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"?

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."

We will certainly need to hear more from young Latinos, now that our most revered elder has passed on. The most powerful show of 2003 was one where the star never moved. The Queen, Celia Cruz, lay motionless in state, smiling in a blond wig at the Freedom Tower last July while politicians fell over themselves to get a piece of her mojo and tens of thousands of mourning fans lined up to get one last peek at her radiance. If there is such a thing as a sold-out wake, this was it. Always in tune with the times, Celia passed on to the beat of her last hit single, "Ríe y Llora" ("Laugh and Cry"), leaving us with this final testament: "Laugh, cry/Because everyone's hour arrives." How lucky for us that Celia's hour took more than 80 years to come.

To some observers, this looked like the year that Latin music might die as well. The majors' Miami-based Latin divisions took a big hit from street level and Internet piracy, leading most to cut back on personnel and perks. Gone are the lavish hotel suites and succulent spreads that used to go along with interviews when I started this job four years ago. Now all but the very top artists hold forth in dreary label conference rooms, the most depressing of which is the Coral Gables offices of BMG Latin, a virtual ghost town in the months leading up to its recent merger with Sony. Some industry insiders fear that the downturn will lead to the dismantling of our city as the Latin music capital and the sacrifice of a generation of artists. One insider associated with Juanes's first album observes that in today's climate, he'd never have gotten the chance to do a followup after the disappointing sales of his debut.

But others believe that the record business is just going through another round of growing pains and that the Latin entertainment industry is too entrenched in Miami to go away. Sergio George -- the Nuyorican producer of "Ríe y Llora," Celia's previous powerhouse "La Negra Tiene Tumbao," the tongue-in-cheek Bacilos hit "Mi Primer Millón," and basically the whole movement known as tropi-pop -- opted to move down to South Florida to set up a studio here. "It's not gloom and doom and all," says George of the industry outlook. "It's a sort of cleansing. The record business started to get too corporate. People get tired of fabrication. These kinds of things happen to get the focus back on artists. So it's a good thing."

Just ask Juanes.

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