Underground Rock: Kicked but Not Beaten
IN Costa Rica, the true punks don’t always dance. They don’t have to hop or head-bang or even smoke cigarettes during concerts.Take, for example, a recent show at the indie theater Sala Calle 15 in San José, where the stage is suited to smalltime relationship comedy plays and barely squeezes a five-piece band between its horseshoe of front-row seats.Some of the listeners were the vanguard of the pierced and tattooed throngs, some were college students, some were artsy semi-employed punks, some were high-school kids venturing beyond the stifling proliferation of reggaetón in clubs and on the radio, some were among the table-waiting, bartending, bass-playing, garage band underground, and others were aspiring members of the workaday world. They were some 40 teenagers and 20-somethings sitting quietly in theater seats taking in a few sets by Psicodelisco, a punk and semi-ska group fronting a cute, subculture couple on lead vocals and guitar.WITH the closure this year of Boogie, one of San José’s most punk- and metal-sympathetic concert venues, bands are hard up to find stages and blighted by the absence of lights and sound systems.“Music here is not in a good place – there are not a lot of places to play, and not many bands are getting out. There’s interest – lots of people listen, but their support goes outside (the country), not inside,” Mauricio Fernández, of underground production company Vieja Escuela, told The Tico Times.The true core of the fan base are kids who sit quietly in a smoke-free theater, or lean against the wall in a family style restaurant and bar at noon on a Saturday to enjoy the music for its own sake, because none of the frills of rock are available.Logistically, dancing is sometimes out of the question, half the bands and their fans are too young to buy liquor, and a rough survey of the situation suggests these bands are not the coked-up widespread-follower-mongering degenerates of international fame.Some look the part, but the thrust is more toward a profound appreciation of often bad, though sometimes high-quality, music, without the usual trappings of the punk and metal scene.WHAT the country lacks in venues it makes up for in number of bands.“For a small country there are a lot of bands here,” indie rock band Savia’s bass player Felipe Dobles said, then admitted, “Most of them aren’t that good.”Punk and metal here is in its infancy, “still raw and undeveloped,” he said. “But there are and have been some great bands that would hold their own on the international scene, but they’re not known because of the lack of funding and opportunities to promote themselves. The big producers don’t pay attention to the underground culture of rock music in Costa Rica, and I think there’s been a lot of wasted talent.”After “Qué chiva, mae,” which is a compliment, lack of funding is one of the first things out of the mouths of producers and bands talking about a concert. Most concerts are like house parties with above-average speakers and a rented sound guy, but none of the lights, steam, powerhouses of sound or even stages that define the lowliest rock shows in North America.That’s what makes Costa Rican fans, and bands, so admirable. Bands play in spite of the amateurish equipment, and fans turn out by the dozens in the middle of the day to take in shows at bars that won’t touch punk, death metal, hard-core or anything that won’t pack their tables with pleasant, beer-buying droves at night. Judging by the musical tide these days, it looks like any time a bar with a stage catches a whiff of something other than reggaetón, it turns up its nose.ONE of the hurdles bands face here is disorganization. “There’s not a consolidated music market in Costa Rica regarding CD productions or band productions. It’s rudimentary still,” Dobles said. There may be schisms between the punks, the psychobilly rockers, the metalheads and the progressive rockers, for example, but a tiny sector of producers and music recorders is working against that tide.Destiny Recordings (www.destinyrecordings.net) produced a disc that could nearly compete with the mega international labels, the freshman effort of former Christian hard-core band Días de Agonía (www.diasdeagonia.com). Though the band may have dropped its religious angle, its lyrics retain some of the starkness of Biblical language and end-of-days rhetoric evidenced in the title of the first song, “Sleeping in the Ashes of Creation.” The sound, though, is a guitar and guttural vocal-driven wall of noise that approaches Satanism as nearly as any sound could embody a religion.Ideologically, the band members espouse the straightedge school of thought – no drugs, liquor or tobacco, and they don’t eat meat. The doomsday tilt is focused not on the four horsemen but on the ecological destruction people have wrought.The production company has distributed the disc through contacts it has in Chile, Argentina, Spain, even Poland and Malaysia. Now it is recording another metal band, Inersia, and leaning on radio stations to play the music, with only a little interest so far.The production company would like to open its own recording studio and found a sociedad anónima – private company – to buy sound equipment and lights for shows.“I think people are starting to realize what we’re trying to do. They’re seeing that we don’t do it for the money –we’re losing money,” co-owner Alejandro Guerrero said. He has a day job at a sportsbook, or online gambling company. IN a joint venture with Vieja Escuela, the two producers are paving the road for California punk band Strung Out to play in Costa Rica Nov. 27, and, true to form, a gaggle of local bands, including Dobles’ Savia and another locally respected group, Macbeth, will open the show. It will also feature a Nicaraguan band, Q69K, and a Panamanian band, Ponche, to round out the regional presence.Vieja Escuela has represented and promoted about 70 bands in the three years since its inception. Its tactics are both conventional and Internet-based, but on the cheap, regardless. The producer’s five members, all with day jobs, plaster the college-kid hangouts on Calle la Amargura, a bar-laden street near the University of Costa Rica in San Pedro, east of San José, and bulletin boards at hip joints throughout the city with fliers, stickers and posters. They also push bands, shows and parties on their Web site, www.viejaescuela.netfirms.com.They are rock idealists in their 20s, prone to eulogizing the underground rock scene as an engine of solidarity and a catalyst for social change.“If there’s a way to say something, it’s through the music,” Fernández said. Vieja Escuela ropes in the countercultures – the skin- heads, the anarchists and the counterintuitive punk devotees, the straightedge kids.The punk band Evidencias, for example, laces its lyrics with inspiration for personal growth, and once served soy hamburgers and hot dogs at a show.IN U.S. expat Marcos Monnerat’s homegrown recording studio La Alternativa (238-3316), upstart bands and anyone with a guitar and some pocket change record their songs, and distribute them at shows.They’re “garage-type high-school bands or bands that are made up of people’s old high-school bands and are having a second life,” Monnerat said. “It’s not like they’re horrible recordings or anything like that, but compared to, like, a Green Day album, you won’t get anything like that.”He began recording songs for less money than bigger studios and with better equipment than guys with a laptop in their living rooms. Along with the rest of the underground music aficionados in Costa Rica, he has struggled against the monumental forces of Latin pop and producers and venue owners who won’t take risks to bring something fresh to the musical culture.The bar El Yos (283-0095), in Los Yoses, east of downtown San José, is one of the occasional small halls of rock. Other Web sites with band and show information are www.culturarock.net, and production company 89 Decibeles’ site, www.89decibeles.com.
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