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The Rock Scene in Puerto Rico

Norenid Feliciano is a 19-year-old musician currently studying journalism at the Río Piedras campus of the University of Puerto Rico. The original post is available in Spanish at her weblog, Háblame de Música.

It's Friday, getting close to 10 at night, and in the “pub” begins the distortion of the guitars and the shrill sound of the drums. After a minute, it's impossible to not move and feel awakened by this music that synchronizes my feelings and makes me follow the beat and caustic poetry until I slip away into the agressive swaying of the solos. It's an outlet, it's a night of rock.

Each generation has its musical favorite and in Puerto Rico, we're no exception. However, our country is a crossroads of all sorts of genres and so it's not odd that we have been influenced by the most famous musical genre of the world: rock. Since the 1950's rock music has been heard on our radio waves and, just like the rest of the world, we were jolted by the dominating “Beatle-mania” of the sixties. In the seventies, a type of rock which was heavier and more charged with socially aware lyrics began to surge.

The Impact of MTV

With its founding on the first of August, 1981, MTV forever changed the North American music industry. And this had its effect on the Puerto Rican youth of the 80's. With the boom of the so-called “pop culture” a revolution was started that modified rock music. Thanks to MTV's broadcasts, we were introduced to groups like Metallica, Iron Maiden, Motley Crew, Judas Priest, Twisted Sister, Scorpions, Bon Jovi, as well as many others that developed “Metal” as a genre of rock.

Heavy metal, beginning in Los Angeles and San Francisco, California, had much influence in the 80's. It was a modification of rock that had been popularized by Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. With more aggressiveness in the chords and a distinct way of singing, metal became a favorite genre of many Americans. It was an era of excesses in North America indebted to the boom of so-called “Hairbands,” a name which alludes to the way they wore their hair: long and eccentrically styled.

It was in the 90's, with the surge of a new genre called “Grunge,” that the characteristic sound of pop rock changed and another series of variations within the genre commenced. However, because of the band Nirvana – which practically established a rock hymn with their song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in 1992 – the metal scene in the U.S. began to change. Eighties metal groups had to adapt to the rock revolution which started in Seattle, Washington by similar successful bands like Pearl Jam.

After “Grunge” – a type of music that combines strong guitar distortion with sad yet agressive lyrics and melodies – rock music has become something else.

The Scene

Invaded by musical history and seduced by new proposals, in Puerto Rico there is a group of young people that aren't just fans of rock, but also play it and want to develop the genre.

Groups like “La Secta” and “Circo” are currently receiving much attention, but they're not representative of the groups that comprise Puerto Rico's rock scene. But, just what is a “scene”?

It is a group of local rock artists that don't rely on the economic support of any kind. They're not marketed by some record company. And they play original music. According the the Puerto Rican guitarist, Paco Cestero, the musicians of the scene “are there for themselves. They make the music for themselves, not for the people.” Cestero, 32-years-old, expressed that the scene's artists try to continue making their music not to please the industry, nor the expectant fans, but rather towards the end of creating genuine music.

Many times, marked by stereotypes, Puerto Rican rock musicians are seen in a unfavorable light. Cestero, who is one of the most impressive guitarists in the country for his technique, said that many times people degrade the musical talent of a rock musician with expressions like, “Rocker … ah, that's not a real musician”

Even though the view of rock musicians is polarized, Puerto Rican rock has many followers but the situation for the musician who plays in a band and simply wants to live a life of music is difficult. It could be said that it is practically impossible. Many of the bars or clubs decide to let original bands play only with the condition that they are paid only a portion of what is earned in entrance fees. It sounds reasonable if it were only one band playing, but the reality is the three to five bands play in one night and must divide the earnings.

Guitarist Julián Acosta Cooper declared that “rarely does a bar pay original bands to play. What they do is give what they collect at the door and the business earns its money with the consumption of the drinks.” Acosta Cooper, a 19-years-old student of Computer Sciences at the University of Puerto Rico in Bayamón, commented that “when a band is played often on the radio, well, they can charge. But for us, depending on the show, sometimes we're not paid anything.”

There are always exceptions and in Puerto Rico there are still some establishments that pay original bands. Hard Rock Café in Old San Juan and Elvis Pub in Orocovis are two of the few places that are fair to the bands.

The Media

They need to be “pegado,” or “stuck in the heads of listeners” to be able to charge, but how are the bands going to be heard if they don't have the space? On the subject Cestero, who currently plays with the bands “Errant Society” and “All That I Bleed” among others, argued that “… “On the radio in Puerto Rico nobody hears Metal. There aren't any radio stations in Puerto Rico that give a space for Metal to be heard except for a few weekly little programs. And there are so many bands that, believe me, it's as if there were no exposure at all.”

Because of the situation the rockers maintain an “underground” scene that, although it has its followers, is limited. Also, many bands have opted to compose songs in English with the hopes of promoting their music in other markets since they feel that there is no commercial space in Puerto Rico for Progressive Rock, Hard Core, and other genres.

Breaking Through

Christian Muñoz Olmeda, the leader of the local band, The Redflux, made clear that “we are not doing this for money,” but rather to spread their musical art and transmit a message to society.

