MEXICO CITY, Mexico — Judging from the gallons of ecstatic tears pouring from the crowd, it looked like Bob Marley or Jim Morrison had risen from the grave to sing.
But to the Mexico City rock aficionados, it was an equally cataclysmic event: the reunion of the nation’s most legendary rock band, Caifanes.
As the group thrashed out its melancholy mix of indie, progressive rock and tropical grooves at Latin America’s biggest alternative festival in April, 70,000 spectators screamed, slammed and sobbed.
More surprisingly, Caifanes sparked a similar reaction a week later at the Coachella festival in Indio, Calif.
There was so much buzz around them at that major American rock event, they shot to second on the bill after the famed Kings of Leon, the highest profile a Latino band has had at the festival.
The strength of alternative Mexican music on both sides of the Rio Grande attests to sweeping changes in the two nations in the last decade.
Despite lingering perceptions of Mexicans in straw sombreros, the majority of the population is under 30 and lives in cities. Rock, electronic and hip hop music have all surged in popularity, rivaling the traditional sounds of mariachi, salsa and norteno.
Meanwhile, the booming Latin population north of the border brings these same bands to the United States. As well as Caifanes, alternative Mexican groups such as Cafe Tacvba, Molotov and Nortec Collective all pack venues from coast to coast.
Caifanes lead singer Saul Hernandez said he was delighted with the reaction at Coachella.
“It is great to play so high up at such an influential festival that has long been mainly Anglo,” Hernandez said in an interview with GlobalPost.
For a rock star of iconic status in his homeland, Hernandez is remarkably down to earth and modest, bringing along his two children and chatting away at length.
He said the Latin crowds in the United States are particularly passionate.
“Many Mexicans are in the U.S. out of necessity and have a hunger for their culture,” Hernandez said. “In the concerts, I see a very strong energy. The crowd expresses a search for identity, a catharsis.”
The rise of alternative music in Mexico is also connected to the nation’s democratic transition in recent years, Hernandez says.
When rock music first emerged in the late 1960s during the days of one-party rule, police were sent to break up concerts and festivals.
“The government was not so much concerned about an American influence like in the Soviet Union. It was just frightened by the idea of lots of young people in one place,” Hernandez said.
Such repression meant that Mexican bands that rose up in underground venues in the 1980s were more anti-system than many of the mainstream rock bands in the United States at the time.
The members of Caifanes were influenced by punk rock as well as the Beatles and the Latin rhythms they grew up with. The result is the distinct new sound that has become known as Alternative Latin.
However, as democracy and free-trade opened up, rock concerts have become wildly popular and big money-earners in Mexico. Most major English-language bands now play here, with U2 packing out three nights at Mexico City’s huge Aztec soccer stadium this month.
Mexico City’s Vive Latino festival, where the Caifanes played its reunion gig, has mushroomed since it started in 1998 to entertain some 200,000 revelers over three days this year.
Another Mexican group that headlined at the Vive Latino and is making waves in the United States is the Nortec Collective from the unwieldy border city of Tijuana.
Nortec Collective mixes an alternative electronic sound with norteno music that includes brass sections, accordions and jumpy polka rhythms. The result is a wild combination of pumping beats and tubas led by cowboy-looking DJs and musicians on stage.
As a border party town, Tijuana has long had a diverse music scene that mixes the sounds of the two nations, said Nortec founder and producer Pepe Mogt, also known as Fussible.
“We grew up traveling everyday between Tijuana and San Diego and taking in both cultures,” Mogt said.
In the 1980s Mogt saw bands such as Nirvana and the Ramones playing underground shows in Tijuana. In the 1990s, California promoters organized many rave parties in Tijuana.
“They would prefer to have shows or raves on the Mexican side of the border because there was less hassle with age limits and police,” Mogt said.
Mogt had already established himself as a DJ and producer of house music before he drew in the norteno sounds.
“After years of going to shows and night clubs, I started going to old Tijuana cantinas and realizing that norteno was not just cowboy music. It was a great sound,” Mogt said.
The resulting combination has been a resounding success, with Nortec download sales often topping the Latin American charts. Meanwhile, north of the border, the collective’s 2008 album was nominated for a Grammy for Best Latin Rock/Alternative Album.
“When we first started mixing electronic and norteno, people asked ‘what the f- are you doing?’” Mogt said. “But mixing sounds and cultures is the way that new music forms are born.”