Van Nuys es very nice, but it's not paradise/ Dejaste los Andes por el cemento y los swimming pools ...
When Chilean-born Lady P. (Pilar Diaz) of post-punk quartet Los Abandoned sings those lyrics from the band's 2004 single "Van Nuys (Es Very Nice)," she is echoing the sentiments of countless U.S. residents who straddle two cultures.
"It's sort of my childhood lament on being the daughter of an immigrant, and seeing the differences between both countries and asking, 'Why did you leave something as beautiful as the Andes Mountains, as beautiful as the Amazon forest and Machu Picchu, for Van Nuys [California], which is just, like, cement and smog?' "
The fact that this playful dig at her second hometown was written in English and Spanish certainly adds to its effect. But Los Abandoned don't limit their bilingual lyrics to any subject matter; like many bands, they also sing about relationships, current events and daily observations, expressing themselves in their music the way they converse every day — bilingually. So do bands like the Mars Volta (see "Mars Volta's Amputechture Inspired By Immigrant Marches, Possessed Nuns"), Los Lonely Boys, Go Betty Go and many others.
This isn't a trend: It's the voice of the United States' growing bilingual population.
"When we first started, [being bilingual] was more like a need for expression," Lady P. said. "But as soon as we started playing live, we started to see an audience that was just like us, who grew up with both languages and goes back and forth between them."
There have been successful bilingual bands in the past — Ozomatli have been bringing audiences their unique combination of hip-hop/funk/Latin beats since the mid-'90s; roots rockers Los Lobos started performing in East L.A. in the late '70s; and there have been several Spanish-language or bilingual hits on the U.S. charts since the '50s (notably the late Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba," which became a hit again when Los Lobos covered it in '87). But there's no question that the number of musicians doing it has exploded in recent years.
Dominican-born DJ/producer Nova of the multi-genre outfit Pacha Massive, said, "The Latin community has been growing at such a rate that it's really easy to speak your language."
Pacha Massive bassist Maya, who was born in Colombia, agreed. "It's more socially acceptable to speak slang and Spanglish, and I think that's reflected in music. I mean, music is a reflection of how society is evolving and changing, and that's been something you can see quite clearly — that Latin culture has been socially more accepted in the United States and around the world, and more valued, I think."
As language and cultural barriers have broken down, so has the rigid structure of the music business: The growth of independent labels and the Internet has been a boon to niche artists.
Members of the Monterrey, Mexico, band Kinky said their bilingual fusion of rock and electronica encountered resistance from both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking quarters. "[With] purists of rock en español, if you don't fit with all the rules, you're just out of the picture," said singer Gilberto Cerezo. So a do-it-yourself attitude is key: "You need to use every window that is available for you."
These days, arguably the biggest such window is MySpace. Pacha Massive's Nova has made logging on a part of his morning ritual. "You have your cup of coffee and go to MySpace," he said. "You basically try to respond to as many people as possible and keep trying to make new friends." It's how the Bronx, New York-based group was able to attract fans from as far away as Argentina and Japan.
"[Being bilingual] is a way of living, it's a way of thinking, and it's a way of being," Maya said. "And you can see that at the shows, because people are open and like, 'Wow, this is pretty cool.' "