So often, we in the English-speaking world believe we’ve got a lock on music. We created rock, indie pop, jazz, blues, and funk; we initiate broad changes in genre; we usher in new eras. It’s hard not to believe, when you can hear Adele singing out of taxicab radios from Paris to Philadelphia.
Last week, in the midst of the gazillion bands at SXSW representing every imaginable pop style (and many you’ve never imagined at all), a band called Vetusta Morla took the stage. Vetusta Morla are a Spanish indie rock group, wildly successful in their native country, and at SXSW they helped represent a taste of the world beyond our linguistic shores. Following their stint in Austin, they come to U Street Music Hall on Wednesday night, bringing Washington a sampling of what Spaniards have been listening to for years. Vetusta Morla offer the type of show that forces listeners to recognize their own brand of musical chauvinism. This stuff doesn’t fall under that broad and lumpy term “world music.” It’s rock. And it’s good, you’ll quickly realize, even if it takes you a moment to understand what they’re saying. Their style borrows from a million genres; in a recent Univision interview the band listed influences ranging from Cuban to reggae to funk to rock to African to flamenco. Their words can be dark, but their beat is hardly morose.
Vetusta Morla–who named themselves after the turtle in the book The Neverending Story–are exactly the kind of unlikely, independent rock success story that makes for glossy music-mag hagiographies. A group of friends from Tres Cantos, a small town about 22 kilometers from Madrid, met and began to play together in the 1990s. In 2006, frustrated by rejection from the mainstream music scene, they formed their own label, Pequeño Salto Mortal, to avoid having to conform to any one standard or to the whims of the industry, and thus get around the problems all young artists have being seen and heard. Two years later they were the most popular band in Spain. Their 2008 disc, Un Día en el Mundo, went gold, and 2011’s Mapas went platinum. They benefited from a moment when the Spanish public was eager for–and receptive to–new Spanish indie pop that wasn’t Top 40 (think Juanes, Shakira, or David Bisbal) but had the same cool underground sound as their favorite English-language acts. There are others that fit this bill–cool new artists such as Francisco Nixon and Tulsa, with great, witty lyrics and tunes that keep you humming for hours.
“Vetusta Morla is probably the Spanish indie band of the moment, a perfect representative of a music scene that has gotten much more interesting in the past few years, ” wrote Guillermo Corral, the Spanish cultural counselor at the Spanish Embassy, in an e-mail. This scene, Corral says, includes “lots of new bands from all over the country, a strong emphasis on lyrics, and an international yet distinctively Spanish sound. It’s an exciting trend that is getting increased attention in the United States. Vetusta Morla is the tenth Spanish band playing in DC just in the past 12 months.”
A recent show in Madrid–at a far, far larger venue than U Hall, had this bemused, if friendly, headline in Rolling Stone‘s Spanish edition: “El público les adora, adoptan maneras de grupo grande (para lo bueno y lo malo) y consiguen, con facilidad, convertir un teatro en un karaoke colectivo,” which translates as, “The public adores them, they’ve adopted the mannerisms of a large group (for better and for worse), and they can, with ease, convert a theater into collective karaoke.” The review goes on to say that they’re “no fad” but their moment has arrived. Which means it might be a good time to discover them.
Vetusta Morla plays U Street Music Hall this Wednesday, March 21, at 7 PM, presented in conjunction with the 9:30 Club and Spain Arts & Culture. Tickets ($15) are available through U Hall’s website.