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Photo: Carly Zavala

Chatting with Flor de Toloache and Cheo & Ulises Hadjis at the Latin Alternative Music Conference

Nearly 200 people filled the brick-walled music venue on the second floor of City Winery in Lower Manhattan on the evening of July 12 to hear a handful of up and coming acts from the indie and alternative scenes in Latin America and Spain.

The acoustic showcase was one of eight organized throughout the city by the 19th annual Latin Alternative Music Conference, a weeklong gathering of thousands of artists, industry insiders and fans attending panels, exhibitions and shows in an effort to move the genre forward.  

This show featured eight acts performing two songs each highlighting the diversity and experimentation the Latin alternative genre is known for, with sounds ranging from Cuban rap to Ecuadorian Andipop to Venezuelan duo Cheo & Ulises Hadjis, whose singles off their debut album, Dónde, consisted of only of two voices and two guitars, channeling Bill Frisell and bossa nova-like harmonies.  

The show closed with a rendition of Ismael Rivera’s “Las Caras Lindas” by New York City’s all-female mariachi group Flor de Toloache. Wearing black charro suits with silver embroidery and red roses in their hair, the group was joined by Velcro MC who added a hip-hop twist to the mariachi-stylized cover of a salsa classic.  

With the sounds of Latin America more in demand than ever, it is an exciting moment to be a Latinx artist. Cardi B’s “I Like It” featuring Colombian artist J Balvin and Puerto Rico’s Bad Bunny topped the Billboard Hot 100 Chart in early July, and only weeks before the conference, J Balvin surpassed Drake as the most streamed artist on Spotify in the world.

Flor de Toloache vocalist and vihuela player Shae Fiol hopes those mainstream triumphs will open doors for Latin artists in genres that are still growing and being defined. “There is so much music in Latin America, and there are so many things that you can do with it,” she said.

The Latin Grammy-winning Flor de Toloache bridges the gap between the traditional and current through Whitney Houston-inspired powerhouse vocals and a fresh take on mariachi that mashes-up Mexican classics with Led Zeppelin. The band’s upcoming collaborations include Diamante Eléctrico and Miguel.

Cheo (left) and Ulises Hadjis

“I believe this is a moment where a lot of people with Hispanic roots are searching for music that speaks to them,” said Cheo, a former guitarist for Los Amigos Invisibles whose real name is José Luis Pardo. He feels the heart of their music is in the lyrics, which could seem like a barrier for non-Spanish speaking audiences to fully appreciate the music. However, he added, “I work with a lot of artists as a producer, and I feel if you do something right, there will be an audience for it.” He credits streaming services and social media for getting his music to listeners across the world including non-Spanish speaking fans in Singapore.

For Hadjis, popularity and ticket sales aren’t a primary motivator. He likes the space they’ve built from themselves as indie artists. “In reality, the majority of artists who changed my life weren’t that popular,” he said.

But amidst a renaissance in Latin music, there are significant issues affecting Latino communities around the world. For artists, it can be a delicate balance responding to these issues or leaving them alone.

Both Cheo and Hadjis decided to leave Venezuela after the country’s economic downturn and growing violence made it hard for them to make a living as musicians. According to the U.S. State Department, in 2017 over 73 Venezuelans died a violent death every day.

“I believe this is a moment where a lot of people with Hispanic roots are searching for music that speaks to them.”

Hadjis subscribes to Peruvian writer and politician Mario Vargas Llosa’s philosophy that as long as a public person is politically responsible, their political opinions don’t need to permeate their work. Although he admits to weaving political messages into songs on his 2015 solo album, Pavimento, which deal with the experiences in Venezuela that led him to immigrate to Mexico, he doesn’t force it. Cheo feels timid talking about the situation in Venezuela, since he isn’t living through the day-to-day struggle.

As far as what is going on in the United States, Cheo says the growing anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies from the government are just exposing trash that has long been swept under the rug. “There are a lot of problems in the border. Kids are being put in cages. And it’s happening not because one person ordered it, but because a lot of people believe in this system.”

Hadjis believes these issues stem from nationalistic tendencies and that we need to be reflective as human beings to “not create cults around pieces of fabric—flags—and borders.”

Vocalist, violinist and founder of Flor de Toloache Mireya I. Ramos says all their members are daughters of immigrants, and they speak out on issues when they feel it’s necessary. Although their existence as a band is itself a political statement, their shows aren’t usually politically driven.

“Mostly our message is of love and unity and people coming together through music,” Ramos said. That inclusive message was summed up by the lyrics of Thursday’s closing number, which also serves as the title of their album, Las Caras Lindas. “The beautiful faces of my dark race/carry cries, grief and pain/They are the truths, that life challenges/but inside they carry much love.”