Mestizo, in the Spanish language, was traditionally used to refer to people of mixed race, as in the son of a Spanish conquistador and native Amerindian mother. Nowadays, the term is more commonly used when talking about music. In the mid-Nineties, música mestiza evolved as an umbrella term in Spain for the new wave of artists who mixed traditional Latin genres with music that originated in the English-speaking northern hemisphere: punk, rock, rap, reggae, funk — you name it. It skyrocketed in popularity when Manu Chao's former band Mano Negra crossed over to global exposure. Its current titan, Bruno Garcia (aka Sergent Garcia) descends on the East Bay this week. His style represents an odd contradiction: a movement to "re-Latinize" Latino music, spearheaded entirely by European artists.
Like Manu Chao, Garcia came from the French underground punk rock scene, although his parents were Spanish. He took his stage name from a character in Zorro and launched his career around the same time that Manu Chao went solo. The artists had other commonalities, like their mutual adoration for a certain British punk outfit. "I'd say The Clash was one of the most relevant bands of the second half of the past century," Bruno Garcia contended. "[The Clash] was a musical laboratory, a source of ideas, of style, and political stand."
He's certainly not alone in making that argument. In fact, many point to The Clash as the original seed of the whole mestizo movement that reshaped Latin American rock in the past two decades. It's just one indicator of the degree to which British and American pop groups have influenced their Latin counterparts. For most of the past century, Latino youth tried to emulate the sound and aesthetics of the successful American or British bands, disregarding their own traditions and musical cultures. In retrospect, it seems like a profound paradox of the colonial mentality that still reigns in the Americas: The approval to use local Latin rhythms had to come from European artists. Thus, mestizo music began, ironically, with The Clash. Then came Manu Chao, then Sergent Garcia.
"It's an interesting phenomenon," Garcia said, phoning in from his second home in Valencia, Spain, while preparing for his current North American tour. "For us, in the Eighties, [Latino music] represented some sort of rebel culture," he added. "We were listening to musicians like Rubén Blades or Willie Colón, who in Europe were virtually unknown." In other words, while kids in Mexico City or Buenos Aires were struggling to sound like U2 or The Cure, his friends in Europe were idealizing Latin music. "Then people in Latin America started to hear the mixes we were doing with [their own] music, and suddenly realized, 'But of course! We have all that here, it's us!' and they started exploring their own roots."
A born globetrotter, Garcia hasn't stopped traveling through the Americas and recording with local musicians since his 2003 album La Semilla Escondida. "On that one I worked with guest musicians from Cuba and Jamaica," he said. "Later I went to Mexico to record Mascaras with [producer] Toy Selectah, and from there, the next obvious step was Colombia."
Since cumbia crossed over to the global DJ scene in 2008, there has been an unprecedented international interest in Colombian music, with an avalanche of DJ and collector-oriented reissues and compilations of classic, but virtually forgotten Afro-Colombian music, released for the first time in both Europe and the United States. Sergent Garcia, who likes to label his musical fusion as "salsamuffin," was traditionally more inclined toward the salsa side of tropical Latin music, but in recent years he shifted toward cumbia. Two years ago he released an EP titled Cumbiamuffin, which included remixes and new versions of his classic songs in cumbia style.
His most recent album, Una y Otra Vez, is a continuation of Cumbiamuffin, but with all new material. The album was recorded in Colombia with local guest musicians, including luminaries from the new-cumbia scene like Bomba Estéreo's Liliana Saumet. "I'm really happy with the attention that Colombian music is currently receiving, because it deserves it," Garcia said. "Since my early years in punk rock I was already interested in Colombian music, and we would listen to a lot of Discos Fuentes," he added, referring to a popular Colombia-based record label. "But I didn't know about the new school of Colombian musicians that I met when I got there.
Sergent Garcia always tried to define his own genre, rather than use the mestizo term — hence "salsamuffin," "cumbiamuffin," and whatever comes next ("Brazil, maybe," he speculates). "Sure, if we have to call it something, call it 'mestizo,'" he offered. Nonetheless, he approaches the genre with grudging ambivalence. "I think we all are mestizos and all of us do some kind of mestizo music."