‘Rockeros’ of all ages are talking about “Break It All/Rompan Todo,” the six-part documentary series on Netflix launched in December that tells the little-known history of Rock in Latin America spanning from the fifties to today.
While the birth of Rock in the United States was undoubtedly countercultural, the Rock en español was so anti-establishment, so about freedom and rebellion, that Latin American governments tried to suppress it however they could.
During the 70s in Mexico, Rockers and hippies were simply vilified. Their beginnings across the southern parts of the hemisphere were so underground and despised by the mainstream that Rock fans attending concerts risked arrests and beatings, Gustavo Santaolalla, the documentary’s executive producer, explains while admitting spending a few nights in Argentine jails for merely being a long-haired musician himself.
Like most Rock documentaries, “Break It All/Rompan Todo” — named after a song by the Beatles-like Uruguayan group Los Shakers — is a pastiche of interviews, with band members talking about the music’s roots and the times they lived through, along with video clips and concert footage. It all looks familiar to those from the U.S. until the images of dictatorships, coups, uprisings, and social and economic crises appear to remind you that this is Latin America.
“The partying was explosive (in the scene) because you lived as if every day could be your last,” says Andrea Echeverri, frontwoman of Colombia’s Grammy-award-winning band, Aterciopelados, and the equivalent of Patti Smith in Latin American Rock.
Rebellious Persistence Pays Off
Rock in Latin America was suppressed by those who feared strangely dressed hippies and their relationship with drugs. It was silenced from television and radio stations. Even in some cases, recording projects had to be submitted to government committees for approval.
Santaolalla, who has been called the godfather of the genre, helped promote Rock en español in the U.S. and worldwide for decades. He has acted as producer for Mexican acts such as Maldita Vecindad, Molotov, Café Tacuba, and Julieta Venegas; the Chilean Rock trio Los Prisioneros; fellow Argentine Rock musicians Divididos, and Érica García, among many others.
In this Netflix documentary, Santaolalla draws a story about how an underground genre such as Rock in Spanish eventually broke through to audiences in conservative Latin America even to become accepted by the Grammy Awards.
“I wanted to tell this story against the background of the sociopolitical ambiance of the time. Even musicians that are part of the story don’t make this connection easily. But when you start to dig in and look at the big picture, you realize how similar the situations were, how the same things happened in many countries,” Santaolalla told The New York Times.
For Rock en español fans of the 90s-MTV-generation like me, who were privileged to see unplugged concerts and arty videos and were never beaten by the police, the good news regarding this documentary is that every major Latin Rock figure of the last half-century is interviewed and portrayed alongside archive footage. However, there are other stories and one-hit-wonders that you might’ve never heard of, as well as jaw-dropping history tips like the fact that this scene began in 1957 when Ritchie Valens turned the traditional Mexican song “La Bamba” into an American classic.
From then on, groups like Los Locos del Ritmo and Los Teen Tops began translating American Rock songs into Spanish. While every country in Latin America had its Rock bands from the late fifties until now, the documentary focuses heavily on the history of Mexico and Argentina’s Rock scenes where the genre was most electric.
“There’s great music along the region, but I like to think of those countries as a battery,” says Santaolalla. “One pole is Mexico, and the other is Argentina, the north and the south. Mexico is closer to the U.S., and Argentina is closer to Britain in terms of sound and perspective.”
The future of Rock is all about women and fusion
Since reggaeton came on the scene to conquer the Latin music industry, many proclaimed that Rock was dead. But thanks to the Latin Alternative music scene worldwide, Rock has not only survived but has fused with other genres.
What made groups like Colombia’s Aterciopelados, Mexico’s Café Tacuba, Puerto Rico’s Calle 13, and Argentina’s Soda Stereo so big were their ability not to simply imitate standard Rock sounds but to innovate new ones.
While the Rock music scene started as a rebellion statement and concept, over the decades, it fused with other genres like electronica, rap, hip-hop, with touches of cumbia, ranchera, Andean flutes, or samba, to widen its appeal even further.
Despite the innate male chauvinism inherent in the genre and the culture, solo female musicians and all-female bands also had their say in the scene, as the documentary shows, selling out concerts, making social statements, and continuing to produce records like heavyweight singer and songwriters Andrea Echeverri, Julieta Venegas, Rita Lee, and Ely Guerra.
While last century saw few all-girl Latin American Rock bands like Viuda e Hijas de Roque Enroll and Las Ultrasonicas, in the new millennium, all-girl bands like Ruido Rosam, Las Kellies, and Las Robertas have certainly made waves, as have eclectic acts like Chiquita y Chatarra, Kumbia Queers and Violeta Vil.
What unites these “chica bands” today is that they no longer feel obliged to defend their art in institutionalized male dictatorships or macho-Rocker worlds.
“In my 50 years in this, I’ve heard the phrase ‘Rock is dead,’ ‘Rock is finished,’ so many times,” Santaolalla says. “When we started the series three years ago, I said Rock is in hibernation. But now I say Rock is in quarantine. I believe the future of Rock resides in women, and in the third world — they are going to be the pillars of Rock. They are going to bring the vaccine.”
For those who want to hear all the great music from the documentary, its creators have compiled a joint playlist on Spotify called “Rompan Todo.”