Astor Piazzolla is the most famous musician Argentina has ever produced. The late composer and bandoneon player earned an international reputation when he took the tango, the home-grown music of Buenos Aires' bordellos, and revitalized it by breaking all of its accepted rules. By giving the tango the precision of European chamber music and the elasticity of NorthAmerican jazz, Piazzolla created a distinctively Argentine art and took it around the world.
So it makes a certain weird sense that Argentina's biggest rock band, Fabulosos Cadillacs, collaborated with the late composer's pianist, Pablo Ziegler, on the group's latest album, "La Marcha del Golazo Solitario" (BMG Latin). The Cadillacs' previous release, the 1997 breakthrough, "Fabulosos Calavera," even included a tribute song called "Piazzolla." Instead of the expected squeeze-box and violin, however, the song is filled with the metallic guitars, punchy horns and frantic tempos of ska-punk.
After a wah-wah guitar break, the staccato riffing redoubles in energy and lead singer Gabriel Fernandez Capello shouts out, "Siento que voy a estrellarme con tu bandoneon a toda velocidad!" "I feel like I'm going to crash into your bandoneon at full speed," he's saying, and indeed it sounds as if the past and future of Argentine music are colliding like trains at full throttle and sending sparks and scrap metal in all directions.
Fabulosos Cadillacs, who visit the Garage on Wednesday, are Argentina's most successful musical export since Piazzolla, even if their rough-and-ready montage of ska, punk, heavy metal, jazz and rumba is very different from their predecessor's "nuevo tango." And like Piazzolla, they're breaking all the rules about what Argentine music can and can't be.
"If you live in Buenos Aires," explains the band's keyboardist Mario Siperman, "you hear Piazzolla just walking around the city. Just as if you were to go to New Orleans, you would feel the spirit of Louis Armstrong like you would nowhere else, it's the same for us with Piazzolla. The spirit of that music is in the city. Even though we grew up listening to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who, we would hear Piazzolla on the radio when we worked in restaurants; it was the background music of our childhoods.
"We didn't think it would ever be part of our music, but when we started exploring our roots, there was the tango. We realized we didn't have to approach it in the traditional format of bandoneon, fiddle and guitar, because Piazzolla approached music in a very nontraditional way. Even though our music doesn't sound like his music, it's in his spirit of breaking boundaries."
The members of Fabulosos Cadillacs may have grown up on the Beatles and Stones, but they had trouble finding the influential punk records of the late '70s, because Argentina's military dictatorship banned those discs. That gave punk-rock the added attraction of forbidden fruit, and adventurous teenagers would gather surreptitiously to listen to outlawed music and to play their own protest punk songs.
When democracy finally came in 1983, it was as if a dam had suddenly opened, and a flood of Western music came pouring into the country. And in that spirit of releasing pent-up emotions, a group of Clash and Specials fans got together and formed Fabulosos Cadillacs in 1985.
"Rock comes very naturally to our generation," Siperman says. "It doesn't matter whether you are in England, the United States or Argentina; there's something about the energy and freedom of rock that reflects our lives and feelings.
"When we first got started, though, the majority of Latin bands were just doing imitations of British and American songs in Spanish. We didn't want to do that; we wanted to incorporate indigenous rhythms and music. We wanted to make music that could only come from Argentina. Now each area has a distinct sound; Mexican rock is different from Argentine rock. Bands are incorporating the flavor of every latitude of every country."
Fabulosos Cadillacs are at the forefront of a "rock en espan~ol" movement that includes Mexico's Cafe Tacuba and Mana, Argentina's Todos Tus Muertos, Venezuela's Los Amigos Invisibles, Colombia's Aterciopelados and New York's King Chango. No one, though, is better poised to break through the intimidating language barrier in North America than the Cadillacs.
Their album "Fabulosos Calavera" won the first-ever Grammy Award for Best Latin Rock/Alternative Award in 1998. The band's songs have been showing up in places such as the "Grosse Pointe Blank" soundtrack, the "Curdled" soundtrack and the "Red, Hot + Latin" benefit album. The Cadillacs have collaborated with the Clash's Mick Jones, Blondie's Deborah Harry, Fishbone, Celia Cruz and Ruben Blades.
In the United States, mainstream Latino radio has had trouble accepting Fabulosos Cadillacs' raucous energy, clangorous guitars and abrupt shifts in style and mood. On the title track of the new album, "La Marcha del Golazo Solitario" ("The March of the Lone Goal"), the band mixes witty analogies about soccer and romance with parade music, surf-punk and even a bit of Thelonious Monk's "Rhythm-a-ning." Ziegler takes them even further into dreamy jazz on "57 Almas," but "Piran~a" bristles with guitar riffs as sharp and predatory as the fish it salutes. Perhaps English-speaking Beck fans will be more receptive than Spanish-speaking Gloria Estefan fans.
"It's more fun for us to play it that way," Siperman says, "because surprise is interesting. It makes the live show entertaining for us as well as the crowd. You may be expecting one thing, but then all of a sudden you get something else. It also allows us to bring together all the different kinds of music we love. Music should reflect the way you're feeling at the time, and you can be sad one moment and euphoric the next. I can feel like a tango now, but in a minute I might feel like punk-rock."
FABULOSOS CADILLACS -- Appearing Wednesday at the Garage with the Shenanigans. * To hear a free Sound Bite from "La Marcha del Golazo Solitario," call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8112. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)