Los Producers

Late one Sunday night at the restaurant Azul in the Mandarin Oriental hotel on Brickell Key, rumors circulate faster than the jerk scallops and sugar cane passed on silver trays. The invitation-only party is in honor of multiplatinum Mexican balladeer Cristian Castro, who has just kicked off a tour for his latest release, also named Azul (Blue). Already the title track had been sitting at the top of Billboard's Hot Latin Tracks chart for six weeks and holding. (By press time, after sixteen weeks, it had slipped to number two.) But the hot topic of conversation in the cool blue dining room is not the superstar singer with perfect pitch; instead industry types are whispering in the booths about Cristian's producer, the dashing six-foot-four Colombian Kike Santander, who the month before filed suit alleging breach of contract, withholding of royalties, and theft of songwriting and production credit against one of the most influential figures in Latin music: Emilio Estefan, Jr.

"Emilio had Kike's studio shut down," the gossips gasp, recycling the latest dish.

"You'll have to live in a gated community for the rest of your life," one exec warns upon learning that a reporter is covering the case.

"Don't laugh," he insists. "They will kill you."

When Cristian arrives, label honchos and Mexican financiers are hustled together for dinner at a long table overlooking the bay. The diminutive singer is depleted after his performance. His face scrubbed clean and hair slightly wet, he smiles wanly when addressed. Beside him, in a cream-colored suit, the 41-year-old Santander looks larger than life and full of energy. Well-wishers maneuver around the table to the corner where the producer sits. Over and over again he rises from his seat to return an embrace. The party may be in Cristian's name, but the night belongs to the man who challenged Estefan Enterprises.

Two days later the empire strikes back, accusing Santander of diverting income from his employers and waging unfair competition.

Such has been Estefan's impact on the industry that admirers and detractors alike ascribe him almost supernatural power. His music publishing company owns the rights to more than 2000 compositions, while his production company has recorded stars such as Gloria Estefan, Madonna, Cher, Shakira, Ricky Martin, Alejandro Fernandez, Jennifer Lopez, Thalia, Carlos Vives, Lenny Kravitz, Jon Secada, and Mandy Moore. The Estefan empire also encompasses print media, television, and film as well as hotels, restaurants, and real estate. Although the worth of these privately held corporations is not public, estimates run as high as $200 million.

In 2001, along with his wife, Gloria, Estefan was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2000 he was honored as both Producer and Person of the Year at the inaugural Latin Grammys in Los Angeles, out of a total of six nominations. So strong was his imprint on the first awards ceremony that the Mexican-owned record label Fonovisa called for artists to boycott the event some derided as the Gramilios or the Emilio Estefan Show.

But lately times have been tough for the Miami magnate. Earlier this year it looked as though Estefan would have even more influence, having lured the Latin Grammys to his home turf -- until disputes over the right of Cuban exiles to protest the event sent the ceremony scurrying back to L.A. Now, Estefan has announced, neither he nor Gloria will be in attendance. And, as if Estefan had not already suffered enough public embarrassment, a second suit threatens over Estefan Enterprises' treatment of the daughters of salsa singer Willy Chirino.

For almost as long as Estefan has been in the music business, competitors and disgruntled associates have grumbled that the mogul does not fight fair. Yet over the years disputes have been settled out of court and out of sight. Few associated with the empire have ever criticized Estefan publicly; in the media, statements from his artists border on cultish. Even sources not directly connected with the Estefans routinely request their negative comments be kept off the record. The media has responded with almost universally positive coverage.

Now, for the first time, the Enterprises' dirty laundry is out in the open air. Supported by accounts from producers, writers, and artists currently and formerly associated with Estefan Enterprises as well as interviews with the company's president, legal counsel, and Estefan himself, the Santander and Chirino legal wrangles paint a portrait of Emilio Estefan, Jr., as a man who runs his empire like a stern father. He nurtures his creative staff and shares liberally in the credit for their work: They owe him because he made them. Challenges to his authority are met with swift discipline. By standing up to Estefan, Santander and the Chirino Sisters throw a mighty wrench in the works of Latin pop's most successful sound machine.

Asked what he loses by no longer working with Estefan Enterprises, one prodigal producer quips, "The opportunity to appear in photos with Emilio." The value of such photo ops is no joke: Estefan has crafted an image for himself as a star maker; standing in the picture frame beside the affable 48-year-old with a trim salt-and-pepper beard heightens the prestige of any artist, writer, or producer.

Estefan's personal touch turns songs into gold precisely because in contemporary pop, image often is more important than sound. Therein lies Estefan's genius. Gloria's long-standing triumph stands as irrefutable proof: Estefan has incredible command of the skills required to position an artist as a hot commodity. His image, marketing savvy, and influence in the industry have as much or more to do with making a song a hit as any work he might do in the studio.

The sheer volume of Estefan's activities prohibits him from devoting sustained attention to any particular project. Instead he creates the environment and recruits the personnel who actually make the music. Estefan oversees the process: He offers overall concepts, suggests ideas for songs, and dispenses advice on arrangements, performance, and mixing.

But does that make him a songwriter or a producer?

