All photos by Carolina Sanchez
On a beautiful bright day, Ruido Fest returned to Addams/Medill park in Chicago's long established Latinx enclave of Pilsen. Watched over by the Chicago skyline, Helado Negro opened up the largest of the three-day festival's stages Friday, crooning and playing guitar over indie beats that owe more to Afro-Latin sounds than North American ones. His silver-streamer suited dancers ("tinsel mammals") flashed in the sun and his small but appreciative audience loved it when he worked the line "Chicago is young, Latin, and proud" into his rendition of his song, "Young, Latin, and Proud."
The Brooklyn-based solo artist—whose given name is Roberto Carlos Lange—is one example of one kind of act that you can expect to encounter at the now two-year-old event, which bills itself as a Latin alternative music festival. He is the American-born son of Ecuadorian immigrants, who sings in both English and Spanish and who has become a bit of a critical darling for his left-of-center but exquisitely crafted electronic music. Quite a few artists at Ruido, such as the aforementioned Helado Negro and Costa Rican garage rockers Las Robertas, will be familiar to avid readers of English music publications. Quite a few others really ought to be.
Chilean duo Marineros, for one, coolly split the difference between beat-driven dream pop and noisy rock in their emotionally precise songs about secrets and dangerous love. They quickly drew a swarm early on Sunday, only the first six or so rows of which seemed composed of the already converted. A little later that day, a duo from Argentina called Ibiza Pareo, soundtracked an 80s Caribbean fantasy with glowing synths and layered rhythms. The day before, Mexican quartet Vaya Futuro combined guitar subgenres from Krautrock to plain noise with long spacey sojourns into a hypnotic sound you could call desert shoegaze.
Gabriel Montes from Sexy Zebras
Barriers like language, limited channels of distribution, and certain prejudices against bands from outside the English speaking world or Europe, prevent some really fantastic bands from reaching audiences outside of Latin America and the Spanish speaking Latinx community in the US. Not that those bands necessarily need to for the sake of their own careers, but the quality of the international musical conversation (and festival circuit) suffers for it, particularly in the US. With all the technology at our disposal for disseminating music, very often these things still come down to a group finding the right booking agent, and then getting their visas approved. Festivals like Ruido, like all festivals, can help by giving bands the opportunity to build tours around their festival date and creating the conditions for groups to build connections and exchanges between music scenes in different countries.
Many of the bands on the bill this year were from Mexico, perhaps reflecting the large Mexican-American community in Chicago, but bands from across the Spanish speaking world performed as well as bands from across the US. Some of the US-based, such as Divino Niño, were based in Chicago with members who hail from Colombia. The quintet's psych pop topped with a melting rainbow of vocal harmonies sounded ready for way bigger stages than the small Toyota branded platform they played on Friday.
Speaking of Mexican bands, Mexrissey is the controversial but charming all-Morissey and The Smiths covers supergroup, which was founded by Mexican Institute of Sound's Camilo Lara and features other Mexican greats like Ceci Bastida. The group reimagines Morrissey songs in Spanish and mixes in a little Mariachi-style trumpet and vihuela. The idea of Johnny Marr reborn as a Mariachi is seductive, and, considering that the people of Mexico have essentially canonized Moz, this band was bound to happen sometime. Still, in their stretchy embroidered mariachi pants and matching T-shirts, it was also easy to see why some people in Mexico find the project ridiculous.
Cer from Marineros
Also from Mexico, but much less divisive, Le Butcherettes played a set of punk blues that was made for big outdoor stages. Frontwoman Teri Gender Bender galvanized the audience with a surreal, powerful, and truly gender-bending performance. Her vocals combined the best qualities of Grace Slick, Beth Ditto, and Robert Plant. Her charisma is a little Kathleen Hanna, and sometimes a lot Jim Morrison and Johnny Rotten, with Alice Cooper's flair for the campy and bizarre. All of it is driven by her own fearless intellect, which is reflected in lyrics that deal ferociously with feminine experiences. She ended her set with the master rock star move of stage diving after the band had stopped playing—in her red dress and matching pumps. More than one woman I talked to afterward marveled at the clean beauty of her anger, which they enjoyed for its lack of toxicity.
