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The artists shaking up the industry at the Latin Alternative Music Conference

Damper, half of the Colombian duo Dawer x Damper, says their upbringing in the Aguablanca district of Cali greatly informs their musical influences.
Karlo Ramos
Damper, half of the Colombian duo Dawer x Damper, says their upbringing in the Aguablanca district of Cali greatly informs their musical influences.

Updated July 21, 2023 at 6:03 PM ET

At this year's Latin Alternative Music Conference, thousands of people showed up to see Colombian rock star Juanes perform at Central Park's SummerStage – so much so that the show had to be shut down just two songs into his set.

Tomas Cookman, founder of the LAMC, says that turnout reflects the conference's biggest year yet. But it wasn't always like that.

The LAMC started 24 years ago when after crowding into panels at festivals like SXSW, Cookman looked around and realized: "We need a platform, we need a place where we can put together a bunch of different people to talk about where Latin music can go."

The alternative label, he says, wasn't so much meant to emphasize punk kids in heavy flannels as it was intentional about focusing on music, not getting radio play in the pop-oriented Latin market of the early 2000s. But as Latin music has blown up globally over the last two decades, Cookman says, the alternative has made its way into the mainstream – and not just because of the explosion of reggaeton (though he did find Bad Bunny's name once or twice on registration forms from past conferences).

"Whether it was a punk rock band from Buenos Aires or a hip-hop duo from Panama or a cool pop weird act from Madrid, they always found a place at the LAMC," Cookman explains.

The LAMC, in return, uses its Discovery Award every year to recognize artists breaking down misconceptions that there's one look or sound to Latin music. This year, there are two recipients: Dawer x Damper and Usted Señalemelo.

The first is a duo of Colombian brothers who released their debut LP, Donde Machi, last November. They play with Afro-futurism, hip-hop, dancehall, and several influences from Colombia's Pacific coast; Dawer x Damper are from the Aguablanca district of Cali, where many Afro-Colombian people from the Pacific regions move for better work and economic opportunities.

"So many cultures from around the entire country converge there, and thanks to that, the Aguablanca district is permeated with Black culture," says Dawer, aka Edwar Vergara.

Thematically, the brothers' lyrics focus on themes of social empowerment, love, and family – a never-ending reflection of how the private home life affects the public community and vice versa, they explain. They don't hesitate to shout out el barrio, the working-class neighborhood where they come from, and the community programs they say launched their artistic pursuits.

"There's no better way for us to be authentic than to take el barrio and wear it as a flag because if we came out denying el barrio, we were going to look like everything but our real selves," explains Damper, aka Luis Vergara.

The brothers played one of the several showcases at this year's LAMC, celebrating the 50th anniversary of hip-hop.

"For us, it's a huge source of pride to have [Afro-Latinidad] represented here, not just for representation's sake but from the consciousness of being a Black person in Latin America and in the music industry," says Damper.

Usted Señalemelo makes indie rock with a comic twist, reflective of the band members' long-lasting friendship.
Karlo Ramos / LAMC
Usted Señalemelo makes indie rock with a comic twist, reflective of the band members' long-lasting friendship.

Working in a completely different musical tradition, the other Discovery Award winners this year hail from Mendoza, Argentina: Usted Señalemelo is a trio of friends who've known each other since they were kids and maintain that playfulness in their artistic relationship.

"The name of the band is a tongue twister," says drummer Lucca Beguerie Petrich. "We love playing with words and giving each other nicknames, making stuff up...we thought it was funny because we were 12 when we named the band."

Fresh off the release of their album TRIPOLAR in May, Usted Señalemelo pays homage to Argentina's rich legacy of rock en español while pushing the genre's boundaries with poppy synths and lush orchestral arrangements that weave in and out throughout the record.

The contemplative lyrics came to fruition over several years and highlight the tensions between polar opposites – night and day, light and dark, men and women, explains vocalist Juan Mango. He credits producers Rafa Arcaute and Nico Cotton with elevating the project further.

"Working with two producers at that level made our compositions and our work grow tremendously," he says.

Usted Señalemelo played two showcases at this year's LAMC. The Discovery Award, on the heels of the album release and the beginning of their U.S. tour, is both overwhelming and affirmative of the band's years of hard work, says Petrich.

This year's LAMC allowed Dawer x Damper and Usted Señalemelo to perform in New York City for the first time – but it won't be the last.

"I think that's the beauty of Latin music today and why it's not so much a Latin boom. This is here forever," says Cookman.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Isabella Gomez Sarmiento
Isabella Gomez Sarmiento is a producer with the Culture Desk and NPR's Book of the Day podcast.