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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."
Last year none of the nominees from Cuba were given visas anyway. Many observers, including Rodriguez-Taseff, alleged that the Bush administration prevented the nominees from entering the U.S. to placate powerful interests in Miami and the Latin recording industry. "The decision not to give these artists visas was influenced by powerful, politically connected people in the music industry that did not want a controversy," she said. As a result, the estimated 300 protesters (including some who were upset with LARAS for not bringing Cuban musicians to the awards) who gathered on September 3 to demonstrate in front of the American Airlines Arena during the Latin Grammys numbered far fewer than the expected crowd of 1500. "Had the award show happened in 2001 in Miami, as it was about to happen at one point, the protest would have been big," admitted Rodriguez-Taseff.
Abaroa said that LARAS was happy with last year's event. So why was it moved back to Los Angeles this year? Partly to save money. Since most of the 800-person production team that puts on the Latin Grammys lives in Los Angeles, it's cheaper to hold it there than fly everyone out to another city.
"We didn't make an open call to look for cities," he said. "But we considered a number of options and we simply went for the best package, considering that L.A. gives us an equilibrium in economic, strategic, and infrastructure aspects." He denied that Miami's famously strained relations with Cuba was another motivation. "[LARAS] didn't leave Miami for a political reason. The organization is located in Miami, its address is in Miami, [and] we've created jobs in Miami," he clarified. "But that doesn't mean that it will have priorities over other cities when it is time to organize the show."
Producer Kike Santander, who was recently named chairman of LARAS, doesn't rule out the Latin Grammys returning to Miami. "We're just following the academy's vision, which is to annually rotate from city to city, and we're not only going to do it in the U.S., we hope that we can soon move it to other countries as well," he said. "Nothing went wrong with Miami. It is simply natural to be here [in L.A.] as it's going to be natural to come back to Miami in the future."
"It's good to hear that they're expressing that it has nothing to do with politics or with the politics of Miami," said Rodriguez-Taseff. "Is that believable? Probably not, but it doesn't matter because they promised to come back. Most important, I think that they recognize that if they ever come back to Miami they're going to have to deal with the reality that at least in some people's minds, there is a connection between music and politics."
LARAS may have eluded the Cuban-exile community -- for now. But this year has still brought its share of drama.
At the July 14 press conference, Mexican singer Lupillo Rivera, fondly known as "the bull of corridos," listened to the announcement that his live album, El Concierto -- Universal Amphitheatre, was nominated for best banda album. Offering a big smile, he posed for a hundred photos with the famous gramophone in the background. Then he criticized LARAS's attempts to balance the musical numbers among different Latin groups. Since, according to the 2002 U.S. Census, Mexicans are tallied at a combined fifteen million versus nine million other legal and illegal Latin Americans, and regional Mexican music accounts for almost 60 percent of the country's Latin music sales, why don't Mexicans get special treatment from the academy?
Rivera, one of the biggest acts in the regional Mexican music market, believes that LARAS should give up its complicated search for a balance among all of the Latin music genres in favor of predominantly Mexican programming that will earn better ratings. "If [I were] the owner of the Grammy organization I'd start listening to Mexican music, simply because we are the majority. That way, if you get the attention of the majority of the people of this land, you would immediately get better ratings and more sponsors, that's for sure," he said.
However, Lupe de la Cruz, senior vice president of marketing for Univision/ Fonovisa Records -- a conglomerate that accounts for 45 percent of the country's Latin market, including most of the regional Mexican music -- said that the Latin Grammys have come a long way since their 2000 debut. "I think that the ultimate goal that all of us seek for the Latin Grammys is to be reflective of the market," he said. "In our case, we think that there's room to improve how they address the regional Mexican music categories. Are they doing justice to the genre? Yes, they've come a long way on that part."
Abaroa, for his part, said LARAS isn't overly concerned about garnering high ratings for its annual broadcast. It leaves that up to Cossette Productions, which has produced the Grammy telecasts since 1971, and CBS. LARAS's primary mission is to protect the show's integrity during the 45 minutes allotted for performances in the two-hour show (excluding commercials and the award presentations) by presenting a culturally diverse slate of musicians.
"If we were only to consider the Hispanic market, we should be playing 70 percent of Mexican music, but we're not exclusively oriented to Mexicans," he says. "We want to reach the Chinese population, the Afro-American community, the white people, the Italians, the Greeks. That's the beauty of this. It's like a platform to showcase snippets of each of our [Latin] musical genres."
"Ratings are always a concern, but we have a long-standing relationship with the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, and we're hoping that this show grows to become its own independent and successful annual television event," said Jack Sussman, CBS's senior vice president of specials. He admitted that the Latin Grammys have grown in some ways, "but not necessarily ratings-wise." That lack of growth, he explained, can be attributed to the way Latino viewers are measured by Nielsen Media Research, which compiles national data on the number of people who watch television. Sussman cited a February 2004 study by the National Latino Media Council that concluded Latino viewers are often undercounted by Nielsen when it comes to prime-time television.
"That is why the numbers aren't as high as we believe they really are, because we believe the audience is really watching this show," said Sussman. He is confident, however, that the Latin Grammy telecast is a long-term bet for CBS that will pay off. "If we score with it we'll be in business for a great many years," he said.
Even if the television broadcast never attracts a mass audience, Abaroa said that the Latin Grammys will not disappear from the face of the earth. He admits, however, that if ratings don't improve, the event's annual broadcast might be canceled. "The TV gives us the opportunity of showing off what we do in front of a worldwide audience," he said. "[But] these awards are given by the members of the academy to reflect the music quality of their peers. That's it. The award will exist with or without the TV show."