MUSICA LATINA : Latino Music on the Upbeat


The signs are everywhere. Latin music is not only saturating Latino population centers such as Los Angeles but is also reaching the living rooms of mainstream America.

After gaining increased visibility and popularity for several years, Latino music in 1991 gained new clout, both among a growing body of fans and in the U.S. entertainment industry:

* Live concert venues with Latino artists increased, as did box office returns, in an otherwise slow national market.

* Latino rap provided a new avenue for Latino expression. Gerardo became a mainstream bilingual rap star.

* Gloria Estefan made a smashing comeback from a serious highway accident with a new hit album and a national tour.

* The Texas Tornados won a Grammy for their first album and promptly re-recorded it in Spanish.

* Linda Ronstadt, following up on her Grammy-winning Spanish-language album, has just released "Mas Canciones."

* Rock en Espanol proved to be a potentially strong force in Latino music as rock fanatics crowded concert halls.

* Both English-language and Spanish-language radio programmed more bilingual music, and mainline record stores carried more Latino music.

* Martika's new album included a hit single, "Love . . . Thy Will Be Done"" that also featured Prince and, in a change of pace, she paid tribute to her Cuban roots in "Mi Tierra," a duet with Celia Cruz.

* Tejano music crossed into national Latino markets. Tex-Mex legend Little Joe's bilingual album, "16 de septiembre," received critical kudos, while the group Mazz's "Una Noche Juntos: Live" debuted at No. 3 on Billboard's Latin charts.

* Wilson Phillips and Janet Jackson were among a growing number of musical artists who record their hits in Spanish.

* Veteran pop singer Vikki Carr--whose "It Must Be Him" topped Billboard's pop charts 25 years ago--was back on the charts, only this time it was for a best-selling Spanish-language album, which reached the top spot in the "Latin pop" category.

Back in 1983, when Menudo-mania introduced a new type of Latin youth music, record industry executives scoured the market for both talent and products that might appeal to U.S.-born Latinos. Their efforts met with limited success.

"Back then the crossover (Spanish-language singers recording English-language material) was the ultimate goal of the Latino artist. Julio Iglesias proved to be the most successful," said Luis Medina, an L.A. music producer. Medina worked for A&M;'s then-groundbreaking Latin division, whose roster of talent included Lanie Hall, Antonio de Jesus and Maria Conchita Alonso.

"Now when you talk about crossover, you're talking about English-language artists trying to reach the Spanish-speaking audience," Medina said. The target audience includes not only U.S. Latinos but also the huge Spanish-speaking population worldwide.

Eydie Gorme, for example, is about to release an album with Johnny Albino, one of the original members of the Trio Los Panchos, her husband, Steve Lawrence, and Armando Manzanero. Gorme's original albums with the Trio Los Panchos three decades ago paved the way for the current trend.

Pop superstar Madonna included Spanish-backing vocals and lyrics in "Who's That Girl," and "Isla Bonita." Others include Spanish-language remakes by a range of performers from Barry Manilow to Color Me Badd and upcoming cuts from a new album by Julian Lennon.

Mainstream pop and rock superstars Estefan, Martika and Ronstadt regularly record in Spanish. East L.A. rockers Los Lobos' remake of Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba" reached No. 1--higher than Valens' original version--on Billboard's national charts.

Gerardo's bilingual rap "Rico Suave" was both a Top 10 hit and a most-requested video on MTV. His sexy looks also garnered him a shirtless centerfold spread in Rolling Stone.

Latin music is cutting across language barriers and entering the U.S. mainstream with greater frequency.

After years of ignoring Latino music, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences established several Grammy categories for Latin music in the early 1980s, including "Best Latin Pop," "Best Mexican-American performance" and "Best Tropical Latin" performance. Billboard now charts Spanish-language Latin music under the Pop, Regional Mexican and Tropical/Salsa categories on a weekly basis.

Live concerts once limited to small venues or to a few major cities are expanding. Now, Latino music artists are finding a more lucrative audience in U.S. cities with large Latino populations.

"Our booking of Latin artists has increased every year. Now, 15% to 20% of our shows feature Latin performers," Emily Simonitsch, director of Special Events at the Universal Amphitheatre, told Nuestro Tiempo.

According to Simonitsch, such diverse musical talent as Luis Enrique, Rocio Durcal, Celia Cruz, Luis Miguel and Ronstadt have filled Universal's 6,000-plus-seat capacity amphitheater.

