‘Break It All’ Celebrates the Oppositional Vitality of Latin Rock
Latin America took rock seriously. Serious enough for governments to suppress it. Serious enough for bands to sing about political issues, social issues, and the spirit of rebellion. Serious enough for fans to risk arrest and beatings to see a concert. While Latin rock can be entertaining – catchy, playful, wild, over the top – it is rarely satisfied with just being entertainment. There is often much more to melody, rhythm and noise.
Break It All, a six-part documentary series named after a Los Shakers song that hits Netflix on Wednesday, races through the history of rock in Latin America from the 1950s when Ritchie Valens, a California-born Mexican, transformed the traditional Mexican song “La Bamba” into an American rock’n’roll cornerstone – into the 21st century.
“Rock ‘n’ roll is a form of communication,” says Àlex Lora of the dull and exuberant Mexican hard rock band El Tri in the documentary. “And it would be illogical, since there are millions of people who speak the Cervantes language if we didn’t have our own rock and roll.”
The documentary is narrated by the artists themselves, talking about their music as well as the time they lived in. There are insights, and often considerably more, into almost every significant Latin rock figure of the last half century. The names of bands and performers race by, many of them probably unknown to listeners in the United States. For those who want to listen a second time, the documentary filmmakers have put together an accompanying playlist on Spotify under the Spanish title “Rompan Todo”.
Gustavo Santaolalla, who has won two Oscar prizes for his film music and has produced albums for rockers across Latin America, is a main driver and executive producer of “Break It All” as well as one of its music historians on-screen dozen Latin Grammy Awards. His own group, Bajofondo, which mixes tango, rock, orchestral arrangements, electronics and even a bit of disco, is nominated for a Grammy this year in the Latin Rock or Alternative Album category.
While “Break It All” moves through the decades, it juxtaposes lavish songs and concerts with contemporary images of dictatorships, coups d’état, uprisings and crises. Musician after musician defines rock as “freedom”.
“I had this idea forever,” said Santaolalla in a video interview from his Los Angeles home. “I wanted to tell this story against the background of the socio-political atmosphere of the time. Even musicians who are part of the story don’t just make that connection. But when you start to look at the bigger picture, you realize how similar the situations were and how the same things happened in many countries. “
In his youth as a long-haired rock musician, Santaolalla himself was arrested and imprisoned several times in Buenos Aires – but never, as he remembered, for more than three days. “Rock is not affiliated with any political party,” he said. “It doesn’t have a political flag. Nevertheless we were enemies of the state. “
Latin Rock, also known as Rock en Español or Latin Alternative, developed with eyes and ears on English-language rock. There’s Latin Blues-Rock, Latin Psychedelia, Latin Metal, Latin New Wave; Throughout the series, Latin American rockers quote their American and British counterparts. In a way, “Break It All” shows a Spanish-language parallel universe to rock history in the US and England, especially in the early years.
In the 1950s, bands like Los Locos del Ritmo and Los Teen Tops translated American rock and roll songs into Mexican slang. In the 1960s, bands like Los Shakers competed to sound like the Beatles.
“In our early, early, early years when we were little kids, we tried to be like the Beatles and sing in English,” Santaolalla said. “And then we realized, no, we have to sing in our language. And we have to play in our own language. “
The best Latin rockers have added local legacies to imported sounds and gone beyond imitation to innovate – bands like Soda Stereo from Argentina, Aterciopelados from Colombia and Café Tacvba from Mexico. Along with everything they have learned from rock, these bands and others draw on tango, ranchera, cumbia and numerous other indigenous styles to create hybrids that resonate with and ricochet cultural memories.
“We wanted to express ourselves – music that was made by us and talked about our daily lives,” said Rubén Albarrán, the singer of Café Tacvba, via video interview from his home in Mexico City. “We put the energy of rock music behind the concept of being questioning”, which translates as restless, worried or restless. “To move constantly and to break away from the rules of our society.”
“Break It All” jumps more or less chronologically from country to country, but focuses on Mexico and Argentina. “There is great music all over the region, but I like to think of these countries as a battery,” said Santaolalla. “One pole is Mexico and the other is Argentina, the north and the south. Mexico is closer to the US and Argentina is closer to the UK in terms of sound and perspective. “
The documentary traces cycles of expansion, repression and recovery, growing ambition and expanded connections. Under dictatorships, rock was temporarily forced underground. In Argentina, rock disappeared from television and radio after singer Billy Bond encouraged an arena crowd to “break everything” and the audience smashed seats. Admission projects had to be submitted to government committees. In Mexico, the country’s rockers were defamed for more than a decade – and by – after a festival modeled on Woodstock, Avándaro, 1971, in which the band Peace and Love declaimed songs like “Marihuana” and “We Got the Power” excluded from mainstream performance rooms and used profanity during a live radio broadcast that was immediately interrupted.
But the musicians persisted and the audience supported them. Mexican rock resurfaced when radio stations played Spanish-language rock from other countries and Mexican labels wanted their own market share. Argentine rock got an unlikely boost when English rock was banned from Argentina’s airwaves after Britain’s victory in the Falklands War in 1982.
The arrival of MTV Latin America in 1993 brought a new, cross-border solidarity with Latin rock. Musicians became more aware of kindred spirits abroad; They realized that they were not fighting alone. Individual or national missions felt like a movement. And they had many goals: authoritarian governments, economic turmoil. The music continued to question one another – with electronics and hip-hop – and began, albeit belatedly, to recognize the ideas and voices of women.
Latin rock never broke the language barrier to reach the English-speaking audience in the US. This current commercial breakthrough belongs to reggaeton and the vague Latin American genre Urbano, both of which are largely based on hip-hop and reggae.
“In my 50 years I’ve heard the phrase ‘rock is dead’, ‘rock is done’ so many times,” said Santaolalla. “When we started the show three years ago, I said that Rock was hibernating. But now I say Rock is in quarantine. I believe the future of rock lies with women and in the developing world – they will be the pillars of rock. They’ll bring the vaccine. “