There’s a community in D.C. brewing a unique genre known as rock en Español, which can also be appropriately translated into rock in Spanish or Spanish rock. Over the past decade, an influx of bands, promoters, festivals, clubs and DJs have given a new life to the genre and have created a spirited scene around it.
Rock en Español fuses traditional Latin influenced music with rock, reggae and other regional sounds with Spanish-language singing. Bands like Nayas, Anexo Social and Kickoman are staple examples of bands that have thrived in the District with their exotic sound. But there are also a slew of other artists and musicians from diverse backgrounds that have put their passion, time and broken strings into building the rock en Español community.
Alex Iraheta, member of Anexo Social, has seen much of the community develop over the years after emigrating from El Salvador around the age of 11 in the early ’90s. At the time, there were only a handful of bands who played the Rock en Español sound, forming a small community. “My early goal was to just do music; whatever was popular”, Iraheta says. “But, there is a moment where you get to think what exactly are you looking to do for you community.”
However, by the late 1990s, the rock en Español scene started to dwindle in size. Rosario Garcia caught wind of the scene during this difficult time period. The editor-in-chief for Latin culture/music periodical Kesta Happening, Garcia was always a fan of bands like Nirvana and the Cure, while also enjoying the rich sounds of Latin rock bands like Café Tacuba, Hombres G and Shakira’s rock influenced albums.
Originally from Los Angeles, she remembers the culture shock when she moved to D.C. to attend Georgetown University. “Growing up in L.A., everybody was Mexican American or Latino in my area”, says Garcia. “You were more likely to hear and see bands that were huge in the international rock en Español genre, but these acts were barely getting traction in D.C.”.
Shortly after starting school, Garcia did a little digging to uncover where she could hear the music she loved. “Anytime I would meet a Latino who was vaguely into rock music, I would ask ‘Where can I go listen to Latin rock?’” She also found the time to start up a radio show that would play Latin rock, which lead her to discover more about this tight knit community.
“I used to say that I was a student by day and a roquera (rocker) by night,” Garcia says, reminiscing on her early years. Connecting with locales like Renzos and Marx Café helped Garcia’s transition into the District, and simultaneously helped to reinvigorate the rock en Español scene.
Around the late ’90s, more spaces and studios began to open for rock en Español artists. Veteran musicians who shaped the city’s rock en Español scene helped to secure spaces for younger musicians to help foster growth within the community.
As the scene was taking shape in the 2000s, rock en Español began to evolve on a greater level. Take the band Kickoman, who have been playing in the D.C. music scene for the last four years. Lead by Levin Garcia, the band incorporates Latin, reggae, rock and EDM into their exotic sound. Before starting Kickoman, Garcia had been playing in bands and listening to music from tango to Neil Young since living in homeland of Venezuela. He was especially a fan of Bob Marley.
“I started Kickoman with two friends to make reggae roots in Spanish,” he says about the band’s early beginnings. “But through the years, we transformed into something else. We were playing cumbia, reggae, hip-hop- it’s really a lot of influences.”
In the present day, rock en Español is no longer a product of one sound. While previously the scene was limited to only a handful of genres, musicians are more willing and open to listen and play different styles of music.
“You can just see that the musicians started out playing something else, because that was what they like or it got them paid. Now they are listening to bands like Slipknot or Metallica and that’s what they want to play.” Rosario Garcia adds.
The more progressive thinking of the community has had a big impact on the scene’s expansion. ”Before, you couldn’t group a lot of the Latin bands together, because they themselves wouldn’t get along,” Rosario Garcia laughs. Now, there are opportunities for bands from multiple genres to play on stages like the Howard Theatre.
As the rock en Español sound has grown in popularity, many artists have been looking for more ways to connect within the community. Socially conscious music is something of importance for many musicians in the scene, particularly concerning immigration. “It’s important to find these windows for people to vent their frustration,” Iraheta adds.
While the scene has come far in the last decade, there is still plenty of room for growth. However, there have been some major milestones accomplished. For instance, there are more artists recording material compared to the past, which has been a major step forward. Similarly, bands have slowly made progress in breaking out in a more mainstream audience, although getting rock en Español artists to perform with non-Spanish speaking bands continues to be more of an exception than the norm.
Popular international acts have also performed more shows in D.C., giving younger acts opportunities and hope for the future. “The scene is definitely growing. A lot of acts who have never come to D.C. before are coming because something is happening,” Levin Garcia says.
“Really in the last five years, it’s gotten to where we have a steady stream of international touring artists that put (D.C.) on the map.” Rosario Garcia notes. With more clubs like Tropicalia opening its doors to rock en Español, the scene and community is carving a deep niche in The District.
At the end of the day, Iraheta’s top priority is to build stronger networks and improve the collectives within the community for the next generation of roqueras and roqueros to move the scene. For Iraheta what he sees coming from the local rock en Español scene is something more transcendent than playing shows.
“It’s about making poetry and bringing your soul out there,” he declares.