The prolific singer-composer Juan Gabriel appeared this month at three sold-out performances. Upcoming appearances by Juan Luis Guerra y 4.40, Julio Iglesias and Vicente Fernandez promise to be just as successful.

Despite the current recession and dwindling of the live mainstream concert market, Simonitsch sees Latino concerts holding their own and in some cases doing better than their Anglo counterparts.

"We're hoping to showcase Los Bukis for a concert next year," Simonitsch said, "once the dancing-in-the-aisles logistics can be ironed out."

It's easy to see why. Sold-out performances by norteno and ranchera music groups like Los Bukis, Los Tigres del Norte or Los Caminantes can easily draw 20,000 fans to the Convention Center or the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Billboard's Box Score, which charts live concert receipts, often has Los Bukis rubbing shoulders with Whitney Houston and other top concert artists.

Salsa/Tropical music festivals, featuring top Central American and Caribbean acts, also have tremendous drawing power. The success of these shows depends on a place where dancing is an essential part of audience participation.

Rock en Espanol, original lyrics and music done in the rock style, is also making inroads in the live Latin music scene. About 15,000 aficionados attended the first festival held at the Sports Arena last year that featured Mexican pop rocker Alejandra Guzman.

This year, a capacity crowd greeted veteran Mexican rockers El Tri and the younger Maldita Vecindad at the Palladium. Other rockers, including Argentines Miguel Mateos and the group Soda Stereo, have appeared at the Palace and the Roxy. Caifanes and Duncan Dhu have fared well at the Wiltern Theater.

The rock en Espanol scene "could be better," said Jorge Luis Rodriguez, producer of the Rock en Espanol Festival. He contends that lack of air time and publicity for rock en Espanol have kept it from reaching a wider audience.

"If record companies lived from concerts that would be fine, but we depend on record sales," Jose Behar, vice president of Capital-EMI Latin, said. "We've signed several rock groups--some local, some from Spain--and the record sales are still flat."

Latino rap, however, has made wider inroads both in sales and airplay. During his recent L.A. concert, pop balladeer Luis Miguel broke into a rap number in English, surprising even his most die-hard young fans.

"Rap is the biggest news of the last five years," observed Luis Pisterman, vice president of the WEA Latina label.

And while Pisterman says the recession has hurt record sales for his company, he has confidence that the setback is temporary.

"We're planning a world music label--to fuse Latin jazz and merengues and whatever--on WEA International. Juan Luis Guerra y 4.40 have a top album in Europe right now. If Latin American literature is the most read, why not the same thing with its music?" he said.

Top-rated station KPWR-FM (Power 106) has increased its Latino music programming--especially bilingual rap music from Kid Frost, Gerardo, Lighter Shade of Brown and Latin Alliance.

The station's large Latino audience responded to Luis Miguel and Luis Enrique ticket giveaways this year with such enthusiasm that the station invited both artists to do a live interview and played their songs in Spanish.

Just as important has been the larger audiences being attracted by local Spanish-language radio. KLVE-FM in the past five years has consistently finished in the top 10 market ratings for Los Angeles.

"It's full of surprises," said Pepe Barreto, veteran disc jockey, of his top-rated morning show on KLVE. "I do my show like the days of the old Top 40 radio era, when the DJ was an on-the-air personality. We may play Vicente Fernandez to Mellow Man Ace to Gerardo to Pandora doing Juan Gabriel."

Barreto said that Spanish-language FM radio now has a wider musical mix. "The influx of immigrants from Central America and Mexico has given rise (to greater air play of) salsa music in Los Angeles. And Tejano music is real hot too. We have a terrific response to Little Joe and Grupo Mazz. They've crossed into the national mix," Barreto added.

Behar, a champion of regional music, agrees. "For many regional groups, signing on with a national record company has given them an edge--especially in distribution and promotion. As a result, the Grupo Mazz can sell 150,000 units (of records, cassettes or compact discs)--amounts that only established stars like Emmanuel or Luis Miguel could guarantee in the past. We can also help a newcomer like Selena y los Dinos cross over from regional/Mexican to Latin pop--from a regional market into hopefully a national breakout.

"Besides the radio airplay, there is a wealth of (television) shows that feature this new Latin music."

Medina is optimistic about the future of Latino music in the United States. "Things are changing so fast, that it's not only a wave of the future, it is the future. And by the same token, our audiences are making our music the mainstream of the future."

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