A List Without Borders

Times Staff Writer

For all the talk about global culture, pop music continues to be a relatively segregated pastime. On year-end top-10 lists for 2001, critics still skewed toward rock and rap and rumba, with remarkably little overlap.

My list, for example, is entirely Latin. That may seem limited to some, but an entire musical universe falls under that umbrella. Salsa alone could consume a critic full time, not to mention other genres, from mariachi to rock en espanol.

With so much music from so many countries, who has time for Britney Spears? I admit, I was clueless about most of the albums picked by my colleagues as the year's best. Even Bob Dylan, a longtime personal favorite, got a cursory spin on my turntable after I picked up the vinyl version of his new album, "Love and Theft," which seemed to be every critic's favorite.

Bias? Sure, but by specialty. I wouldn't presume to say where Dylan should place on the musical spectrum of 2001, although I may have been able to do it for 1971, when my English-Spanish listening ratio was reversed. Today, when it comes to mainstream American pop music, I may as well be tuned in to Radio Kabul.

For similar reasons, I presume, Latin music ranked only sparingly on mainstream critics' lists. Not a single one of my 10 choices was shared by the 14 writers who voted in the Times' annual pop music poll, a result that can make you feel like you live in a parallel universe.

Predictably, Latin artists who popped up on top 10s here and there--singer Marc Anthony in Time magazine or Buena Vista bassist Cachaito Lopez in the New York Times--tended to be those who benefit from strong crossover publicity.

But while such artists may be the best known outside the Spanish-speaking world, they're not necessarily the best choices within it.

I don't really believe in lists, although I love reading them. How can you say a great salsa album outranks a great mariachi one? I'd be hard-pressed to defend why I put one album at No. 6 and another at No. 9, and not the other way around.

But I'd have no trouble defending the list itself. I chose works in various genres for their creativity and individuality, by artists sure of who they are and what they want to say. Those who try to be something they're not--diluting their cultural character or switching to English to sell more records--get beaucoup demerits in my book.

My favorites are all proudly rooted in their distinct cultures, but not confined by them. Many offer a glimpse into other worlds, like the harsh borderlands between Mexico and the U.S. explored by Lila Downs in her stark and startling album, "Border/La Linea."

Another pick, by the salsa-folk trio Servando, Sandino y Florentino, offers strong social commentary from a different part of the continent. These young Venezuelans have crafted sterling new arrangements for the '60s-era protest songs written by their father, the late Ali Primera. They may look like just another superficial, pretty-boy band, but they breathed new life into their father's still-relevant social concerns.

One of the great rewards of this job is the discovery of new music. By far my most exciting find of the year was Pedro Guerra, a singer-songwriter from Tenerife in the Canary Islands who already has a handful of albums in Spain. His latest release, the lovely and spiritual "Ofrenda," was lost in the shuffle of Latin Grammy nominations this year. It didn't win in the male pop vocal category, but the title cut was included in a Grammy compilation CD, where it captured my ear with its fresh acoustic sound and joyful melody.

Guerra's song is a tender, uplifting tune about welcoming home spirits with offerings on the Day of the Dead, a custom he discovered in Oaxaca, Mexico. He also writes in an engrossing, personal way about the street children of Rio and Mexico City, the plight of unwanted immigrants (in a song spiked with Middle Eastern music), and the paralyzing power of fear. It's an inspiring, hopeful work, which I ranked No. 1.

My list leans heavily toward the music I know the best: salsa, and the sub-genre I like the best, Cuban salsa.

Four Cubans made my list: Issac Delgado, Carlos Manuel, Cesar Pedroso and Charanga Habanera. But Havana is so charged with creative energy there could have been twice as many. Unlike the tired, formulaic salsa acts we get from New York these days, the Cubans each have their own style and point of view. What they share is the Cuban compulsion to be different and better than before.

I confess an affirmative-action attitude in trying to include acts from Mexico, my native country. But aside from Downs, it wasn't easy to do and maintain integrity. Mexican pop music is in a dismal condition, and its rich folkloric forms are either being neglected or turned into cheap retreads of the glory days. Still, mariachi singer Pepe Aguilar sticks to his guns, offering a set of polished new rancheras distinguished by their craft and good taste.

Jorge Moreno, a young Cuban American from Miami, is the only U.S.-based act on my list. This singer-songwriter has come up with a seamless, bicultural fusion of Afro-Cuban salsa, melodic '60s pop and even a little '50s calypso. His sound is a fresh pop contribution from the Latino immigrant community in this country, which very rarely delivers anything original in the way of Latin music.

My list is weak on rock en espanol, a field I'm learning on the job. I agree with those who believe this is one of the most promising areas of Latin music, despite limited sales. The best, like Jarabe de Palo from Spain, fuse a rebellious, even jaundiced rock attitude with their native styles. This Catalan quintet, for example, blends echoes of Dire Straits with strains of Jamaican reggae, Colombian vallenato and Congolese soukous.

Which brings us back to global culture. In a line that could apply to pop music as well as human affairs, Jarabe de Palo affirms that "there is no future in being pure, because true purity is in the mix."

The message has even more power in the song's rhyming, rhythmic Spanish. See if you can hear it:

En lo puro no hay futuro/la pureza esta en la mezcla.

Gurza's Top 10

1. Pedro Guerra, "Ofrenda," BMG Music Spain

2. Issac Delgado, "La Formula," Ahi-NaMa Music

3. Lila Downs, "Border/La Linea," Narada World

4. Carlos Manuel, "Malo Cantidad," Palm/Masucci Entertainment

5. Jorge Moreno, "Jorge Moreno," Maverick Musica

6. Cesar Pedroso, "Pupy, Y Los Que Son Son," Termidor (Germany)

7. Servando, Sandino y Florentino, "De Primera a Primera," Hecho a Mano Discos/BMG U.S. Latin.

8. Jarabe de Palo, "De Vuelta y Vuelta," EMI Latin/Virgin Spain

9. Charanga Habanera, "Chan Chan Charanga," Ciocan Music

10. Pepe Aguilar, "Lo Mejor de Nosotros," Discos Musart

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