On Wednesday, the first Latin Grammy Awards show will be held at Staples Center and broadcast live on CBS. So, what, exactly, is a Latin Grammy? And how--or why--is it separate from a regular Grammy?
Here's the short answer: A Latin Grammy is an award honoring musical excellence by artists who perform in Spanish or Portuguese.
What's that, you say? You thought the regular Grammys already did that? Well, they do--but only in seven of the regular Grammys' 98 categories, most of which are devoted to English-language genres.
The Latin Grammys have 40 categories and are separate from the regular Grammys, organizers say, because the Latin music universe is too large to fit into seven categories. The regular Grammys will continue to have Latin categories.
The Latin Grammys are produced by the Latin Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, established in 1997, after a decade in development, as the first international corporation of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, the organization that produces the Grammy Awards. The Latin academy has 2,600 members, compared to the national academy's 14,000. The Latin academy was created by NARAS to address Latin music growth, which is twice the pace of the overall industry.
The national academy and its charitable arms have come under fire in recent years since the publication of several articles in The Times. The stories disclosed that Grammy chief C. Michael Greene is the highest-paid executive of any not-for-profit organization in the country and that NARAS has consistently overstated the scale of its philanthropic activities.
And, expectedly, the Latin Grammys have also been a magnet for controversy, ranging from concerns about segregation to hostilities among ethnic, national and linguistic groups who have been lumped together--sometimes with great difficulty--beneath the huge "Latin music" umbrella.
Even Greene, president and chief executive of both academies (longtime record executive Mauricio Abaroa is senior vice president and executive director of LARAS), confesses this first year for the Latin Grammys has been imperfect and difficult.
"The most difficult thing in trying to create an awards structure under a very large, very short word--'Latin'--is there are so many forms of music, and there are very few things that connect all of these countries other than language," says Greene. "In putting the show together we are constantly reminded of that . . . There is no way a singular awards structure, much less a two-hour TV special, is going to be able to be conclusive, or inclusive."
The first Latin Grammys were originally scheduled to take place next year, but several factors--including Ricky Martin's rousing performance at the Grammys in 1999 and growth of interest in Latin music worldwide--inspired the fast-track timetable.
According to LARAS, "the chief aim of the Latin Grammy Awards is to recognize excellence and create a greater public awareness of the cultural diversity and contributions of Latin recording artists."
By "Latin," the academy says it refers to musical genre (or a music's sound) or language--Spanish and Portuguese--and not to an artist's perceived ethnicity.
In other words, an artist is eligible for a Latin Grammy because she or he records in Spanish or Portuguese, and not because she or he is from Mexico or has a Puerto Rican grandma.
At least that's what the academy says, and as far as the nominations and awards go, it appears to be true. But questions have been raised about the programming of the Latin Grammy show, which will feature many more stars from the English-language world than from Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking countries.
Greene says the academy has also come under fire from some musicians who consider their work to be "Latin" in sound or origin, but who do not perform in Spanish or Portuguese and are therefore not eligible for a Latin Grammy. These groups include Celtic musicians from the Basque region of Spain and Haitian artists who say their compa is a kissing cousin of the Dominican merengue, but that it just happens to be sung in French Creole.
While the Latin Grammys are at present very strict in linguistic classification, Greene says the academy will listen to concerns about changing the rules if they are brought before the board.
Another possible solution, ultimately, would be the creation of separate academies for Brazilian and Mexican music, both of which, Greene says, are "very likely to come along in the next few years."
The first step toward winning a Latin Grammy is having a record company or academy member enter a recording, which must have been released during the eligibility dates. Then the recording is screened by a group of experts who decide what category it belongs to. Then a list of entries by category is sent to voting members. (The Latin academy will not disclose how many of its 2,600 members are eligible to vote.) The results are considered nominations. After that, there's a final round of voting, and--ta-da!--a Latin Grammy show.
Airing from 9 to 11 p.m. Wednesday, the Latin Grammy telecast will be an hour shorter than the regular Grammys. Through CBS Broadcasting International, the program will also be seen in 120 other nations, according to LARAS. The academy pursued the possibility of a Spanish-language simulcast in the U.S., but it didn't transpire.
Wednesday's telecast is the first time a primarily Latin-themed music awards program has occupied a prime-time slot on CBS. This has led to special considerations when programming the show's performers.
On the one hand, LARAS has a self-stated mission of raising awareness of the richness and diversity of the Latin music universe. On the other hand, it has the desire to create a show that will bring in high ratings on an English-language network.
These goals are clearly at odds, and the Latin academy knows it.
If they program too many mainstream English-language pop (or "crossover") stars to draw a wide audience to the show, they risk offending Latin music purists. But if they feature too many groups that are well-known in the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking worlds, but unknown to the bulk of CBS viewers, they risk losing ratings.
The Latin academy says it has sought to draw the widest possible audience by featuring pop artists who straddle both worlds, such as Christina Aguilera and Ricky Martin, and singers such as Celia Cruz, a performer somewhat known to a mainstream audience. Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez were to perform the nominated duet from her debut album--the sole Spanish-language song on the disc--but he had to withdraw because of complications with his wife's pregnancy. Award presenters include actors Andy Garcia and Jimmy Smits.
In perhaps its most controversial decision, the Latin academy invited 'N Sync to perform a Spanish-language song it has recorded in a duet with Puerto Rican vocal group Son by Four.
Such compromise brings repercussions, some unpleasant.
Fonovisa, the nation's largest independent Latin music label, has said it will not support the Latin Grammys because the telecast will not feature any of the label's popular Mexican regional acts and, they say, favors artists associated with Sony Music's labels.
The telecast will feature famed ranchera and pop star Alejandro Fernandez, a top seller in the Mexican regional genres, but this brings little consolation to Fonovisa, as Fernandez records for Sony Discos.
Fonovisa and other, smaller labels have argued the event is biased against the more countrified Mexican regional genres.
Greene acknowledged the prospect of Mexican regional performances worries advertisers, who say the music has little mass appeal. But Greene says he fought hard to have Fernandez included.
This tiptoeing around Mexican genres has offended many, especially considering that Mexican regional music is the top-selling Latin genre in the U.S.
The Latin Grammy Awards have had to wrestle with many such complicated issues.
The difficulties involved stem from the near-impossibility of lumping together many diverse cultures under the term "Latin," an invented identity that means very different things to different people, depending on their nationality, ethnic background, race and language.
All of that said, however, many people still have high hopes for the Latin Grammys.
If nothing else, many say, the ceremony will provide a window onto the diverse world of Latin music for many in the U.S. who have an interest in the music but who have little access to Spanish-language radio or music videos.
Greene, sounding somewhat weary from the many battles he's had to face in getting the inaugural event off the ground, concludes: "The only thing I know for sure is in this first year we're going to make some mistakes. We're hopeful they're not institutional mistakes. We hope it's just a matter of fine-tuning."
* The Latin Grammy Awards will air Wednesday at 9 p.m. on CBS.