Latin Grammys gamble in Vegas and it pays off

Times Staff Writer

There were moments during Thursday’s Latin Grammy Awards ceremony in Las Vegas that were so unexpected, daring or just plain fun that you wished Sin City’s famous slogan didn’t apply: It would be a shame if what happened on stage there really did just stay there.

Sorry to say, though, most people who don’t speak Spanish or watch the Univision network missed out on some of the best performances in the eight-year history of the international music competition. Wouldn’t you know it? They get it right when the rest of the world isn’t watching.

On paper, the concept for the night’s show made me cringe. Hey, we’re in Vegas. Why not match Latino artists with some big Vegas shows? So pop singer Ricky Martin got teamed with the Blue Man Group, and Puerto Rico’s irreverent rap duo Calle 13 was matched with Stomp Out Loud.


My first reaction: Will they never learn?

The Latin Grammys spent its first five years broadcasting in English on CBS, trying to project Latin music across a great cultural divide. Producers went into contortions trying to make the music palatable to Middle America, often teaming top Latino stars with an English-language act (David Bisbal with Jessica Simpson) for no reason other than ratings, assuming non-Latinos would watch only if they recognized some non-Latino celebrity.

That didn’t work. CBS pulled the plug on the telecast, which Univision happily scooped up. The Latin Grammys, it seemed, were destined to go back to the ghetto and stay in the ghetto.

But when Ricky opened Thursday’s show with a booming, boisterous version of his festive dance hit “La Bomba” backed by those funny guys in blue paint, the show’s original vision of cross-cultural collaboration was finally vindicated. The group’s thunderous, theatrical percussion work was perfectly suited to the song’s bottom-heavy tropical arrangement. And the Blue Men showed off some salsa moves.

For the song’s finale, Martin joined the group behind some kettle drums filled with colored water. As they beat the aqueous instruments with sticks in unison, colors splashed out to Caribbean beats and Martin ended up happily drenched.

Now that’s an opener. We’ll remember Martin’s number long after we forget that he lost in major categories to Dominican singer-songwriter Juan Luis Guerra, the night’s big winner with five awards, including a clean sweep of record, album and song categories. Martin’s acoustic retrospective “MTV Unplugged” garnered two trophies for male pop vocal album and long form video.

Later, there was another magical collaboration between Calle 13 and the terrific rap trio Orishas joined by the cast of “Stomp.” It was both a celebratory and seditious moment.

Calle 13, the outrageously outspoken duo of siblings Residente and Visitante, turned the performance of their defiant, pro-immigrant song “Pal Norte” (Head North) into a revolutionary statement on Spanish-language television.

Residente, the tattooed wild man of the act, marched down one of the aisles at the Mandalay Bay resort leading a colorful contingent of Colombians dressed in folkloric white garb, some with red bandannas across their mouths masking their faces faces like guerrillas.

They included aging members of Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto, which won for folk album, along with anonymous members of the Arhuaco Indian tribe from the remote mountains of Colombia’s Sierra Nevada, where they’ve been caught in the middle of civil war. The duo met these endangered people on a trek through South America (mentioned in the song) and invited them on the show to spotlight their plight. The very act of showcasing dark-skinned, indigenous faces was startling on a network that notoriously favors white-skinned actors and news anchors with European features.

“It’s as if we stopped looking at the indigenous as Latinos too,” said Visitante (Eduardo Cabra), speaking in Spanish by phone after the show. “We look at them like extraterrestrials or characters from Disneyland. But, bro, it’s like, they’re Americans too.”

Eventually, the drumming of Stomp, a marching-band clamor of trash cans, kettles, brooms and what-not, morphed from a Vegas spectacle into the sounds of a street revolt, or a war dance. Calle 13 was rewarded for its uncompromising music with wins in both urban music categories -- urban song and album -- for “Residente o Visitante.”

In the latter category, they beat out fellow Puerto Rican and reggaeton superstar Daddy Yankee, who performed accompanied by the feathered, scantily clad cabaret dancers from Folies Bergere. Yankee, looking chunky in an ill-fitting suit, seemed totally disconnected from the showgirls swirling around him. In his case, Vegas was just a prop.

So the secret to this business of cultural collaborations seems to be this: It works when it comes together in the service of the music.

The perfect closer for the show was Guerra, who was also honored as the Latin Grammy’s Person of the Year. As always, Guerra didn’t need a showy production; he sang naturally and warmly. For the author of the sweet, prayer-like “Ojala Que Llueva Cafe,” a Latin music classic, it’s always been about the songs.

Here are a couple more performance highlights from this year’s telecast:

The latest thing from Uruguay

Every year, the Latin Grammys hold some marvelous surprise. This time, it’s the provocative and inventive pop/rock group from tiny Uruguay called El Cuarteto de Nos (roughly, the Quartet of Yours Truly).

El Cuarteto was tucked away with a single nomination in the rock song category for “Yendo A La Casa De Damian” (Going to Damian’s House), from their album “Raro,” or “Strange.” They lost to Gustavo Cerati from neighboring Argentina, but finding them was worth it.

These guys love lyrics, and they are masters at wordplay, literate humor and absurd contradictions. Try to follow their creative Castilian -- with references to Che Guevara, Moliere and Arthur Conan Doyle -- as the printed words weave and wind through this mesmerizing animation for their song “Ya no se que hacer conmigo” (I Don’t Know What to Do with Myself Anymore).

Watch in full screen or words get cut off: watch?v=y9LlnLTH87U.

It’s not flamenco, but ‘Ole’ anyway

Hats off to Ojos de Brujo, which won for flamenco album with the jewel “Techari” (Free).

Flamenco purists will have a fit, because the band doesn’t play true flamenco, or claim to. It’s a fusion of flamenco stylings with electronica, funk, Afro-Cuban and more, and belongs in the alternative music category.

Or how about just “best music of any kind”?