By David Rolland
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Less than 24 hours before he appeared at a July 14 press conference at the Mayan, a nightclub in downtown Los Angeles, to announce the nominees for the 2004 Latin Grammy Awards, Gabriel Abaroa, president of the Latin Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, talked about his organization's signature event at its Santa Monica office. Over the years, the Latin Grammys have attracted controversy, from staunch resistance among Miami exiles for attempting to honor musicians who live in Cuba to accusations that the event overlooks regional Mexican music.
After considering each topic carefully, the Mexican-born Abaroa concluded that the awards still command deep respect. "To the music makers and creators in the Latin music industry, the Latin Grammy is as important as the Pulitzer Prize for journalists, a recognition you only get from your colleagues," he said.
Truth be told, the list of nominees for the fifth annual Latin Grammy Awards, scheduled to air at 8:00 p.m. Wednesday, September 1, from the Shrine Auditorium in L.A., is surprisingly refreshing.
Many of the mainstream sure shots who dominated past shows with several high-profile awards were relegated to generic categories. Mexicans Paulina Rubio and Luis Miguel, and Puerto Rican Ricky Martin only got one nomination each in the best female pop album and best male pop album categories, an indication that their releases were not condescendingly embraced by the industry. Instead, multiple nominations were given to the delicate Brazilian newcomer Maria Rita, daughter of the late bossa nova diva Elis Regina; Lágrimas Negras, the exquisite collaboration between 85-year-old Cuban pianist Bebo Valdes and 35-year-old flamenco singer Diego "El Cigala"; Mexican altrock luminaries Café Tacuba; and the only two Latin pop stars who are seemingly more than catchy tunemakers, Spanish songwriter Alejandro Sanz and Nuyorican enigma Robi Dräco Rosa.
Instead of last year's press conference at the upscale Mandarin Hotel in Miami, this year's nominations were announced at the darkly lit Mayan Theater, setting the mood for the more alternative-oriented awards show to come. LARAS's recognition of artists who are often undervalued by the Latin pop world, especially when it comes to mainstream award shows, seemed right and just to the reporters who had gathered there that morning, and their optimism was reflected in the news reports that followed.
As Rosa and La Ley's Beto Cuevas cheerfully confirmed rumors of their not-so-secret participation in a tribute honoring legendary guitarist Carlos Santana as Person of the Year, scheduled to take place during the upcoming ceremony, everybody in the room seemed to be happy. Even Café Tacuba's usually introverted Rubén Albarrán and Emmanuel del Real were moved by the news of their band's five nominations. Meanwhile Gypsy newcomer El Cigala didn't bother hiding his huge smile from the cameras, only his eyes.
But that doesn't mean the Latin Grammys haven't accumulated some political baggage. Their return to Los Angeles comes after a controversy-plagued year in Miami, which not only offended activists who accused LARAS of attempting to bring "Castro's agents, not musicians" into the country, but disappointed Latin music fans who charged the academy with failing to secure visas for Cuba-based artists out of fear of the city's powerful Cuban-exile community.
LARAS, according to Abaroa, is a relatively new organization formed in June 2002, two years after the first Latin Grammys were held in Los Angeles. It wasn't responsible for the 2001 event, which was canceled because of the 9/11 tragedy, or the 2002 edition in L.A. He also didn't want to be credited as the man who finally brought the Latin Grammys to Miami last year, since the decision "was taken by the board of trustees." The show seemed like a natural fit; after all, he acknowledged, Miami is the U.S. capital of Latin America. But when it came time to choose a host city for 2004, Miami lost out to "spontaneous bids" from elsewhere, including Los Angeles.
In a brief statement, Miami Mayor Manny Diaz said, "We're sorry to have the Latin Grammy Awards leave, we wish them well in L.A. and look forward to hosting them again in the future." Certainly the April 16 announcement that MTV is scheduled to hold its Video Music Awards here on August 29 at the American Airlines Arena is a great consolation prize.
Although LARAS was chiefly responsible for the 2003 Latin Grammys, Abaroa said that it wasn't involved in the securing of visas for foreign artists. "That's something the Latin Academy would never be able to control," he said. "After 9/11 the U.S. policy about granting visas had changed, but it changed for everybody, not only for Cuba." He then recounted how Tribalistas -- the supergroup formed by Carlinhos Brown, Marisa Monte, and Arnaldo Antunes that won best Brazilian pop album -- only received their visas about 24 hours before the 2003 show. They ended up closing the ceremony with an acoustic rendition of "Já Sei Namorar."
But lawyer Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, who served as president of the Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union for three years, disagreed with Abaroa's analysis. The ACLU represented more than 100 Cuban dissident groups that collectively formed a protest coalition called Cuban Political Prisoners Bloc (Bloque Presidio Político Cubano) in 2001 and last year. In both cases the main issue, she said, "was whether or not the Grammy organizers would permit political activists to protest the coming of artists from Cuba, and the sad reality was that the mindset of the organizers was to remove any protesters from the public areas anywhere near the show. They wanted to silence the protesters."