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The word crossover hangs in the air at this year's MIDEM Americas 1999 conference, which rolls into Miami Beach next week with a series of daytime panels and evening music showcases, all spotlighting Latin, Caribbean, and African artists and the record labels eager to sell them to American audiences. "What are the 'package' adjustments an artist has to make in music, appearance, management, musicianship, and production in order to cross over into the U.S. market?" asks one MIDEM panel. "Does Latin product have to be substantially altered in order to be marketable to the U.S. audience?" The answer, if you're Ricky Martin, would seem to be an emphatic yes. If one is willing to drastically overhaul an artist from top to bottom, add ska riffs and a sanitized-for-the-media personal life, the reward can be a hit record and the adoration of prepubescent girls across the American heartland.
If, however, a fan base that owns driver's licenses is what you're after, jumping headfirst into the pop machine may not be the wisest long-term move. Such thoughts were obviously on similarly hyped Latin singer Marc Anthony's mind when he told Time: "I don't know what they're talking about with this Latino crossover thing. I could see if I was doing a salsa album in English. But you know what? We're not doing Latin music on our English stuff. Latin-tinged, yes."
There's another career path, though, one gloriously driven home by the music pouring out of director Wim Wenders's luminous new film, Buena Vista Social Club. A vividly colored portrait of the old-school Cuban musicians who came together under the Buena Vista moniker, the film helps explain why the band's album has already sold almost two million copies worldwide (on an independent label in many nations to boot).
Performing sounds the Cuban music establishment considered uncommercial (government officials told foreign producers searching for Buena Vista pianist Reuben Gonzales that he was out of town or dead, steering them instead toward younger, more modern keyboardists), the group has won the hearts of fans across continents. For many the Buena Vista Social Club was their first Latin-record purchase. In fact it's precisely this air of "old-fashionedness" that lies at the heart of Buena Vista's appeal. Eschewing slick videos, radio-friendly singles, personal stylists, or remixers to smooth out the rough edges, the band produces music that oozes gritty roots. In contrast to the bulk of the pop continuum, which can be traced no further than to a recording studio, Buena Vista is most assuredly from somewhere. While industry figures debate the nuances of crossing over at MIDEM, the members of Buena Vista Social Club will continue to create their "uncommercial" music, packing out Carnegie Hall, touring the world, and laughing all the way to the bank.
You can catch a homegrown taste of that Buena Vista spirit on Wednesday, June 23, when Grupo Nostalgia (the house band at Little Havana's famed Cafe Nostalgia) headlines a MIDEM-sponsored bill at the beach stage facing the Tides Hotel on Ocean Drive. While playing under the night sky will no doubt inspire some schmaltzy ballads, when Grupo Nostalgia revs up into its full stride, expect to hear some churning son with few local peers.
Also performing a set of hard-driving salsa is Ricardo Lemvo, who hails not from Havana, but from the Congo. The concept of West Africans diving into Cuban music may on the surface seem a bit odd, but Lemvo's band is only the tip of the iceberg. Earlier generations of Latin fans in Africa were forced to obsessively hunt down Machito records to feed their salsa jones. But Cuban soldiers stationed in Angola in the late Seventies and Eighties were quick to initiate jam sessions with local guitar-based outfits. The results were a heady fusion of Cuban-styled percussive rhythms and shimmery African grooves that are still mutating in wonderful new ways. Here's hoping some of those bands make it to Miami for next year's MIDEM.
Local hero Nil Lara (no stranger to crosscultural pollination himself) was also penciled in on this lineup, but strangely disappeared from the final schedule. No one's talking.
Other showcase highlights: Tuesday, June 22 at Warsaw, Cameroon's Sally Nyolo weaves dreamy landscapes held together by her at-times otherworldly voice. Trumpeter Hugh Masekela's recent albums have been a bit too smoothed out in comparison with his foot-stomping prime, but live, he should deliver the goods. A good omen: from Miami Masekela heads to NYC, where he shares the stage with techno-jazz pioneer Carl Craig. Mali's Rokia Traore and Cameroon's Richard Bona round out the night here.
Thursday, June 24 features Haitian compas legend Tabou Combo (by all reports, still in top form) at the Tides's stage, joined by ex-Kassav leader Jacob Desvarieux. In an odd turn, citing poor sales for dance music, a week's worth of electronica shows were canceled at the last minute by MIDEM planners. Someone should inform Miami's record stores, for whom DJ culture has become bread and butter. In any case the sole remaining electronic gig Thursday, June 24, at the Shadow Lounge highlights the growing melding of classical Indian music and breakbeats. It's a brilliant concept (particularly because the Indian tabla is one of the few instruments whose natural tempo can keep time with drum and bass's frenetic pace), and one that has seen fertile expression with a growing crop of British artists such as Nitin Sawhney, Talvin Singh, and Badmarsh & Shri. Unfortunately Billy Sagoo isn't part of that circle, and Sagoo (who does little more than wrap by-the-numbers dance fodder in Indian effects) is who MIDEM chose to perform at this showcase.