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.

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.

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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