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Rock en Espanol

LETAL paves the way for Raleigh's Latin rock underground

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Latin ska emanates from unit 318, where a few cars, pickup trucks and a small audience drinking Coronas have converged in the light of a full moon to listen to an impromptu rehearsal of LETAL.

"This is garage band at its best," says one bystander who prefers to remain anonymous. "I don't speak any Spanish," he says, "but these guys rock."

On my way here, I ran across two other bands practicing this Tuesday night at "Am-play" [Ample] Storage, off New Bern Avenue in Raleigh--a white rock band of some order, and a Latino tropical band that was just packing up. Seems like a friendly neighborhood; both of them directed me farther down the hill to LETAL's little piece of rent-a-shed heaven.

The tropical band, it turns out, is Punto Final--they play at salsa clubs like La Maraca and the Bravo Bravo Cafe (I remember that their singer is Colombian and likes Grupo Niche covers). "Last weekend we did a gig at the Fairgrounds for Dia De Las Madres," they tell me as they wind electrical cords.

In my search for a homegrown Triangle Latin rock band, I have found that sonidos (deejays), mariachis and tropical bands make up the bulk of the local for-hire Latin music industry. But try to hire a band without cowboy boots, accordions or bongos for your next wedding or quincenera and you'll be nearly fresh out of luck.

Local radio programming is the same story, according to La Ley 96.9 FM General Manager John Hernandez.

"We experimented with it in the beginning but it really was not a hit," he explains. "We do include some of it. Mana has a tune that crosses over. Hispanics do have a rock taste, but it's not that big in this area."

But there is a Latin rock underground out there, guys (mostly) who collect fanzines from Mexico and watch rock concerts from Latin America live on satellite TV.

Even a lot of devotees of salsa, cumbia and nortena listen to Rock en Espanol at least part of the time. As the lead guitarist from Maldita Vecindad (one of Mexico's most important rock bands) explains in a 1995 fanzine, Latin rock expresses the hybridity of everyday life in the "bad neighborhoods" they grew up in.

"Our whole life has been an involuntary mixture of many cultures. You're a hybrid, you're a reflection of how your country is."

A tip through the musician's grapevine finally led me to a local exponent of garage Rock en Espanol: Ivan Ramirez, LETAL's bass player, vocalist and guitarist. The 37-year-old Peruvian native has been playing music for 25 years, including a stint in Japan.

"Our president is half Japanese so we have good relations with Japan," he explains. "I played in maybe 30 bands, too many bands." One, he recalls, was a heavy metal outfit in Yokohama called X.

LETAL [which means lethal], he tells me on the other hand, "stands for Latinos Estamos Todos Aliados--Latinos We Are All United." I halfway believe him. An acronym as a band name is often the cart before horse, but it makes a good story, and like every good story, there's some truth at the heart of it. Latin metal would be a better description--"Two years ago we played a Halloween party dressed liked Kiss," says guitarist Alex Mesplede--but the cosmopolitan force of modern rock certainly does create a sense of common identity for many Latin Americans. In LETAL, Ramirez is joined by the 27-year-old Mesplede from Guatemala, whose father is French, and drummer Nicolas Bicental, the band's wild child at 23, from a German-Jewish emigre family in Uruguay.

LETAL's covers catalog spans the well-trodden ground of American and Spanish-language rock, from Ozzy, Van Halen and Iron Maiden, to Santana, Mana and Soda Stereo. But they also put their own twist on "underground" names in Latin rock and '80s thrash/metal--like Chile's Coprofago, Brazil's Sepultura, Mexico's Brujeria, and--most intriguing of all--a Puerto Rican salsa/heavy metal band called Puya.

Meanwhile, back at the shed, I hear them rehearse "Smoke on the Water" (an essential entry, along with "Hotel California," on every foreign jukebox I've ever seen), a catchy number called "Cuando Seas Grande" [When You Grow Up] by Miguel Mateos, "El Hombre Lobo En Paris" [Werewolf in Paris--La Union's Spanish takeoff on Warren Zevon], and an original song, "Cuando Estamos Solos"[When We Are Alone].

"[Other Latin bands] always play salsa, merengue, bachata, all that shit, but they never play rock," says Ramirez. "We are the precursors in Raleigh."

"People here think rock is just American culture," adds Mesplede. "They don't know about us yet. If we promote Spanish rock culture, people will learn about us."

Ramirez, having worked up a serious sweat on this night that is still rather chilly for late spring, takes a less diplomatic view of me and my amateur taping session: "Did you record that? I'll kill you if you didn't record that."

LETAL is starting to play out including what the band hopes will be a regular, monthly gig at Bakus on Durham's Ninth Street. For bookings contact Ivan Ramirez at 369-4969. EndBlock

You can reach Sylvia Pfeiffenberger at spike@duke.edu .

Hear excepts from a recent from LETAL gig in Cary: www.indymusicawards.com/resources

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