From the moment the nominations for the inaugural Latin Grammys were announced in July, it was obvious that the awards represented a struggle between the artistic and the commercial--pitting the records that make Latin music so exhilarating against those that rely on bland formulas.
And the winner is. . . . Well, in the most high-profile categories, Wednesday's Latin Grammys presented an embarrassing picture of Latin music--one that could mislead novice listeners who might look to the awards for guidance into this booming world.
The most shocking moment of the evening at Staples Center came when Mexican heartthrob Luis Miguel won the album of the year award for "Amarte Es Un Placer," beating superlative efforts by Carlos Vives, Caetano Veloso and Juan Luis Guerra.
Pitting Miguel's tepid collection of saccharine romantic balladry against the exhilarating vallenato pop of Vives, the bubbly bachata fusion of Guerra and the sophisticated samba rock of Veloso was grotesque to begin with. Giving the actual Grammy to him was simply unforgivable.
The results in the record of the year category were not so grossly unfair but still seriously wrong. The winning track "Corazon Espinado," a mildly rocking collaboration between Mexican group Mana and comeback-of-the-decade artist Santana, doesn't belong in the same league as the gorgeous "Fruta Fresca" by Vives or the melancholy "Tiempos" by Ruben Blades.
Most of the remaining--and less prominent--categories, however, were defined by surprisingly perceptive decisions. Although they hardly compensated for the major fiascoes at the top, these minor victories showcased a clear understanding of who is who in each genre.
In the rock en espanol field, it was particularly encouraging to see an album as challenging and ambitious as Cafe Tacuba's "Reves/Yosoy" win the rock album Grammy. It was an acknowledgment of sorts for the decades producer Gustavo Santaolalla and his partner Anibal Kerpel have spent trying to prove that rock albums recorded south of the border can match those from the Anglo mainstream in vision and creativity.
Tacuba's victory made it easier to forgive the voters for picking "Corazon Espinado" for the best rock group performance award over Fabulosos Cadillacs and Jaguares.
Colombian pop-rocker Shakira was an expected winner in the female rock vocal category. You could argue that her chief competitors, Rosario and Erica Garcia, offer a deeper, more intriguing perspective. But the fire of Shakira's concert performances and her sheer ambition made her victory easy to take. And although Fito Paez is not exactly at the best moment of his prolific career, the Grammys he won for male rock vocal and rock song for the impressionistic "Al Lado Del Camino" were entirely justified, given the song's stunning poetry.
A levelheaded approach was particularly welcome in the landscape of tropical music, which has experienced more than its share of horrors in the regular Grammys. This time, the winners reflected an ultra-conservative viewpoint that favored performers who have achieved legendary status--the late Tito Puente, Celia Cruz and Guerra, the last of whom beat merengue's current golden boy, Elvis Crespo.
The voters managed to sort out all the candidates in the categories of traditional Mexican music. It was heartwarming to see Los Temerarios, Los Tigres Del Norte and Banda El Recodo emerge victorious, especially since these performers have managed to combine artistic excellence and popular success. Granted, it was Vicente Fernandez who should have won the ranchera award, but at least his son Alejandro kept it in the family.
The two-hour CBS telecast was not without its questionable moments. Shakira's performance was sabotaged by over-the-top art direction that made her seem like a gaudy Las Vegas entertainer rather than the commanding artist she is.
But seeing figures such as Vives and Djavan, together with a lively tribute to Puente featuring Gloria Estefan, Ricky Martin and Cruz, on a major U.S. network had to be an uplifting moment for anyone who has believed in Latin music and its potential to reach listeners of all cultures.