Although the Copyright Act defines a musical composition as lyrics and a melody line, just what contributions count as songwriting is not clear. Many in the business acknowledge that a word change or a catchy concept can make the difference between a monster hit and a monstrous miss.

Exactly what a producer does is even more elusive. As Moses Avalon, Los Angeles-based author of Confessions of a Record Producer: How to Survive the Scams and Shams of the Music Business, points out, there is no legal definition. Rather, he says, recording contracts simply imply that a producer is "the person who has promised a recording to the record company." Just as top architects, chefs, and fashion designers hire assistants to do their dirty work, Avalon affirms, "If the producer wants to hire someone else to do the job for him, that's okay. Whether that person is entitled to any credit is only a matter of courtesy."

When Santander accuses Estefan of taking undue credit, he demands recognition for the hands-on work of songwriting and recording. "Artists tend to focus almost exclusively on their craft," observes Avalon. "The intricacies of big business tend to fall outside of their purview."

The terms producer and executive producer are often used in the industry to distinguish the person who creates the sound in the studio from the person who handles the myriad concerns surrounding the sound. However, one long-time Estefan Enterprises producer observes: "Here, there is no distinction. [Producer and executive producer] are one and the same thing."

Santander's attorney Richard Wolfe is more blunt: "The definition at Estefan Enterprises is that Emilio is the producer regardless of what he does or doesn't do." The attorney will try to set legal precedent by arguing point blank: "You're not in the studio; you're not the producer."

Wolfe will also argue that, according to the copyright act, providing concepts, ideas, common words, or common phrases is not enough to claim authorship of a musical composition. Whatever the criteria, Wolfe alleges, "Estefan simply puts himself down as a songwriter."

Very different understandings of what it means to write a song or produce a record put Estefan and his most prolific writer/producer on a collision course. One man guards his artistic integrity as jealously as the other man guards his image.

Estefan's creative contributions have long been called into question. Although Estefan is fond of recounting how he originated the so-called Miami sound, it was drummer Kiki Garcia, with a little help from Gloria, who wrote the Miami Sound Machine's best known songs: "Dr. Beat," "Conga," "1-2-3," and "Rhythm Is Gonna Get You." Bragging rights for the production of the biggest hits belong to a team known as the Three Jerks: Joe Galdo, Rafael Vigil, and Larry Dermer.

If Estefan was not exactly the originator of the Miami sound, he certainly was the prime mover. As his contemporary, salsa singer Willy Chirino, admits, "I am a little older than Gloria, and I tried to do what they did. When I tried it wasn't the right moment. There was no way in the world to penetrate the Anglo market at that time. I gave up and kept doing my Latin thing. In this business you have to be prepared for when that stroke of luck comes to you. Emilio and Gloria, especially Emilio, worked very hard. He was ready. He was really, really ready. He had a way of incorporating his music, and in the process he built this empire."

Ironically the protest against the participation of Cuban nationals in the Latin Grammys that drove away the event serves as a reminder of the source of Estefan's initial success; the U.S. embargo against Cuba allowed exiles in Miami to sell an Americanized version of the Cuban sound without any competition from the island. Much like Berry Gordy, the Motown mogul to whom he often is compared, Estefan built a musical empire far from the epicenters of Los Angeles and New York by packaging an ethnic sound as easy-to-digest pop.

According to Estefan lore, Emilio built the empire one album at a time, distributing promotional copies to radio stations and club DJs from the trunk of his car. "That's how I learned the business," he says. When a local independent label stiffed the band and kept the rights to the songs on the first two albums, Estefan learned a lesson he would never forget. In September of 1979, Estefan incorporated Foreign Imported Productions and Publishing (FIPP). "We decided it would be better to have control of the songs ourselves," he explains. Seven years later Estefan Enterprises was founded to maintain control over Gloria's tours and recording.

The more successful the Miami Sound Machine, the more tightly the spotlight focused on Gloria. Garcia, the Jerks, and the rest of the musicians dropped off like so many interchangeable parts until in 1989 an ever-sleeker, ever-sexier Gloria stands alone on the cover of Cuts Both Ways. "Gloria didn't want to do it, because she doesn't care about those things," says Emilio. "But I told her it was very important that her voice be identified."

With the Gloria juggernaut seemingly unstoppable, Estefan looked to expand. When the plucky singer embarked on a five-continent tour in 1991, after narrowly surviving a tour-bus crash the year before, a bored Miami-bound Emilio turned his attention to background vocalist Jon Secada. The sound machine was about to turn into an assembly line.

Over the next three years, Estefan recruited a team of local songwriters, producers, and artists with the goal of grooming Miami-based talent. At this stage Estefan Enterprises most closely resembled Motown. The Magic City, however, met with nothing like the Motor City's success on the charts. Gloria remained a phenomenon, with her 1993 retro-Cuban project Mi Tierra (My Land) selling more than nine million units. Secada got off to an impressive start. But in commercial terms the rest of the raft of resident talent -- including Cuban country gal Albita, bass virtuoso Cachao, Puerto Rican salsero Cheito, and a couple of R&B acts -- sank.

