Super Juanes!

Meanwhile the Queen dies; Tego lives; and the industry hangs on for dear life

However you want to measure success, 2003 belongs to Juan Esteban Aristizabal. Juanes's album Un Día Normal moved more copies than any other disc in Spanish this year, spending the entire year on Billboard's Top Ten Latin album chart (after parking there for eight months in 2002) and spawning five hit singles: "A Dios Le Pido," "Fotografía," "Es Por Tí," "Mala Gente," and "La Paga." He swept the Latin Grammys in September, taking home awards for album of the year, record of the year, song of the year, best rock solo album, and best rock song; then at the MTV Video Music Awards Latin America in October he won for artist of the year and best rock artist. Whew!

More evidence of Juanes's meteoric rise was seen at his sold-out show on May 7 at the Jackie Gleason Theater, kicking off his U.S. tour: The audience sat in respectful but stumped silence while the earnest singer-songwriter played tunes from his critically acclaimed but commercially ignored 2000 debut Fijate Bien, then erupted in singalong pandemonium to every single song from Un Día Normal. Even he seemed surprised by his sudden superstar status, looking helpless as he tried to play guitar with mobs of screaming girls hanging around his neck. He sees himself as a musician rather than a sex symbol; his sober smile and outstretched arms on those omnipresent Budweiser billboards served as a much-needed counterweight to those offensive "Feel the Latino" billboards put up by the Latin Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences for the Latin Grammys last fall. His surge in popularity proves that in hard economic times, Latin music fans are finding salvation in more heartfelt sounds. Like his beer sponsors say: Juanes, this year's for you!

The Latin Grammys finally took place in Miami, which I guess is a small triumph -- made even smaller by the likelihood that some kind of deal was made with the White House to keep nominated Cuban artists away from the awards ceremony. Reminder to our elected officials: It ain't free speech if you make it impossible for people you disagree with to be heard. MTV Latin America trumped the Latin Grammys on courage once again, featuring Castro's troubled pal, soccer god Diego Maradona, in a videotaped cameo at the VMALAs. Also featured: Daisy Fuentes on the toilet and Erik Estrada as a bullying cop. Wasn't it Ponch who said, "I may disagree with what you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it"?

When it comes to the year's top Latin artists, Juanes 
stands alone
Courtesy of Universal
When it comes to the year's top Latin artists, Juanes stands alone

But if there wasn't much fight to the Latin Grammys, there was a lot of feeling. The year's most touching moment came when rapper Tego Calderón broke down in tears at one of the Latin Grammys' Carreras y Música (Careers and Music) events, where pop stars and producers tell impressionable youngsters how they can make it in the music industry. The tears started to flow as he shared how happy he felt to finally make his parents proud by turning his street smarts into one of the Latin hits of the year: the breakout reggaeton album El Abayarde. The event's soundman broke the tension by breaking out Tego's track "Pa' Que Retozen" and unleashing an auditorium full of teenage hips in the reggaeton equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane.

Tego's hit met with the same reaction when spun by the DJ in between acts at this year's Soulfrito Urban Latino Music Festival, even though the rapper was not on the bill. "Overexposed," explained event promoter Melissa Giles. He had already put on three shows in the Miami area last year. Too bad, because no other show came close to the kind of all-inclusive survey of this thing called "Urban Latin" music as Soulfrito. There was a historic convergence of old-school Latin hip-hop as Magic Juan, late of Proyecto Uno, took the mike with Huey Dunbar, formerly of DLG, and the crew from still-together merengue-hip-hop stalwart Fulanito. While Juan and Fulanito's Dose rapped raw, Huey harked back to the true urban Latin underground days of freestyle.

But the old-school urban Latin sound, with the accent on Latin, has given way to the new-school style with an accent on urban. Sure, New York City's soul bachateros Aventura were big crowd pleasers at Soulfrito (in sharp contrast to the more adventurous, multiculti Yerba Buena, who was too conscious for the hoochie-and-thug set and was showered with boos). True, Aventura's barrio appeal seemed for the night to beat out the straight-up hip-hop of Cuban-American Pitbull, who got cranky when the New Yorkers overstayed their set and cut into his time, came onstage in a cursing fury, and tried to turn the crowd against the out-of-towners. But if Pitbull was the odd man out at this year's Soulfrito, promoter Giles sees acts like him, fellow Cuban-American Don Dinero, and Mexican-American R&B crooner Frankie J. as more indicative of what the future holds for urban Latin youth. "The industry thinks reggaeton is going to be the next big thing," she observes. "But it's not going to be the next big thing for Latin music overall. There are a lot more other things to come from Latinos making mainstream urban music. Young Latinos are here and our music is really neglected."

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