Advertisement

Latin Grammys Reflect Evolution of an Enduring Genre

Share via
TIMES STAFF WRITER

Almost eight years ago, Universal Music executive Zach Horowitz discovered a new world of music when he happened upon a newspaper music critic’s Top 10 list. It was a ranking of best bands in the maturing Latin music genre called rock en espanol , a collection of south-of-the-border rockers with quirky names such as Mexico’s Maldita Vecindad (Cursed Neighborhood) and Argentina’s Los Fabulosos Cadillacs.

He read through the litany of cutting-edge artists, many with established reputations throughout the Spanish-speaking world and with loyal fans right here in Los Angeles, a headquarters for Universal’s global music operations.

But Horowitz didn’t recognize a single name on the Latin rock roster. Nothing worries a music executive more than missing a full-blown trend under his very nose. So he tracked down the man who had worked with several of those top groups, talented Argentine producer Gustavo Santaolalla.

Advertisement

Tonight, the executive’s curiosity about unfamiliar music in a foreign language could pay off substantially at the second annual Latin Grammy Awards ceremony, to be nationally televised from the Forum in Inglewood. For it was Santaolalla who delivered to Universal the extraordinary debut album by a Colombian singer-songwriter named Juanes, who managed to capture the most nominations in what has quickly become the Latin music industry’s most important showcase.

Horowitz, who admits his Spanish is “not great,” hopes his fellow Americans will share similar musical revelations through the Grammys’ fledgling cultural experiment--a prime-time telecast celebrating music made mostly in Spanish and Portuguese.

“Even if you don’t speak the language, the intensity and the power of the music comes across,” said the president of Universal Music Group. “The greatest music finds its audience. It just needs to be exposed.”

The Latin Grammy Awards were launched last year in the wake of the so-called Latin music explosion, which saw artists such as Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez rise to the top of U.S. sales charts. Then, the boom seemed to go bust. The buzz about familiar superstars faded, either because they didn’t have new releases or because, as in Martin’s case, a follow-up album couldn’t sustain the mass craze caused by “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” his 1999 smash hit that became emblematic of the new Latin music phenomenon.

To the casual observer, Latin music may now look like a passing fancy. But top music industry leaders gathered in Los Angeles for tonight’s ceremony say the Great Latin Music Explosion of 1999 was like a dazzling mirage, pinning the public’s attention on a handful of bilingual artists who happened to strike gold with English-language recordings.

Beneath the mass media radar, however, Latin music still percolates with recharged energy and a loyal fan base, despite a general music industry slowdown last year. While a handful of superstars prepare new releases in Spanish and English, with the full faith of their U.S.-based labels, new artists continue to emerge from mainstay markets that are the traditional sources of Latin music. In that vast territory, stretching from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires and from Madrid to Mexico City, most artists are focused much less on some over-hyped crossover than on making genuine Latin music that reflects their lives, concerns and passions.

Advertisement

The challenge is getting the rest of the world to listen.

“All my life there’s been a Latin boom,” says Enrique Fernandez, the Miami-based executive director of the Latin Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, an offshoot of the Grammy’s parent organization. “I grew up in Cuba during the era of Perez Prado and Benny More, but in my house we heard more Mexican and Argentine music. Now, we’re returning to those days of an international Latin American music market. And these venues [such as the Latin Grammys] help internationalize all of our different genres.”

Today’s global entertainment companies are applying tailored strategies to market highly individual Latin artists, each with varying levels of U.S. crossover potential and even different degrees of desire for crossover careers. The only applicable marketing formula is the one that leaves no room for stereotypes or preconceptions. Not every Latin artist, after all, wants to live la vida loca.

“You had this feeding frenzy when Ricky hit,” says John Reilly, the New York-based publicist for Juanes and other Latin Grammy nominees. “Five years’ worth of phone calls I had made were returned in a day. All of a sudden, writers and editors and everybody wanted to find out about Latin music.

“Guess what? It was there all the time.”

Thomas D. Mottola, chairman of Sony Music Entertainment, has been intimately involved in nurturing the English-language careers of Martin, Marc Anthony, Colombian singer Shakira and others. Today, he says he’s not concerned about what appears to be the calm after the ballyhooed Latin boom. All music is cyclical, he noted. And now, the cycle has turned somewhat away from the flashy pop crossover and toward more authentic Latin music.

