The Mess: Central America Is Dope, So Why Does the Music Industry Ignore It?

Art by Alan López for Remezcla

The Mess is a new column from journalist Richard Villegas, who has been reporting on new, exciting sounds flourishing in the Latin American underground for nearly a decade. As the host of the Songmess Podcast, his travels have intersected with fresh sounds, scene legends, ancestral traditions, and the socio-political contexts that influence your favorite artists. The Mess is about new trends and problematic faves whilst asking hard questions and shaking the table.

We’re going there. We’re talking about it. Even if things get a little messy.

Why do we keep pretending that Central America doesn’t exist? I mean, it’s seven countries, the food is lit, there’s a sick canal connecting the two largest oceans in the world, and of course, the music bangs. And yet, in the media and pop culture in general, we treat the region like those weird 30 seconds when you’re driving through a tunnel and your phone signal drops out. A blip between Mexico and Colombia. The Bermuda Triangle with pupusas. That’s wack as hell, and frankly, the absence of Central America in blogs, playlists, and music festival curation isn’t due to a lack of resources but often just laziness and willful ignorance. Pero don’t worry, The Mess is here to help.

For most curious music fans, the point of entry to Central America is Costa Rica. Here at Remezcla, we extensively covered the country’s garage explosion of the 2010s, highlighting bands Las Robertas and Ave Negra, audiovisual production house Superlegítimo, and even San José’s punky queer underground. In recent years, electronic music has also seen a major boom through ambient and experimental producers Carla Alfaro and OVSICORI, and even tropi-hippie destination festival Envision. And this is just the tip of an iceberg rife with pan-Caribbean sounds ranging from merengue to reggae and reggaeton.

“Part of the disconnect between Costa Rica and scenes in Mexico and Argentina is that in my country, there’s a ton of music with Caribbean influences that don’t meet the expectations of radio or festivals in the North or South,” says culture journalist Carlos Soto, creator of incisive platform La Necedad. “I find it really confusing when in Mexico they ask for ‘more Latino artists’ for their festivals, but I’ve learned that when they say ‘Latinos’ they mean white mestizos with guitars from Mexico, Argentina, and Spain, and on a good day, Chile.”

Central America’s Caribbean connection is undeniable since the region’s coastlines facilitate culinary and rhythmic exchanges with their island siblings. In Costa Rica, the adventurous reggae-pop fusions of Cocofunka and Sonámbulo have become immensely popular, in no small part due to the influence of Limón Province’s vibrant West Indian community. In Honduras, dancehall and punta have gotten a major boost from inspired Garifuna artists, including Kazzabe, Queen Kartel, JCP El Especialista, GodDessey, and Albeezy. 

Likewise, in Belize, where Afro-diasporic heritage manifests everywhere, from traditional music (The Garifuna Collective) to heavy metal (Verge of Umbra). And even in Panama, you can hear the ocean rush across the catalogs of iconic rock bands Señor Loop and Los Rabanes. Not to mention the country’s hallowed status as the birthplace of reggaetón, boasting legends like El General and Nando Boom, and new school standard bearer Nino Augustine.

Soto cites the phrase “un estrecho dudoso” (or “A doubtful strait”), which was used in colonial times as a contemptuous descriptor for the region and later repurposed in the 1990s by art curator Virginia Pérez/Ratton to highlight how no one knows (or seemingly cares) what’s going on in Central America. But lacking visibility and sonic understanding are hardly the only challenges as musicians struggle to be heard at home and beyond their borders.

“In Guatemala, we’re constantly short on infrastructure, transparent institutions, education, and general interest from the public,” adds Martha Estrada, Editor-in-Chief of media outlet El Timbre Suena. “There are no fiscal incentives for a local industry, independent or mainstream, which keeps the country from becoming a relevant stop during tours. Culture is not seen as necessary, and music is treated as background noise, so brands rarely get involved.”

Guatemalan talent is abundant; just look to Jesse Baez or his former R&B band turned atmospheric shoegazers, Easy Easy. Asimov and Los Tiros have deepened the local canon of dreampop and punk, while Leena Bae and Bumont are quickly becoming regional indie pop phenoms. Estrada also highlights reggaeton and Mexican regional music as the genres most successfully connecting with Central American audiences, with tours from Bad Bunny, Daddy Yankee, Grupo Frontera, and Christian Nodal among the year’s highest grossers. Meanwhile, smaller promoters like 2Mundos are betting on rising pop names, recently bringing Rawayana, Esteman, and Daniella Spalla on short tours of Guatemala, Costa Rica, and El Salvador.

In fact, El Salvador brings us to possibly the most obvious and jarring chapter of Central America’s public relations conundrum. Decades of civil war, rampant gang violence, and authoritarian regimes have fueled a narrative of never-ending strife and tragedy that eclipses most other stories out of the region. When I visited El Salvador in January 2020, Covid-19 was still just a twinkle in the apocalypse’s eye. But I was mad at myself for sipping the alarmist Kool-Aid when what I actually found was cautious normality, not unlike how people in Colombia, Peru, or Brazil live day to day. I also found an incredibly forward-thinking scene teaming with trap (drovekidd), R&B (Clement), and hyperpop (Sander, Gabriela Triste) that should be contending and celebrated at a continental level.

The same goes for Nicaragua and Honduras, who, in recent years, have endured acute political turmoil that decimated cultural opportunities. Cult blog Indie Nicaragua has cultivated a growing TikTok following by showcasing fresh indie pop acts like Neon Paradise, Johnnie Flowers, and ceci ceci. Honduran media powerhouse Melissa Quijada has championed Central American talent for over 20 years on radio, through her blog Nucleo Indie, and as founder of the beloved Nu Festival.

So how do we move forward? In the past, Central American organizers drafted reciprocity agreements to fortify a viable touring route, which were thrown into disarray by the region’s recent political instability. However, Guatemala’s 2Mundos seems to be picking back up. The diaspora has been making moves, too, with Virginia/NYC/Guatemalan label Citrus City and LA/Salvadoran Normadie Records gradually expanding their rosters with motherland talent. It also would be good for artists and bookers from Mexico and Colombia to actually take an interest in their neighbors, if only for the cynical reason that these are markets eager to be developed.

And remember that we mortals can and should demand that Central America be given its time in the spotlight. There is nothing doubtful about this seven-nation strait, and if we’re going to claim “Latino Gvng” all day, we need to show up for more than the local pupusa spot.