Top to bottom: Juanes; Sergio George; and Yerba Buena
Top to bottom: Juanes; Sergio George; and Yerba Buena

Feel the Latin Grammys

High above the freeways in Los Angeles, hovering over the causeways to Miami Beach, and deep within the bowels of the New York City subway system hang sultry portraits of hot, ripped, copper-colored babes making love to musical instruments. A man gropes a guitar. A woman, conga wedged between her legs, slides her hand toward her crotch. Both ads announce the Fourth Annual Latin Grammy Awards on CBS at 9:00 p.m. on September 3 along with the slogan: "Feel the Latino."

When Jorge Moreno first saw the billboards while driving around Miami, his hometown, the best new artist from last year's Latin Grammys laughed out loud. Feel the Latino? "Well, for me it means: Stick your hand down my pants," the singer quips. "But I don't think [the organizers] mean it that way. It's about numbers; it's about ratings. I think a bunch of people got into the room with the ad agency and asked: How can we draw all walks of life? When you think of a Latino, all the clichés come out. And the stereotype is hot and sexy."

Moreno's speculation turns out to be pretty close to how the Latin Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (LARAS), the organization that puts on the awards show, actually came up with the Feel the Latino ad campaign. The ratings for the first Latin Grammys show in 2000 were disappointing. (The September 11, 2001 show was cancelled due to the terrorist attacks.) The ratings for 2002 were dismal. In the aftermath the entire LARAS staff was out of a job. By mid-March 2003 a reinvented LARAS -- with new president Gabriel Abaroa and a newly appointed international board of directors independent from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences -- moved its offices from Los Angeles to Miami. The mission: Get people to watch that awards show.

"The campaign is aggressive," says Ignacio Meyer, LARAS's brand-new director of business development. "It's meant to deliver a message and attract a viewership." Last April the LARAS marketing team hooked up with Punto Ogilvy, the Miami-based U.S. Hispanic and Latin American division of ad powerhouse Ogilvy and Mather. "We were trying to come up with a saying that could be used in both markets," Meyer explains. "Feel the Latino means feel the excitement, the power of Latin music. It's not meant to be a direct sexual innuendo. It's not meant to depict the artists themselves. It's more like a feel the Latino dot, dot, dot. Feel the Latino ... beat. Feel the Latino ... rhythm. Feel the Latino ... heat."

That probably makes a lot of sense after several cafecito-fueled hours locked up with a bunch of Spanish-speaking salespeople in a Coral Gables conference room. Siente lo Latino, sure. Feel that Latin thing. But read without a Spanish filter, the slogan is just plain weird. Toca el Latino. "Feel (up) the Latino." Yeah, baby!

If Feel the Latino is a bizarre act of translation, though, the phrase is spot on in summing up the usual place of Latin grooves in mainstream U.S. pop, from the tango, cha cha cha, and mambo to the lambada, macarena, and Ricky Martin. So maybe it's not surprising that the LARAS marketing geniuses would recycle the old hot-and-sexy stereotype, even if that softcore sell only leads to passing fads. One hundred years of cuchi-cuchi, and Anglo audiences still don't respect Latin music in the morning.

What's really weird about the Feel the Latino campaign, though, is that the stereotype has almost nothing to do with the music the Latin Grammys actually celebrate. This year's biggest nominees -- Juanes, Bacilos, and Tribalistas -- are all plenty sexy and hot, only in ways most U.S. music fans have never seen or heard. All three acts will be performing during the awards show; why not make the ads and the whole show as fresh and fabulous as they are? Hey, LARAS: Stop selling the music short!

"All we want is for people to watch," insists Marya Meyer, LARAS vice president (and no relation to marketer Ignacio Meyer). "There's a lot of Latin music on Latin television every day, but that music is not trying to invite the Anglo audience in. This is a once-a-year effort to attract a multicultural audience."

In telecasts past the strategy for luring those viewers seemed to be to make the show as safe and as boring as possible. Serve up "crossover friendly" acts that Anglo audiences know. Pair Latin superstars with artists already established in the mainstream market. And for God's sake keep those Mexicans with big hats and accordions offstage. Glue the whole thing together with painful wink-and-a-nudge patter. When in doubt, cut to a pair of big breasts. Last year the innuendo sank so low that even the hosts (Gloria Estefan and Jimmy Smits) and presenters looked embarrassed reading the lines off the teleprompter.

VP Meyer promises that this year will be different. True, LARAS has retained Cossette Productions, the same producer and director team from previous years. But for 2003, the VP says, "We are going for writers who are Latin and have big crossover experience." At press time the lead writer had still not been finalized. Whoever you are, in your frenzy to write it all over the next few days, please don't make this another Latin lover minstrel show. It's not just in bad taste; it's just so old.

There are some troubling early signs, like a performance by Ricky Martin. He's not really up for an award this year (songwriter Franco de Vita got a song of the year nod for coming up with Martin's single "Tal Vez") but Anglos still remember his hips from the 1999 Grammys, even if they've stopped buying his records. LARAS has also announced a performance by best female pop vocalist nominee and Mexican eye candy Thalia, wishfully describing her in a press release as a "crossover superstar," even though her recent self-titled release plummeted after a promising first week on the charts.

