Double Cross

Is prime time really ready for Latin music?

Launching the first annual Latin Grammys at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on September 13, the Latin Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (LARAS) took no risks. Instead the first-ever predominantly Spanish-language broadcast on a major U.S. television network tailored Latin sounds to prevailing U.S. pop tastes. Nothing ventured; nothing gained in the translation.

“We're hoping to reach everyone,” said LARAS spokesperson Adam Sandler. The event reached viewers in 120 nations, but the ratings in the United States ranked the Latin Grammys ninth of eleven shows broadcast in the same time slot from 9:00 to 11:00 p.m. Compare this with the traditional Grammys last February, also broadcast on CBS, which commanded first place in the ratings for three hours. When the Grammys took on a Spanish accent, the majority of viewers preferred the career-girl antics of Sex and the City and a special episode of Felicity starring Tyra Banks over even the most crossover-friendly Latin stars.

Wooing this fickle new audience, the program turned a cold shoulder to Latin music's most loyal listeners. In a much-publicized interview with the Los Angeles Spanish-language daily La Opinion, Gilbert Moreno, general manager of the nation's largest Latin label, the Mexican-owned Fonovisa, called for his artists to sit out the ceremony. He said, “This is a party between Emilio Estefan and Sony.... [The Latin Grammys] definitely don't represent Latin artists at all.” Moreno's remarks fueled further complaints that the show underrepresents Mexican Americans, who make up as much as 60 percent of the U.S. Latino population and have made Mexican regional music the biggest selling segment of the Latin recording industry.

Sandler insisted that the slighting of Mexican regional performers had less to do with the reach of the Evil Estefan Enterprises Empire and more to do with LARAS' commitment to crossover. “You have to think, What's better?” said Sandler. “A show that's all Mexican regional that only a small segment will tune into or a show that appeals to a broader audience? Our mission is to help promote Latin music.” The telecast of the Latin Grammys gives a very clear picture of what kind of Latin music LARAS deems ready for prime time.

The ceremony opened with a tribute to the late great Puerto Rican timbalero Tito Puente, and turned on one of Puente's best-known compositions, “Oye Como Va” (“Listen to How It Goes”). The song entered the Anglo-pop world through the 1971 hit version recorded by the Mexican-born, California-bred rocker Carlos Santana. Almost thirty years later, the 53-year-old Santana dominated the Latin Grammys along with his Mexican collaborators, the most commercially successful rock band singing in Spanish, Maná. Santana sat out the tribute, however -- not out of disrespect to Puente, but out of disgust at the disorganization of the performance. Backstage rumors hold that Ricky Martin's handlers were calling for a larger role for America's crossover darling and that Santana resented being told how to sing the song that has been his signature for 30 years. Martin prevailed, delightful as always to look at but not always so delightful to listen to. Singing with him was Gloria Estefan, another superstar not widely celebrated for her vocal prowess. Bringing power to the trio, and a long history of collaboration and friendship with Puente, was the incomparable Celia Cruz.

The timbre of any singing voice is tinged with history. Celia Cruz has for decades been la sonera mayor (the greatest of salsa singers). But we have already lost something critical in translation, because “to sonear” is not “to sing.” Ricky Martin and Gloria Estefan sing salsa. Celia Cruz launches her voice into the rhythm of the timbales and the congas, keeping always within the three-beat, two-beat patterned phrase of the clave, the profound syncopated heartbeat of tropical music. Ricky Martin and Gloria Estefan sing salsa. Celia Cruz draws from the depth of her lungs and a pinched place high up in her nose the sacred chants of her ancestors, the Yoruba people of West Africa who brought the drums to the Caribbean at the time of the transatlantic slave trade. Celia was not the only sonera or sonero at the Staples Center, but she was the only sonera we heard -- and we did not hear enough of her.

Instead, as the first solo act, we had Christina Aguilera, who presented two numbers from her new Spanish-language release Mi Reflejo (My Reflection), released the day before the ceremony on September 12. The twenty-year-old Ecuadorian American began with a bolero, the standard Latin love song “Contigo en la Distancia” (“With You in the Distance”). Transported to Latin America by the medieval courtly lovers of Spain, the bolero vibrates with sentiment the singer must contain. The struggle to hold back the emotion communicates deep pain. The Pittsburgh-bred youth has a very different frame of reference for love's sweet sorrow, however: contemporary urban rhythm and blues. Aguilera blasts through the classic verse “There is no beautiful melody/That you don't come through/And I don't want to hear it/If I don't hear it with you,” prolonging the final syllable of each line and bending the note like a soft piece of taffy.

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