Legendary Argentine musician Gustavo Cerati, who fronted the pivotal band Soda Stereo in the 1980s and '90s, died Thursday in Buenos Aires. Soda Stereo, which authored rock and roll anthems for several Latin American generations, was instrumental in launching the Latin rock movement. With his boundary-crossing music that spanned several decades, Cerati is a pillar of Latin music. He was 55 years old when he died.
In Latin music, there are distinct eras before and after Soda Stereo. But if its success was unprecedented, it was not coincidental. These were incredibly talented musicians who were sharply image conscious in a way no Latin rock band before them had been, with an uncanny ability to evolve into new sounds, who arrived on the scene at exactly the right time.
In the early 1980s, the Argentine dictatorship was ending with a failed conflict against England and an infamous Dirty War, and after years of being under the thumb of decrepit juntas, the continent was ready to have its fun (if not yet quite ready to deal with its past). After a decade of melancholy, combative music, Soda Stereo's fun, well-written, energetic, tongue-in-cheek songs reflected that change. The sexual energy was frenetic. And as the Argentine government allowed the airplay of bands that had previously been banned (but everyone listened to anyway), the influence of British bands like Pink Floyd and Rod Stewart was undeniable.
Cerati and band mate Zeta Bosio were middle-class Argentines who met as publicity students in college. As a result, the band had a perfect combination of being both musically brilliant and image-conscious in a way that the '80s, with all its debauchery and materialism, allowed.
Rock had been popular in the '60s and '70s in various spots of Latin America (Brazil, Mexico and Argentina). But within Latin American politics, rock 'n' roll had held a very awkward position. While the far left and the far right battled to stake a claim on folk music (and by proxy on "true national identity"), both extremes shunned rock — the left saw it as American cultural imperialism, and the right as debaucherous degeneration.
Soda Stereo truly made Rock En Español popular throughout the entire continent. Part of the appeal was fusing the sounds that were trickling down from up north with Spanish language and Latin sounds. While songs like "Nada Personal" mixed reggae, new wave and ska, "Cuando Pase El Temblor" fused Andean traditional music with more modern sounds.
At the time, Latin rock bands did not tour Latin America — there were just no rock bands thought of as having enough draw away from their home countries to make it worth the trip. Soda Stereo, led by the handsome Cerati, became the first true pan-Latin American rock stars. Armed with a repertoire of meticulously well-crafted music and this new of identity of the sexy Latin American rock star, the band embarked on its first tour of Latin America in 1986 with stops in Costa Rica and Peru. It was a groundbreaking success. They were beloved in the Caribbean, Central and South America. Soda Stereo also cracked open the door for the Latin rock wave that would come in the '90s: Record labels took note that being a "rockero" could, in fact be quite profitable.
By the late '80s the band had reached icon status throughout the Spanish-speaking world, and Cerati was a living legend. The 1988 album Doble Vida produced various hits including "Lo Que Sangra (La Cúpula)." Most important, it led the band on its third Latin America tour, and pushed its fame all the way up to Mexico, where it garnered a massive fan base. The band's next album, the melancholy Cancion Animal, produced Soda Stereo's best-known song, "De Musica Ligera."
The band broke up in 1997, with a reported 17 million albums sold. Cerati embarked on a fruitful career as a solo performer and producer. He managed that delicate balance that a lot of former band leaders turned soloists can only hope for: to explore a sound that was different from his band days, but still recognizable to his massive fan base. His first album after breaking up with the band, Bocanada, was more electronic than any of his prior work. Cerati always had an ear for the future of music, and Bocanada was an omen of what was to come for Latin rock — more of a digital, electronic vibe, and less of a guitar-heavy, traditional rock 'n' roll sound.
Cerati was a true musical chameleon, which also made him a stellar producer. In 2006, the beautiful album Ahi Vamos won Cerati two Latin Grammys, his first. That year, an album he'd helped produce and write, Shakira's Fijacion Oral Vol. 1, also won the Latin Grammy for album of the year. He authored and produced her song "No," a truly haunting melody.
In May 2010, while on tour in Venezuela, Cerati suffered a stroke. He remained in a coma, and died on Thursday, Sept. 4.