Then in the humiliating coupling category, we have Brazilian singer Alexandre Pires scheduled for a duet with American Idol champ Kelly Clarkson. Let's see: As frontman for the pagode outfit Só Pra Contrariar, Pires has sold more records in Brazil than any other act ever. Three years ago the talented singer made a major transition from the Brazilian to the Spanish-language market as a romantic balladeer. Clarkson won a talent show last year, then capitalized on her instant fame with an instant record, Thankful, and a movie, From Justin to Kelly. "She is a great singer," says Pires during a stopover at the Miami offices of his label, BMG. "To sing with her will be a great honor." With Clarkson singing in English and Pires in Spanish, the pair will tackle the Brazilian's hit "Amame" ("Love Me"), a song where a man begs for a woman's attention and pleads: Save me! Please! Perfect.

If the effort to get wealthy U.S. consumers to pay attention to Latin music seems desperate at times, that's because -- with piracy rampant and economies in shambles in Latin America -- it is. "Someone might say, 'I want the show to be more risky,'" Meyer concedes, "but what's for sure is that this is one damn good thing that is happening for Latin music these days. People sell more albums every year because of it."

No artist has had a bigger boost from the Latin Grammys than Juanes, the Colombian singer/songwriter who was thrust into the spotlight when his debut album, Fijate Bien, scored seven nominations in 2001. His followup, Un Día Normal (A Normal Day), which garnered five nominations this year, has moved more than a million copies in the United States alone, making it the biggest-selling Latin album of 2003.

The Los Angeles-based imprint Surco, owned by Universal Records and run by Juanes's producer Gustavo Santaolalla, scored an impressive 22 nominations this year with a roster of only five artists: Juanes; electronic-tango collective Bajo Fondo Tango Club; classical ensemble Kronos Quartet; Afro-Cuban rap outfit Orishas; and Mexican rap-metal clowns Molotov. Molotov, like Juanes, sells in the millions.

How does Surco do it? "There is no cheap marketing," Santaolalla, who is up for producer of the year, declares over the phone from the airport in Buenos Aires. "The projects stand on the merit of their artistic vision. It's possible to make products that have massive appeal while maintaining their integrity." The Argentinean credits Juanes's success to the songwriter's vision coupled with an uncommon knack for a pop hook. "It's so rare to find people who can write grand songs that connect with the masses," says the producer. Juanes will have another chance to see how well he connects with people who don't understand his lyrics when he performs his love song, "Es Por Ti" ("It's Because of You"), which is nominated for both record and song of the year.

In a gutsy move, LARAS also has invited Juanes's labelmate Molotov to perform "Frijolero," which is nominated for record of the year. Borrowing the accordion and bass from the norteño music popular along the U.S.-Mexico border, "Beaner" is a bilingual sendup of border racism, with the chorus in English: "Don't call me gringo/You fucking beaner/Stay on your side/Of the goddamn river. " If the Feel the Latino campaign suggests that Latin artists just want to be fucked by Anglo audiences, the message conveyed by "Frijolero" is more along the lines of fuck you.

That might not sound like a warm invitation to new listeners, but, says singer/songwriter Jorge Villamizar of the Miami-based trio Bacilos, U.S. television needs a stronger dose of reality. "Anglo Americans keep watching television and seeing all these white TV shows and white commercials, but there's a Latin in the kitchen and a Latin out in the yard," the Colombian immigrant points out. "Unless you want all of us here, you should push for fair trade with us and for ways for us to make money and to honestly help our democracies. Otherwise soon the United States will be part of Latin America."

Bacilos reflects the demographic shift not only in the U.S. population, but in American pop. The trio, whose members came to the mainland from Puerto Rico, Colombia, and Brazil, will perform the hit single "Mi Primer Millón" ("My First Million") -- up for song and record of the year -- which is about a musician who comes to Miami from Latin America to make it big in the Latin music industry. Produced by Sergio George (another nominee for producer of the year), "Mi Primer Millón" is a typical example of that tropical hitmaker's ability to translate Caribbean and Latin American musical influences -- from Cuban timba to Jamaican dancehall to Colombian boogaloo -- into a widely accessible language.

As musical director of Bacilos's upcoming Latin Grammy performance, George says he enlisted dancehall phenom Sean Paul to join them not just to appeal to English speakers, but to broaden the band's appeal to other Latin Americans. "My crossover has always been within the Latino culture," he says. "That is the most difficult crossover: how to get a Mexican or a Chileno to understand what you're trying to do. How can I get this salsa record to hit in Argentina? How can I incorporate some of what they're listening to in Mexico? I found everyone likes reggae, even if they don't know what the guy is saying."

Given all his crossover experience, what does George think the Feel the Latino campaign is saying? "The perception that non-Latinos have of Latinos is that everything is sexual. The Jennifer Lopez situation doesn't help." George laughs, and then grows serious. "It's up to us to erase that. It's gonna take some time."

Hey, LARAS, how about starting now?

Jorge Moreno will perform at the Rock the Vote Second Annual Latin Grammy Party at 10:00 p.m. Tuesday, September 2, at crobar, 1445 Washington Ave, Miami Beach. Tickets range from $50 to $150. Call 305-531-5027. Yerba Buena will play a pre-Grammys gig at 10:00 p.m. on Sunday, August 31, at I/O, 30 NE 14th St; call 305-358-8007. The Fourth Annual Latin Grammy Awards will be broadcast at 9:00 p.m. Wednesday, September 3, on CBS.

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