Double Cross

Is prime time really ready for Latin music?

One of the more talented former Mouseketeers now hot on the pop scene (along with Britney Spears and 'N Sync's Justin Timberlake and JC Chasez), Aguilera nevertheless delivers a woefully soulless stab at R&B. The funk-free divadom currently dominating the pop charts is tedious enough in straight-up hip-hop minstrel numbers, such as Aguilera's breakout hit “Genie in the Bottle.” The direct Spanish translation, “Genio Atrapado,” is pointless. (Was it the poetic beauty of “You gotta rub me the right way” that Latin America needed to hear en español?) The imposition of that style on Latin standards is a travesty.

Luckily for the audience, the Puerto Rican quartet Son by Four proved that Latin and R&B can mix. For singer Angel Lopez, who fell under the spell of gospel music while growing up in Chicago, the reference for R&B's vocal riffs is not Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey but the black church and the sorrow songs of the slaves throughout the Southern United States. Son by Four fuses African-American and Afro-Caribbean expression deliberately. The other three vocalists sing in the tradition of the sonero, with brothers Javier and Jorge Montes and their cousin, Pedro Quiles, contributing a range of salsa styles from the classic Puerto Rican Fania line to harder-hitting contemporary Cuban timba.

Viewers did not get a chance to hear much of this fusion, though. LARAS limited Son by Four to its most successful and most strictly R&B number, “Puro Dolor” (“The Purest of Pain”), which had spent 29 weeks at the top of the pop charts at the time of the broadcast. As if the quartet could not stand alone on that kind of success, the ceremony paired the group with R&B-lite boy band 'N Sync in a blatant appeal to mainstream teenyboppers. Like Aguilera, 'N Sync sang a crossover tune of their own with Spanish lyrics and whitewashed R&B style.

After rubbing the traditional Grammys the right way, Aguilera leaves the Latin Grammys empty-handed
After rubbing the traditional Grammys the right way, Aguilera leaves the Latin Grammys empty-handed

Latin pop is closest to mainstream U.S. pop at exactly this point of the whitening of African music and dance. When Santana accepted his first award on the telecast, he reminded the audience that all Latin music has African roots. While that is a very selective history, the importance of African influence on Latin music is undeniable. Afro-Latin flavor energized Santana's duet with Maná. Gloria Estefan sang a very proper update of the Afro-Cuban son. Blond-locked Carlos Vives raised his arms in a modest Afro-Colombian cumbia, backed by black and indigenous Colombian musicians. Even Shakira's showstopping introduction to Middle America drew equally from African-influenced modern dance and costuming as well as Middle Eastern dance. Apart from the brief appearance of Celia Cruz and an acoustic solo by Brazilian singer-songwriter Djavan, black faces were few and far between on the Latin Grammys.

The dearth of Afro-Cuban acts seems to be at odds with the crossover impulse. Salsa nominees Los Van Van and the septuagenarian Best New Artist winner Ibrahim Ferrer both have a proven appeal to Anglo audiences that earned each act a place on the February Grammys. No Cuban national was featured at the Latin Grammys, however, despite LARAS' decision to move the event from Miami to Los Angeles in order not to be hamstrung by the now moribund Cuba ordinance.

Did the anti-Castro politics of LARAS “Person of the Year” Emilio Estefan, Jr., play a role in that omission? “No, because it's a production of the academy, CBS, and Cossette Productions, and he wouldn't have that kind of influence,” clarified Adam Sandler. He continued, choosing his words carefully: “Having said that, it's important for me to give the other half. We always welcome his creative influence, but when it comes to creative decisions based on what's best for the show, those decisions fall to us.”

At the close of the first Latin Grammys show, the question remains: What is best for Latin music? Despite good intentions, what is unique and genuinely different about Latin music often disappears in the effort to reassure new listeners that these alien sounds are not so alien after all. To keep crossover from sliding into a double cross might ultimately require the invention of new, border sounds where every one is accepted as alien.

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