The real bold faced names (and draws) at Ruido were reggae bands like Chile's Gondwana, who replaced La Ley after the original Chilean headliner canceled, and three of the all-time greats of Latin alternative: Mexico's Maldita Vecindad, Colombia's Aterciopelados, and Argentina's Los Fabulosos Cadillacs. Aterciopelados, fronted by the fascinating Andrea Echeverri, thoroughly supported their claim to rock royalty on the final day of the festival. Echeverri started the show in a fuzzy tiger striped shrug and wound up sporting a headdress of fabric clouds with a sparkling rainbow on top and playing a matching guitar. The loopy brilliance of her classic music matched too.
The brand presence this year did cut into the experience a bit. Where last year the stages were named for Lucha Libre stars, this year they were named for multinationals like AT&T. The Toyota stage area was curiously tiny compared to the area set aside for an open air Toyota showroom. When Silverio started his set on the diminutive stage it was entirely engulfed by his adoring fan base. The Mexican showman spazzed out to electroclash beats while gradually stripping down to nothing but his red underpants, mustache and bowl cut and shouting things at crowd that are better left untranslated. He's incredibly lovable. His fans showed their love by lobbing their drinks at him and losing their minds.
Andrea Echeverri from Aterciopelados
Jack Daniels branded games of cornhole aside, Ruido is a welcome departure from the self-similar line-ups, "festival fashion," and insensitive headdresses that make gringo festival culture so unappealing.
Also, to its great credit, besides being located in Pilsen, it's relatively affordable, near public transportation, and family friendly (everything is over before 10 PM). This year, the midway featured Twix and Dr. Pepper, but also a voter registration table, health information booths, and local community organizers and artists. The local (mainly) Mexican food vendors serving tacos, arepas and aguas frescas, and the luchador exhibition need to be factored in too.
If the festival-made environment left something to be desired, the mostly Latinx attendees themselves and the artists on stage worked together to make the festival a true happening, one that represented cultural pride and the history of an area that is in danger of losing its identity to gentrification. On Sunday, Silverio did his thing for a second time in a slot originally meant for Chilean musician Mon Laferte, who was unable to make it to the festival. Hoisting his anti-music, anti-clothing flag high, he took to the Coors stage flanked by banners bearing his emblem, a pair of red men's bikini briefs, and accompanied by a color guard of sorts: two women wearing red panties and lobbing more red drawers into the crowd. Bellowing through a vocoder that made him sound like Darth Vader, he transformed himself into a headliner.
Teri Gender Bender Le Butcherettes
This time, the crowd formed a relentless circle pit about the size of a swimming pool and launched untold tall boys at the stage. Silverio has a special, sweaty bond with his Chicago fans, perhaps because the ritual of his sets combines a sense of humor with an invitation to rage. "People like aggressiveness here. They want to get it out, especially the guys. They keep a lot inside," observed attendee Ismael Cuevas, regarding Chicago's love for Silverio, who returns to the city often. The context for this, of course, is that Chicago has the third largest Latinx population in the US, but this group is marginalized and often invisible in a city struggling with staggering rates of violence. "They don't have a voice, but here is where they have a voice," Cuevas added.
Other festivals like Ruido are appearing across the US, serving the young Latinx demographic that no marketer needs to be reminded is growing. Rock Fiesta, a camp-out style weekend festival in Quartzite, Arizona launched this year with a focus on big names in Rock en español. Others, like Viva Pomona and the eclectic Neon Desert Festival in El Paso, headlined this year by Daddy Yankee, book a mix of Latinx and Anglo artists that wholeheartedly acknowledges the cultural diversity of their cities. It's extremely tempting to hope that this trend—however market driven—will provide more space for Latinx youth in the US to be seen, heard, and to party together.
Beverly Bryan is a writer based in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter.
Carolina Sanchez is a photographer based in Chicago. Follow her on Instagram.