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It feels like any other morning at Calle Ocho's world-famous Domino Park. Groups of elderly guayabera-clad Cuban men play dominoes amid the usual exile chatter and cigar smoke. But only a few feet away, a small crowd of city officials and camera crews breaks the monotony as the men witness a press conference for the kickoff of this year's Calle Ocho Festival.
Tradition calls for a new king of Carnaval Miami to be announced. This year stepping up to the podium to accept the title is Miami's resident jazz legend Arturo Sandoval, a man who once played under the tutelage of the late Dizzy Gillespie and who recently shared the stage with Alicia Keys. And though Sandoval's honors include a series of Grammys, the boyish fiftysomething looks genuinely moved by the occasion. "For me it's truly amazing that at this point in my life I'm still being recognized with such an important honor, and I certainly look forward to seeing all my Latin people there," says a smiling Sandoval.
But while tradition continues, a new generation of young Latinos has steadily and not-so-quietly been changing the musical flavor at Calle Ocho, where the once ubiquitous tropical sounds of salsa and merengue are slowly giving way to the now in-demand riddims of reggaeton and Latin hip-hop.
"Calle Ocho has become this great blend for all types of Latin music, and because of that it has evolved into a pretty unique outlet for artists such as myself," comments reggaetonero Julio Voltio about his upcoming festival appearance. "I think it's really the ultimate venue for my music simply because Latinos from all over the world travel to Calle Ocho specifically to listen to what's new and fresh."
Better known as just Voltio, the raspy-voiced reggaeton artist has a lot at stake at this year's festival. With a new album to promote and a hot single climbing up Billboard's Latin Top 10, Voltio is well aware of the outcome of a solid performance. "It can definitely establish you as an artist in the U.S. market. This year we are even going to be distributing mixtapes; it's all about word of mouth, and there's no other place like Calle Ocho."
Voltio saw firsthand back in 2004 when his then labelmate Tego Calderon stormed the festival and was hailed by the crowd as the unofficial king. "Tego showed us that there was room for a reggaeton singer at Calle Ocho. Now the crowd expects to see artists like Pitbull and Ivy Queen in the lineup. Things have definitely changed," says Voltio.
He is not alone in his approach. Emerging urban Latino artists increasingly count on the festival as a potential career catalyst. For Latin hip-hop singer and Sábado GiganteTV host Sito, Calle Ocho is as close as the Latin music scene gets to having its own Winter Music Conference. "Miami is a hard city to get local music play on the radio waves. So any chance we get to perform live gives us [artists] an opportunity to create a buzz, and in the long run that forces radio stations to play your music. When I think Calle Ocho, I think international; it's not just some little local festival," says Sito.
With local radio stations' penchant for ignoring local talent, it is no surprise baby-face Sito will work hard to gain exposure. Like many artists, he will perform on four different stages, trying to squeeze as much out of the day as possible.
But it is not entirely about relentless self-promotion. For some artists, at least those who grew up in Miami, the day also represents a chance to experience all of Latin America in one giant block party. "To be honest, I just love the food. There are so many Latin festivals in Miami, and yet they are all divided. At the Dominican Independence Day festival, you can only get Dominican food, but I love food from all over. So while I'm running from one stage to another, I'll be stopping at all the kiosks to get my fix of catalpas and arroz con gandules," comments hip-hop singer Sean after pausing to reflect on his favorite Calle Ocho activities.
Yet for the acclaimed songwriter, Calle Ocho means trying something completely different a chance to switch careers. "I've always been backstage, but now I'm ready for the audience," says Sean, who is leading the new trend of Latin-inflected R&B.
"Calle Ocho is the real people," Sean says of the often emotional crowd. "You get firsthand criticism, and you know right away whether it's right or wrong."
Why choose such a tough venue for what amounts to an artistic debut? "Well, I moved from Puerto Rico to Miami back in 1989, and that was the first time I went to Calle Ocho. It's almost historic to be a part of it. Everybody knows about it; it's like a tradition. If you don't go, you stay home and watch it on TV," Sean replies.
Reggaeton and new breeds of Latin hip-hop seem to happily coexist with the old-school sounds of Arturo Sandoval. There's nothing but love for the affable Cuban jazz trumpeter.
"I just love Arturo Sandoval's music. I grew up listening to his songs. It's like going back and spending time with my dad," says Sean. "I think there's room for all of us at Calle Ocho. Arturo is the official king, and we'll be there to support him."