Jorge Moreno's manager had a plan. With the kid's good looks, he could be the next Ricky or Enrique. That was the pitch for the record companies. Trouble was, he was pitching to Madonna's new Latin label, and Maverick Musica wasn't shopping for just another pretty face. Sure the Material Girl had that borderline thing for isla bonita boys, bullfighters, and don't-cry-for-me Cubano body builders, but her Latin-music label was going to be different. It was going to be alternative. "We have to edge out a little niche that we can try to attack and make ours," explains Bruno del Granado, Maverick Musica's handsome young president and perfect prototype for the "fully bilingual, fully bicultural" listener the label targets. Even with the big boys at Warner Music in on the deal 50/50, Maverick has to hit those hipsters left cold by mass-market Latin pop to survive.
Moreno didn't fit; his manager never mentioned that the boy could sing, write songs, or play guitar. "He had highlighted hair and tight T-shirts showing off the muscle -- all that pretty-boy pouty stuff," del Granado remembers. "There was so much discrepancy between the demo and his look, I didn't get it."
Jorge didn't get it either. Here he'd spent his entire youth getting kicked out of the best schools from Kendall to Hialeah Gardens; going Goth on school nights at the Kitchen Club on the Beach before there was a Beach; dreaming himself onstage with Depeche Mode, the Cure, and nine inch nails -- and now someone was trying to sell him as some kind of Menudo spawn? "I respect that [Martin and Iglesias] have taken Latin music to another level," Jorge says diplomatically. "I just don't want to be them."
He fired that manager, hooking up ironically enough with Deborah Castillero, an early Ricky crossover booster. "Once I heard [Moreno's] music, I knew that was not where we wanted him to go," says Castillero. "Jorge is not only a great singer but a really prolific and poetic writer. There's a depth to him that you see in the Anglo marketplace, but you're not really seeing in the Latin marketplace."
Working the boho-singer-songwriter angle, Castillero set up a showcase for Moreno at Power Studios in November 2000. Seven months after first hearing his demo, Del Granado was sold. He signed Jorge, slating him as the fifth release on the Musica roster. "They took their time signing people," Moreno says. "I heard people in the industry say, They're not going to sign shit. Bruno doesn't know what to do.'" Del Granado puts his own spin on the slow start. "We wanted to make sure we launched the right way," he offers. "The road is littered with companies that have launched with huge fanfare and then quickly fizzled."
Jorge sucked in lessons on fanfare and fizzle with his mother's milk. She and his dad, Tony Moreno, have been in the biz since before Jorge was born. At the tropical labels TH (later TH Rodven) and Sonoton in the Seventies and Eighties, Moreno Sr. had his hand in the careers of los grandes, including Oscar D'Leon, Lalo Rodriguez, and José "El Puma" Rodriguez. He's run his own label, MP music, for the past fifteen years, about as long as Junior's had a taste for fame. One afternoon in 1986, Nice-n-Wild, the only English-language act in Papi Moreno's stable, pulled up to nine-year-old Jorge's house in a limo while that group's freestyle hit "Diamond Girl" was at the top of the charts. No one knew yet that the foursome was a fake, lip-synching Milli Vanilli-style. Ferrying the little tyke from radio station to television studio to the old disco cavern Casanova's, one of the lip-synchers asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Jorgito answered, "A singer."
Freestyle was the pop solution for second-generation-plus Latinos sorting out their bicultural lives in the Eighties. By the time Moreno was a teen, he wasn't having it. During a brief stint at Coral Gables High, he happened upon classmate Javi Garcia, who turned him on to the Beatles and folk and playing guitar. Passing through Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High a little later, Moreno befriended the electronica-oriented Aramis Loríe, who now runs the Design District's indie night, PopLife. In the early Nineties, the trio headed for Europe and North Africa with what they believed to be a radical idea: They would invent rock and roll in Spanish! What did kids growing up in Miami know of Seventies rockeros Charly Garcia and Luis Spinetta, or even the late Eighties idols Soda Stereo and the Caifanes? "We thought it would be simple," laughs Moreno. "Write some Beatles-type stuff in Spanish and have my dad put it out on his label. Little did we know that we didn't invent' anything and my dad wanted nothing to do with us!"
"I told him that he was nuts," Dad admits. "Even now rock gets no radio play [in the Latin market]. If from the beginning you go way beyond the public, you end up starving."
But the only sound Moreno and his friends wanted to hear was the sound nobody was making yet, that not even they knew how to make yet. The three drifted apart after their European adventure. But Moreno had his first brush with greatness when Garcia inked a deal with Mexican powerhouse label Fonovisa and invited his pal to sing backup on his 1997 Tranquila. "I learned a lot," says Moreno of the lukewarm reception to his friend's eclectic debut. "There were a lot of great songs," Moreno observes of Garcia's range from rock to reggae to Charleston, "but there was nothing to connect them. I decided I'm not going to make that same mistake; I want [my disc] to flow."
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But that doesn't mean Moreno went homogeneous on his recently released eponymous debut. "It's a big wacky mix," he says, equal parts Dion and Desi Arnaz, Beatles and Ruben Blades, with samba, timba, and Radiohead thrown in for good measure. Rather than winnow out the disparate elements of life in Latino America, Moreno attempts to stitch his influences together. "I did a lot of in-between songs," he explains. "I tried to leave very little space between songs. It's like a movie almost."
The soundtrack to Twenty-First Century Latinidad, Moreno starts out Enrique Iglesias enough, but after a few bars the first track, "Reloj" ("Clock"), morphs into a traditional son, then back to Latin power pop again. As the tremulous vocal fades at the end of the song, the accompanying tres gives way to a single desultory guitar. Fuzzy with feedback, the minisong serves as a hinge between one genre and the next, a musical rendering of the hyphenated existence of Latino Americans.
The confluence of influences is most intense on the tracks produced by Venezuelan-American Andres Levin, known equally well for his work with Tina Turner, D'Angelo, and Macy Gray as he is for Latin alternative landmarks with Aterciopelados, Amigos Invisibles, and El Gran Silencio. "For me it's important to dilute the barriers of Latin music," says Levin from his studio in New York City, "to blur where Latin music ends and pop begins." Levin deliberately confuses Latin music future and past with his production of "Si Yo Fuera," a mambo-injected reinvention of Los Zafires Sixties groove, then falls further into the time warp with his treatment of Moreno's twisted interpretation of Desi Arnaz's big-band signature, "Babalú." Levin and Moreno update Beatles classics as well, getting downright silly on the jail-bait romance "16," reportedly written on the fly while the two were drunk on sake in Manhattan. That piece of English-language ear candy anchors the electronic track "Ella" ("She"), produced by Moreno and programmed by his old friend Loríe.
The wackiest track of all, however, is the hidden cover of Beny Moré's immortal "Como Fué" ("How Did It Come to Be"), produced by newcomer A.T. Molina, who also handles some of the disc's more standard tropical dance tracks and ballads. But Molina makes up for that on "Como Fué," exploding what is perhaps the definitive Latin love song. Over down-tempo beats of the Portishead school, Moreno delivers the classic verse like a mullah chanting morning prayers. Then the chorus comes in like the Siamese kitties in Disney's Aristocats. Nothing is sacred here. Or maybe it's just that, as Levin observes, "It's part of a whole new generation of Latin sound."