By Jacob Katel
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Blame it on Rio, of course. Ask your average music lover in this country about the rhythms of Brazil, and you may get three postcard-worthy descriptions: cool, bubbly, bring-out-the-caipirinha type of sounds (bossa nova); sexy, sweaty, and acrobatic (samba, lambada); or just plain camp (hey, it's Carmen Miranda time!) What you probably won't hear associated with Brazil is the term teen pop.
That, however, may change if two young, photogenic kids from the city of Campinas manage to parlay across the globe the astounding popularity they have enjoyed for the past decade in their native country.
The sister-and-brother duo of Sandy & Junior are stars in Brazil the way Britney Spears or Backstreet Boys are here. According to their record label, Universal Music, they are the most successful act in the history of Brazilian pop music, selling some 12 million albums in a career that spans over a dozen recordings.
Almost three decades ago, balladeer Roberto Carlos became Brazil's top record-selling artist, hitting it big outside the country with his singing in Portuguese and Spanish. Few, however, were able to follow in his footsteps until Alexandre Pires, lead singer for samba/pagode band So Pra Contrariar, began to get noticed in the United States. To make an effective transition, though, Pires had to sing in Spanish, learn to speak the language, go solo in foreign markets (he remains with the band in Brazil), and even record a duet with crossover expert Gloria Estefan.
Now, Sandy and (Durval) Junior de Lima, ages nineteen and eighteen respectively, are going to give it a go. Short of world domination, Universal Music has high hopes for them. Their first album targeted for international consumption is a self-titled sweet-as-a-sugar-loaf project recorded in Spanish, English, and Portuguese in Los Angeles last year. Sandy & Junior, released in the United States on July 16, features producers who have worked with pop favorites such as Ace of Base, S Club 7, Atomic Kitten, Britney Spears, and Backstreet Boys.
"I think they will become one of the greatest acts in the world," enthuses Richard Ogden, the duo's international manager. "They have that special something, and they really know what they are about."
And when does he envision them blossoming all over the Americas?
"In three or four years," says Ogden. "I have been impressed by them on every level. I felt it was my lucky day when I got called."
Ogden should know a thing or two about luck. From 1987 to 1993, he recounts, he was worldwide manager for Paul McCartney. After that, as senior VP of marketing for Sony Europe, he had a lot to do with unleashing Ricky Martin on the non-Spanish-speaking world.
Something of that sort is what he has in mind for Sandy & Junior. At least, beginning in this country's Hispanic communities.
"The strategy is to connect them to their cultural roots. They're Latinos, and the language, the philosophy, and the outlook of life is quite similar," offers Ogden on bridging the gap between Spanish and Portuguese-speaking audiences. "Listen, Ricky Martin was selling records in Spanish in Sweden, so I know we can do this!"
There may be just a little problem, however: Sandy & Junior, who speak English reasonably well, are not as good in Spanish. And it is Spanish-speaking audiences, and not the Swedes, whom they are trying to conquer. Portuñol (a blend of Portuguese and Spanish the duo employ humorously) may only take them so far.
"It is imperative that they learn to speak Spanish -- otherwise, when they come to this country or visit the rest of Latin America, they're going to have a hard time connecting," says the publicity director for a major rival recording label, who asked to remain anonymous. The publicist speaks from experience, having worked with artists whose first language is neither Spanish nor English but who have tried, some with better results than others, to make it in the Spanish markets.
"Also complicating things is the fact that the Hispanic youth market in this country is really difficult to work with," says the rival. "In Mexico, in Puerto Rico, in the rest of Latin America, there are many more radio programs or stations that play this kind of music, but not here. Here, most kids will listen to pop in English."
Which is why the Sandy & Junior album also includes songs in English, like the first single, "Love Never Fails" ("El Amor No Fallará").
"But then, what are they going after?" wonders the publicist. "The Hispanic market in the U.S. or the English-language market? I would define it more."
Planning and strategies don't seem to concern the duo that much.
"It will be interesting to see what is going to happen," says Junior, who sings, plays guitar, and dabbles in drums and percussion while performing with his sister.
"We like this. It is exciting and new," adds Sandy, whose vocal prowess could easily rival Mariah Carey's. "I get nervous, but at the same time, I am so happy to show who we are to those parts of the world that don't know us."