One initiative of this 24-year-old young man was to create an event by the name of “Made Here: Metallic and Social.” The event was carried out in the venue of the “Puerto Rican Athenian” on the 29th of October, 2005 with the participation of five bands: The Redflux, Serpenta, IRA, La Maldad Campesina and Tavú. All of the bands play original songs with social and political themes.

It should be noted that the event organized by Muñoz Olmeda was the first rock concert to be held at the Puerto Rican Athenian and had a record attendance of more than 340 people. The singer emphasized the attendance, explaining that regularly, the shows in clubs attract between 40 and 60 people.

The fact that it has produced an event that demonstrates the seriousness and social conscience of the musicians should start eliminating, little by little, the already established stereotypes and serve as a catalyst to the movement.

Those interviewed consider that the rock scene of Puerto Rico is better than it once was because it has incorporated more bands and more followers, however what is really worrying is that within the scene, there exists divisions and the support is not sturdy. This is contrary to what is occurring in genres like Reggaeton. In general terms, the rockers hope that their situation improves and that they are recognized as creators of musical art.

Translation by David Sasaki

21 comments

  • Here in the Caribbean, Trinidad also has a substantial rock scene. Caribbean Beat ran a feature about this in the March/April 2005 issue, which includes an interview with Gary Hector, frontman of now-resurrected jointpop; and in May/June 2004 the magazine also profiled Orange Sky, a Trini rock band who went on to release an international album in 2005.

  • I have heard of this band Orange Sky. Now I just need to actually hear them.

  • Tamara

    Interesting blog. It was a very informative read. I’ve been listening to a lot of international music lately. I want to broaden my musical knowledge. I discovered a great Puerto Rican artist named Zayra Alavarez. She’s totally unique and awesome.

    http://i35.photobucket.com/albums/d161/bratchick/zayra_english.jpg
    http://www.zayra.net

  • Alex aka Sicosis

    Hello to all, I live in Puerto Rico and Im a guitar player and a great followe of the puerto rican metal scene. And yes we really dont get the respect nor the support we need. Many people just dont even listen to us and already say were not even a genre of music. We got more talent in one finger that most people got in their entire body, for example as a “caco” to play a solo on any instrument…he`ll say: “solo? whats that?”. You consider them more a musician than us? We are real artist and we should demand to be treated like that. Thats why rockers dont support Puerto Rico, becuase they dont support us. thank you for reading this and have a good day.

    • Dede Vidal

      I know your feeling. Unfortunately, no one is a prophet in their home land. You need to go out of Puerto Rico to make a name for yourself before you make it bit in the Shinning Star of the Caribbean. Sad, but true :(

  • Carlos Garcia

    Puerto Rico loves rock, but us locals refuse to be taken advantage of. Bon Jovi is playing here as part of something called the San Juan Music Festival which is being presented by some promoters who we never heard of. The problem is that Bon Jovi is playing for ONLY 60 MINUTES-just one lousy hour and without their normal big scenery and lighting. The other six bands are either the usual local bands, or bands from the states that nobody here knows. They are asking us to pay $250 for the decent seats and for some unknown reason, it’s being held at that awful outdoor garbage dump called Hiram Bithorn Stadium, otherwise known as the “Rain Bowl”, or better yet, “Toilet Bowl”! Why only 60 minutes and why Bithorn when we now have the new indoor Choliseo arena where the Stones, Aerosmith and Van Halen performed? There’s no way me or any of my friends are going to pay $250 to hang out all night at that garbage dump, enduring all those other bands and then only getting just ONE HOUR of Bon Jovi! Who are they trying to fool? We think this festival is a ripoff and shows disrespect to the rock community in PR. We’re not going!

  • Jose Jimenez

    Carlos, you are crazy! One of the hottest acts in the world is coming here and you are disrecpecting this show? For your information, Bon Jovi is performing mostly outdoor only festival style shows. So get your facts straight buddy and go enjoy the show.

  • Harry Montalvo

    Carlos, your favorite key must be F minor. You know nothing about music if you think this show is a rip off, please stay home and listen to your Menudo cassetts with your friends!!!!

  • Ed Lover

    This Carlos guy is a bit misinformed. 60 minutes is just a contract thing all the daddy pants musicians have. I work for a five star hotel in the US and we have a guest who flys in Elton John to play for “one hour” at a million dollars for a private 100person party. Now Carlos would lead you to believe that for a million Elton just cruises after an hour , I know first hand that just isn’t the case. All I can say is me and about ten of my friends are spending airfare, hotel and the $250 for tickets just to get down to sweet PR and hang with the bands. If you don’t like the show don’t go, but don’t ruin everybody’s good time. Peace

  • Myles Blair

    Glad to hear others are making the trip from outside Puerto Rico. My wife and I are traveling from NY for the weekend. I can’t think of a better way than hanging at the beach all day and then listening to 6 hours of great music.

  • Stateside Girl

    Well, I’m flying down from the States, so I’m hoping Bon Jovi is playing more than one hour. Nonetheless, I’ve never been to Puerto Rico and I’m excited to go check out Old San Juan, the culture and the beaches.

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