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The club in the photograph is filled with laughing Taiwanese, their eyes riveted on the Latina woman with the microphone dancing on the tiny stage, dressed in a gold minidress with black boots. Jessi James Campo is on tour in Taipei, teaching an eager audience how to dance merengue. The audience is thrilled to hear the Latin beat. The names Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez recently have made their way into the Chinese vocabulary. Now James is trying to add a few more phrases in both Spanish and English. "Patacon pisao," she sings, describing both a banana dish and a Latin dance. "Go down, go down, go down," she sings, adding the English command to the Spanish-language song. Then she throws in two of the very few words she knows in Chinese: "Clap hands."
"This is in Hong Kong," says James, flipping through a thick photo album at a restaurant in Miami Beach last November. "I've been home for three months," she adds, referring to her latest jaunt in a series of tours through Asia that also has taken her to Singapore, Bangkok, and Guam. "We go out for three months then come back for one month," she explains of the gigs booked through a U.S. agency. "Last year I was out for nine months. The year before for six months." James has enjoyed a much bigger response in Asia than she has yet to receive in South Florida, where the singer grew up.
"I was in the island of Guam in 1995," she says of one of the high points of her time abroad. "I wrote a song called “Rhythm Island.' I sold 3000 copies, and it was in the stores. I got so much recognition for this song that I just wrote because the island inspired me." The Asian media has covered her career there generously, leading to newspaper articles and appearances on television. All the attention makes James wonder what's wrong with her homeland. "If I'm getting this kind of response in Asia," she muses about why the major labels here have not yet signed her on, "it's not me."
After fruitlessly shopping her material at the major labels, James decided three years ago to put out a CD herself, investing $10,000 in the production of the ten-track How Can I .... Last fall she marked the CD's release by organizing her own showcase at Power Studios. "I just want someone here from the industry to take notice," she says of her investment. "I want them to see: “This is a self-contained artist. We've got nothing to lose here. Let's put it out.'" The proximity of the industry in Miami is especially frustrating. "It's like you're dangling the carrot in front of us," she laments, "but you're saying, “You can't have us.'"
The daughter of a Cuban vaudeville performer and a Chilean singer who were married on television in Latin America in the 1960s, James has been scrapping as a singer since she was a high school student in the Miami Edison class of 1986. There her guidance counselor encouraged her to pursue the music business rather than a pre-med scholarship at the University of Miami. "He told me: “Follow your heart. Do whatever you want. Go do it. Get it out of your system. And then I got pre-med out of my system," she laughs. "Originally I wanted to heal people by being a doctor. I think I ended up doing it with music. People feel my energy, and I think I make people happy."
At first her Latin background was a drawback, but the recent boom encouraged the singer to add her mother's stage name to her original performance moniker, Jessi James. "My first band gig was with a rock and roll band," she remembers. "The agent told the band to get rid of me because I was too Latin looking. Now it's okay to be Latin and have a big butt and they say, “Okay, she's Latin. It's cool.' This is great for anybody who has Latin heritage."
What she perceives as her connection with the audience is what has kept her in the business since then. "Every time I do “Get into the Feeling' at a nightclub," she says of a catchy dance number, "people are singing at the end of the song. I play at clubs from South Beach to Delray and Coral Springs. I play to a wide range of cultural backgrounds. I don't have distribution. That's why I did the showcase. I'm hoping a major label will give me the international distribution I need. I sell CDs at my gigs that you would not believe. I think if people can hear it, they'll say, “Oh, I want that.' I've tried them. I've tested them out."
The South Florida gigs, which can be as frequent as six times per week during the season, have both served James as a test market and as a hindrance to hitting it big. "Personally my biggest setback has been managing myself," she complains. "I've been around for years, so basically I've been my own manager, my own booking agent. I put together my own showcase. I'm running the business, getting the gigs. I have never been able to focus on myself."