Latino Rockers Wrap up Whirlwind Tour

Led by native New Yorkers, alterlatino band may be redefining mainstream superstardom

It’s tough to be a Latin alternative act in New York. Unlike in California and many Latin American cities, there’s a much smaller alterlatino scene to work with. For a young band, it means playing in obscure venues and having to win over audiences, who haven’t heard Café Tacuba, Manu Chao or Bacilos and are unfamiliar with the genre, and most likely skeptical of its merits.

Few groups have overcome these obstacles and persisted – Los Amigos Invisibles and Yerba Buena stand apart as exceptional groups with New York staying power. And pretty soon you may be able to add up and coming Latin funk masters Radio Mundial to that very short list.

“Very few groups that come here get this kind of response,” said David Fernandez, producer and talent coordinator for the Jack Daniel’s 2004 concert series, which arranged Radio Mundial’s recent performance at D’Antigua, a Queens lounge. “It’s very special.”

But the five-piece group, led by Bronx natives Jean and Richard Shepard, two brothers of Peruvian and Puerto Rican descent, labored for every single ovation one night in November, slowly building and enthralling the audience with their unique funk, reggae, rock, Latin-flavored mix for an impressive nonstop 90-minute show. Like “La Raiz,” the first song on their 2003 self-produced CD of the same name, Radio Mundial took their time introducing the different aspects of their music and the group’s multi-faceted style. The ten-string Puerto Rican guitar called a “cuatro” is followed by congas, which are layered with timbales, drums, and then more guitars (both acoustic and electronic), while a base and solo vocals lead into three and four-part harmonies, and then maybe an electronic wave, until the chorus, like the audience now on their feet, has reached a fever pitch with shouts of “Radio Mundial” and “encore!”

According to the Shepard brothers, their Miami upbringing has left a distinct impression on their music. “When you grow up in a household like that you’re hearing all traditional music from both parts, from both cultures,” Jean Shepard said of his Puerto Rican mother and Peruvian father. “And then also when you’re growing up in the United States you’re hearing all the kinds of influences that are around you outside – like the music on the radio.” Still, the 28-year-old musician who grew up listening to hip hop, as well as Pearl Jam and Nirvana, now says he reaches into the past – to 70s salsa and American funk – for his inspiration. “The reason I really research all the old salsa from the 70s and all the old funk from the 70s and really got in depth is because I would find out stuff that really connected with me,” he said. “So I grabbed that stuff and I got influenced by it and I would listen to it and try and imitate it with [my] music.”

And so while Jean, and his older brother, Richard, 29, may differ in personal and musical style (Richard counts Stevie Wonder, Tool, and Caetano Veloso among his major influences), when Radio Mundial comes together, their focus is clear.

“I think we try to maintain this theme which is Latin funk,” Jean explained. “A mixture of the traditional beats, the traditional rhythms – traditional Latin music whether its salsa, Mozambique, songo – all these rhythms mixed in with funk and house and reggae – things that we really like.”

Radio Mundial, Spanish for Worldwide Radio, clearly achieved this balance, both on their CD and at D’Antigua – their first performance back in New York after a whirlwind European tour ending in Spain’s Canary Islands on November 7. Released in July 2003, “La Raiz,” or “Roots,” is an energetic, barrier-breaking journey from Latin America’s best tropical and rock traditions to Jamaica’s reggae to even a hint of new wave electronic. The cuatro’s sound, clear and pure, is just astounding in its simplicity, but still manages to fit in perfectly with the strong conga, timbales, and funk-inspired percussion. While the pulsating beats of “Me Voy” leave your hips swinging and feet moving, “Hasta al final” is heartbreakingly beautiful in its emotional soulful vocals and “Hold On,” a track with Spanish verses and English chorus, is pure barefoot reggae-dancing on a sandy white beach.

The group definitely shines at live performances. The Shepards — Jean, more the moody rocker, and Richard, the exuberant extrovert in brightly coordinated shirts and ties – have excellent stage presence, plus definite sex appeal. Just one glance at the female swarms waiting to hang with the band after their performance is enough to feel the pair’s picante edge. Add percussionist Gianni Mano, a Russian-Italian Jew; American drummer and percussionist Gianni Mano, and French bass player Patrice Blanchard, and you get a true world sound.

Radio Mundial’s greatest strength is their ability to infuse a heat, intensity and fresh edge into their music, after three years of struggling to establish themselves. And maybe that has something do with the group’s origins. The Shephard brothers, who had always pursued separate music careers, were inspired to form a band for the first time after the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. “September 11 was a big catalyst of us coming together,” said Richard, who was living in Miami at the time and flew to New York three weeks after the tragedy to join Jean. “God forbid he had been in the towers or anywhere near the towers…so we took the opportunity to seize the moment and do the band together and we’ve been rocking ever since.”

And after a year of worldwide travel promoting their album, the group’s next focus will be producing another killer album which they will begin recording in Miami in January. “We’re on a mission,” explained percussionist Mano. “To bring what we love about Latin music and funk music to the future, with a vision toward the past.”

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