Radio free America(s)

Right now a local radio show is the only voice of Rock en Espanol in Dallas

Start talking about Spanish-language pop around the Dallas-Fort Worth area and most people will nod thoughtfully and say something like "oh, yes--Tejano." While not to dis the phenomenal growth that Tejano music has enjoyed in the last five years, there's much more to Latin pop: Witness the Rock en Espanol movement, which takes Spanish lyrics and delivers them through already well-established pop idioms such as electronica, dance, or alternative rock. Already well known on both coasts and in Chicago, the movement is still in its infancy here.

In fact, since the demise of Latin pop radio station Ritmo (Rhythm) 107 (KRVA 106.9 FM), there is only one place to hear Rock en Espanol--on KNON's (89.3 FM) bilingual Sin Fronteras (No Borders) radio show, which airs Sunday nights from 10 p.m. until midnight.

Sin Fronteras producer and DJ Jesus Chairez is the show's guiding light. "I live down by lower Greenville and Ross, by the Fiesta [grocery store], and when I sit on my balcony, all I hear is Tejano and ranchera music. I'm from Dallas, so I like that kind of music, but I knew that there was so much more out there."

Chairez--who is also an artist and founded the Latino artists' organization ARTE (Artists Relating Together and Exhibiting) in the late '80s--had been bitten by the radio bug when he worked for the FCC in the early '90s. When he left the FCC in April 1993, he approached KNON then-general manager Mark McNeill about a Latin music show that would feature more than just Tejano and ranchera music. "I'd been going to Mexico for a while, and I knew there was all this great music there besides ranchera and norteno, especially in Mexico City; I played some for him, and he said he liked it, but there were no slots open at the time." Chairez started volunteering at the station, and on July 4, 1993, he got his chance to get on the air; Sin Fronteras made its debut as an hour-long show that ran from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Sundays, playing music from Chairez's private collection, a library he updated with frequent trips to Mexico City.

"I would go to clubs and record stores and listen to the music, and I would take my jam box so I could listen to the stuff I ran across," he says. "Then I met this DJ in [Mexico City's trendy] La Zona Rosa who was a great connection to all this dance and experimental music. People in Mexico City were really surprised that we were listening to their music up in Dallas."

Sin Fronteras went to two hours and its present time slot on Easter Sunday, 1996. Although the short-lived Ritmo 107 also played some of the music that Chairez did, he didn't begrudge the competition. "There's such a demand for this kind of music, from English speakers, from second- and third-generation Tejanos, and from visitors from Mexico City. Especially people from Mexico City, because they say it's hard to get the kind of music here that they're used to--they have to rely on friends to send it to them, or us to play it. I think it has such wide popularity because the music has a more contemporary feel."

Still, listen to Sin Fronteras and you'll hear tunes that obviously have ranchera and Tejano roots, as well as flagship Rock en Espanol groups like Los Jaguares (and their earlier incarnation Caifanes), El Tri, Cafe Tacuba, the reggae-inflected tunes of Mana (and even some straight-ahead reggae here and there), and even lesser-known groups such as Tex Tex. The show does dedications and shout-outs, too, just like KNON's Tejano shows, although not as intrusively (i.e., in the middle of songs). Listen to Sin Fronteras and you'll hear sounds that remind you of Kylie Minogue, roots-rock, the Cure, the Beatles, various shades of metal, and just about every other galaxy in the pop universe--only sung in Spanish.

"Music is universal," Chairez says. "I get English speakers all the time who call up and say that they like a song, even though they can't understand the words. In a lot of pop music, you can't really understand the words anyway."

Your listening may also prove a bit frustrating; Chairez doesn't often announce artists, albums, or song titles--on purpose. "I want people to call in and ask about a song, so that I can talk to them. Once they do, we give them all the information they need, including the CD number, so that they can order it if they can't find it around here in the stores."

Once Ritmo 107 went under, word of Sin Fronteras spread "like wildfire," Chairez says. "In the beginning, I would be calling up my friends at home and saying 'Are you listening?' Now we get calls from all over, lots of calls even from North Dallas and Fort Worth. We're doing more shows at clubs like 2551 and The Zone and getting better and better turnouts, and recently I just heard from [Deep Ellum dance club] Gridlock--they're interested because of the dance music I play."

"Sin Fronteras benefits a movement that exists throughout the country," says Orlando Salinas, leader of the local Rock en Espanol group Filo. "But as far as Spanish rock goes here, there is no local scene--it's so much bigger in Chicago and California." Although Salinas would like to see an entire station devoted to mainstream rock with Spanish lyrics--the kind of presence a scene could form around--he recognizes the value of Chairez' efforts. "Having him around really helps," the bandleader maintains. "He's very supportive, and for him to do what he does makes him very special."

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