“I never thought there really was a Latin explosion,” Mottola said last week from New York. “To me, it sort of became ... a media hype. But it was really the result of a long, slow buildup which started [in the early 1980s] with artists like Julio Iglesias who paved the way. The good news is that the media blitz just brought the whole genre and style of music to the forefront.”

Most of the media attention so far this year has focused on the political controversy surrounding planned protests by Cuban exile groups in Miami, where the show was to be held until a last-minute change of venue.

Advertisement

Citing fear for the security of artists and guests, Latin Grammy organizers suddenly moved the event back to Los Angeles, where the inaugural ceremony was held last year.

The first Latin Grammy show was criticized for playing to ratings with a comfortable caravan of well-known performers like Santana and ‘N Sync. Viewers this time around will get a meatier taste of what Mottola calls “pure, core Latino music.”

Aside from Juanes and Marc Anthony, the show will feature performances by Mexican vocalist Thalia, Mottola’s wife, whose newest release (on rival label EMI Latin) includes a down-home, tuba-driven banda version of her hit, “Amor a la Mexicana.” Also on tonight’s bill: mariachi music’s superstar father-and-son team of Vicente and Alejandro Fernandez.

“It piques the public’s curiosity,” said Mottola about the Latin Grammy show. “It puts [this music] in your face. It takes the Anglo audience and just goes, ‘Here!’ And that’s never happened before.”

Also performing tonight will be Juanes, who was relatively unknown even to Latin audiences before he emerged with seven nominations in this year’s competition, including best new artist and best album. Raised in Medellin on traditional Colombian music that echoes through his rock-based work, Juanes has no plans to record in English, so far.

More familiar artists such as Marc Anthony and Shakira, who will also appear on tonight’s show, are being groomed for long-term careers on dual paths in Spanish and English.

Advertisement

Shakira, whose first English album will be released in November, spent months mastering her new language to be able to convey poetic concepts convincingly. Her career is being guided by Freddy DeMann, whose former clients include Michael Jackson and Madonna.

Marc Anthony, raised bilingually in New York, will mark what is considered an industry first on Oct. 23, when he releases two entirely different albums in two languages simultaneously. The strategy pairs his first salsa album in five years with a pop follow-up to his 1999 release, which included the hit “I Need to Know.”

Industry executives stress the emerging importance of the young, bilingual Latino consumers in the U.S. They make up an army of music fans who have sustained the domestic Latin music market through their loyalty to such artists as Los Tigres del Norte, the veteran norteno group based in San Jose, and Lupillo Rivera, a Mexican American newcomer who started out singing narco- corridos , tales of drug smuggling and violence, and last month became the first L.A.-bred artist to sell out the 6,000-seat Universal Amphitheatre.

“More and more, it’s becoming like one market,” said Mottola. “It’s like we’re selling to the same customers in America. The young Hispanic audience is out there in one bin buying Britney Spears and ‘N Sync, then moving over to the next bin and buying Lupillo and Los Tigres.”

Artists can’t make that switch as easily as buyers can, however. Before even considering a crossover, industry executives agreed, Latin artists must nurture a fan base in their home countries.

“It’s very important for artists to maintain their roots in their native markets,” said Rodolfo Lopez-Negrete, appointed last year as BMG’s vice president for Latin America.

Advertisement

Besides, crossover isn’t for everybody, said the Mexican executive.

Some Latin superstars simply don’t need it, since they already sell records and concert tickets in the millions. And it’s hard enough maintaining a career in the enormous Spanish-speaking world without adding another challenge.

“Our focus is developing Latin artists for Latin markets around the world,” said Lopez-Negrete, speaking from Brazil. “The topic of the crossover [to English] has been a little overdone.”

Strengthening an artist’s home base gives executives like Mottola more confidence in shooting for cross-cultural breakthroughs. It’s a sensitive maneuver, he acknowledged, especially for an artist like Shakira, 24, who has been recording in Spanish since she was 13.

She may have sold 4 million units of her last Spanish album, Mottola said, but switching to English for her is like making her first record all over again. He thinks she’s ready, calling her “a volcano waiting to explode into the Anglo market.”

But in the end, what if the explosion fizzles?

“No problem,” Mottola shot back. “She’ll make a Spanish album. She’ll go back to her core audience.”

Then, he’d urge her to keep trying.

*

The Latin Grammys air tonight from 9 to 11 on CBS.

Advertisement