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It's mid-March, which means it's time for Carnaval Miami's legendary Calle Ocho street party. The free event — this year celebrating its 30th anniversary — attracts more than a million people from all over the world, making it the largest Spanish-language music festival in the nation.
It all began in 1978, when the Kiwanis Club of Little Havana organized a Cuban-style carnival to highlight Miami's growing Hispanic heritage. But what originally started out as a local celebration of Cuban culture quickly grew to encompass music genres from all of Latin America.
"We are extremely proud to be celebrating our 30th anniversary," says Sylvia Vieta, the media relations coordinator for Calle Ocho. "To mark the special occasion, we plan to set the Guinness World Record for the most people playing dominoes, with over 400 enthusiasts playing at the same time. Then at 3 p.m., [Cuban vocalist] Albita will sing this year's official Carnaval song and invite everyone at Calle Ocho to join for a giant conga line."
Massive domino records and conga lines aside, what really sets Calle Ocho apart from other Spanish music events is its huge scope. Covering 23 city blocks, the festival offers acts, big and small, a unique chance to test their new material in front of international audiences. As a result, the event often acts as a weathervane for the latest trends in Latin music.
But this nine-hour fiesta can be a daunting experience, even for the seasoned reveler. The 16 separate concert stages showcase everything from salsa and bachata to Latin jazz, merengue, Tex-Mex, Spanish pop, reggaeton, and beyond. With this in mind, we present some of the top performers and local favorites at this year's bash.
Every year carnival organizers choose a "king" or "queen" to headline the festival. Past dignitaries have included Grammy-winning jazz pianist Arturo Sandoval in 2006 and the iconic king of mambo Cachao López in 2007. This year the royal title belongs to Puerto Rican chanteuse La India.
Named the princess of salsa by the late legendary bandleader Tito Puente, La India (a.k.a. Linda Viera Caballero) began her career in New York City as, of all things, a house music singer. After appearing in a series of successful English-language productions by onetime Madonna producer Jellybean Benitez, La India left NYC club music behind and entered the salsa world with the chart-topping 1990 album, Llego La India Via Eddie Palmieri.
Throughout the rest of that decade, India — along with Marc Anthony — became one of the new sensations in salsa, with hits such as "O Ella, O Yo" and "Sobre El Fuego," reclaiming the genre for a young generation of salsa fans. Now, after seven albums and countless hits, the 37-year-old songstress brings her varied repertoire of ballads, dance numbers, and classic salsa standards to Calle Ocho. Festival-goers can expect a lively career retrospective from the prolific singer. 4:25 p.m. at the Univision stage.
Since 2005, Pitbull, born Armando Christian Pérez, has been acting as the unofficial king of the carnival, drawing multitudes of fans to his performances. His 2004 debut album, M.I.A.M.I. (Money Is a Major Issue), made Pit a national hip-hop celebrity, producing club hits such as "Toma."
Now with The Boatlift, his third record, released late last year, the 26-year-old rapper returns to Calle Ocho with a new club banger, "Go Girl." The hometown favorite loves to perform all over the festival, but the best place to watch him is at the Latin-hip-hop-heavy Power 96 tent, where he shared the stage in 2006 with Miami bass legend Luther Campbell. 5 p.m. at the Power 96 stage.
In case you missed their new MTV reality show, Making Menudo, the boys from Menudo are back. Okay, so it's not the original best-selling lineup from the Eighties, but a newly formed version of the legendary boy band. In spite of this, the new Menudo seems to stick to the true and tested boy-band ethos of synchronized dancing and earnest balladry, which should make the group's performance an attractive alternative for the younger ones attending the festival. 1:25 p.m. at the Univision stage.
Back in the day, Calle Ocho was brimming with salsa superstars. Nowadays, however, there are very few old-school salsa crooners left at the festival. The popularity of new genres such as bachata and reggaeton are part of the reason. Plus the passage of time also means every year there are fewer old-time performers able to take the carnival's stage.
Which is why Venezuelan singer Oscar D'León remains one of the big draws here. Known as the lion of salsa, D'León plays salsa classics like "Llorarás" and is hailed by many fans — including reggaeton superstar Tego Calderón — as one of the best singers of clave in the world. 2:55 p.m. at the Telemundo stage.
Known, thanks to his good looks, as the pretty boy of salsa, Ismael Miranda was one of the top figures of the salsa dura (hardcore salsa) genre. During the Sixties, the Puerto Rico-born singer immigrated to New York City, where he befriended Héctor Lavoe and became the lead singer for the famed Larry Harlow Orchestra.