstage at the State Theatre. “Partying is a form of catharsis. Music is a refuge, a celebration.”
Part of maintaining that refuge is their refusal to perform in English, as did Shakira, who found great crossover success in the States once she branched out linguistically. North American influences form a constant barrage back home, from McDonald’s to Bratz dolls to pop music.
“Culturally, you have to defend yourself from English,” Echeverri says, switching between English and Spanish. “You have to cultivate Spanish, dream it, sing it, be it.”
Aterciopelados see their musical melding of genres as inevitable. Colombian musicians such as former soap star Carlos Vives found that they have an embarrassment of musical riches to cull from, reflecting both Colombia’s African, European and Native American heritage and its geographic diversity: cumbia and vallanato from the coasts, where the AfroColombian population resides; joropo from the mountainous regions of the Andes, where the population skews more indigenous.
“When artists like that are out front and ahead of the curve,” says KCRW’s Nic Harcourt, “it’s like what the Talking Heads did — influence other musicians coming up behind them. And those influences stick around for years. It wouldn’t be surprising to me to hear younger Latino musicians reeling off Aterciopelados as [their main influence] decades from now.”
“They’re a very great musical band that has been able to mature,” concurs José Tillán, an executive at MTV Networks Latin America and MTV Tres. “They’ve been able to learn from life and come back and do really cool records.”
With the release of their 2001 CD, “Gozo Poderoso” (“Powerful Pleasure”), they began to attract an English-speaking audience. “Gozo Poderoso,” which sold 70,000 CDs, won them top spots on Billboard’s Latin Album charts, a Latin Grammy in 2001 and a gig on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”
But instead of taking advantage of that crest in public attention, Aterciopelados took a long break to produce solo albums, fueling rumors that they’d broken up. They hadn’t. Buitrago produced Echeverri’s eponymous 2005 album, a critically acclaimed paean to maternity, which garnered Echeverri two Grammy nominations. Meanwhile, Echeverri performed on Buitrago’s 2006 CD, “Conector,” which explores Buitrago’s Andean roots and features an all-star list of Colombian singers and musicians.
They’re not ones to hold their tongues. Back in 2002, for example, they agreed to perform at the Miss Colombia beauty pageant, but with a caveat: that they be allowed to perform “El Estuche,” a stinging swipe at plastic surgery and the obsession with all things physical. And with “Oye,” they continue the tradition, with “Cancíon Protesta” (“Protest Song”), in which they indict the practice of fumigating cocaine crops — and along with them, a good chunk of the country’s national parks. In earlier years, Echeverri blasted the lasciviously vociferous dudes hanging out on the corner (she viewed castration as a viable option).
Today, with “Oye Mujer” (“Listen, Woman”), she comes off as more maternal than an Ani DiFranco she-warrior, gently finger-wagging at the women who earn a living off their looks and the men who objectify them: “Are you a human being,” Echeverri sings, “or the erotic fantasy of some guy?”
“It’s not personally against Shakira,” Echeverri says. “It’s against the whole thing.” Spoken like a woman who isn’t going softly, or quietly, into middle age.
The politically minded duo Hector Buitrago and Andrea Echeverri at the State Theatre.