Then one afternoon in 1995, Estefan summoned the Mexican telenovela queen Thalia Sodi to his office in the Crescent Moon Studios on Bird Road. At his first meeting with the lithe siren at a music festival in Acapulco two years before, Estefan predicted they would collaborate someday. "Oye, life has brought us together again," the mogul told Thalia over the phone when he learned she was in Miami to promote her latest soap. "Gloria and I watch Marimar every night, and I have the perfect song for you. Come to the studio tomorrow."

The next day Thalia sat nervously while Estefan cued up the demo. "Until then Emilio had not produced anyone but Gloria and Jon Secada," remembers the Latin Grammy-nominated singer. "I thought, I'm going to be the chosen one."

Over a flourish of classical guitar, enormous speakers pulsed to the dragging rhythm of vallenato from Colombia's Atlantic coast while a woman's voice sang of her desire for a dark-skinned lover. "It was exactly my style," Thalia coos. As soon as the song ended, she followed Estefan to an open studio where an engineer sat waiting. "[Emilio] had everything ready," she surmises. "I think he was putting me to the test."

"Piel Morena" ("Dusky Skin") transformed Thalia from Mexican Regional star to Latin pop superstar. The hit marked not only a turning point in her singing career, but a sea change at Estefan Enterprises. Thalia was soon followed by her compatriot Alejandro Fernandez; the Colombian Shakira and Carlos Vives; and from North America, Madonna, Lenny Kravitz, Celine Dion, and Cher. Crescent Moon studios had been transformed from a local talent mine into an international talent magnet.

Estefan did not do it alone. The song "Piel Morena" was written, arranged, and produced by Kike Santander. He played the music, too. Those are Santander's fingers dancing across the acoustic guitar, plucking the bass, tapping the block, and scraping the hollow wooden tube known as a guacharaca. That is his voice lending heft to the thin thrust of Thalia's delivery of the hook: "Eres piel morena" ("You are dusky skin").

His large frame hunched over a borrowed guitar, Santander looks up to tell his story as he deftly tunes the instrument. A serious student of music since childhood, Santander sings and plays guitar, cuatro, vijuela, bass, piano, synthesizers, percussion, and accordion at a professional level. Before writing songs Santander wrote jingles in Colombia, cranking out more than 1500 commercial ditties between 1983 and 1993. "I was a one-man band," says Santander of his operation. "I was engineer, songwriter, arranger, and musician. Sometimes I recorded myself with one foot."

Santander met Estefan shortly after co-writing and producing a hit for Venezuelan superstar Jose Luis "El Puma" Rodriguez. Emilio called Santander at his home in Calí soon after, asking for material for his wife. In short order the king of the jingle wrote ten songs that he would later produce for Gloria's Colombian folk-flavored Abriendo Puertas (Opening Doors). Pleased, Estefan arranged for visas and accommodations for Santander's family to settle full-time in Miami. As his songs piled up, Santander signed a series of contracts in 1996 and 1997, leading to confusion over the closing date of his obligation. He would write and produce exclusively for Estefan until April 2002 -- or would it be April 2003 -- or would it be forever?

At the moment such niceties were hardly a concern: Abriendo Puertas won a Grammy; "Piel Morena" took Latin America by storm. What Estefan likes to call "A list" artists were lining up at the door. Roberto Blades, brother of Ruben and a rakish writer/producer who Estefan recruited as a singer in the talent-mine days, remembers the change: "You just had so many people walking in that building asking for songs. [Estefan] actually got to a point where he didn't have enough to put out." To keep up Estefan Enterprises signed a slew of new writers and publishers: First there were ten, then there were twenty, then there were thirty. "It was the blood the animal needed to grow," says Blades.

New blood and old would meet at regular meetings to discuss current projects and divvy up duties. "The coordination is incredible," explains Estefan. "What we do is draw a map. You record the drums, I do the strings." Meanwhile the songwriters pulled together, sharing credit as freely as they shared ideas for song hooks. "I give credit, because I want credit," says Blades of the prevailing ethos. But the publisher's most prolific writer did not play that game. "I called Kike to write with me several times," remembers Blades with a hint of resentment, "but he never called me to write with him."

The one-man band was a bad fit in Estefan's sound machine.

When Thalia returned in 1997 to record Amor a la Mexicana (Love Mexican-Style), she found a much bigger operation. "I've always felt that it's a big family," Thalia observes. "Everybody is in it together. Emilio was there supervising. Whatever I propose to him, he makes it happen." (Estefan even set up Thalia with a marriage proposal from the chairman and CEO of Sony Music Entertainment, by introducing the couple. Keeping business in the family, the Estefans will soon have Mr. and Mrs. Tommy Mottola as next-door neighbors on Star Island.)

Sometimes Estefan made the music happen by long distance. When, also in 1997, Santander wrote and produced Mexican ranchero star Alejandro Fernandez's break-out ballad debut Me Estoy Enamorando (I'm Falling in Love), Estefan phoned in frequently to check up on the project, while he accompanied Gloria on a European tour -- picking up a production credit in the process.

On the album's smash single, "Si Tu Supieras" ("If You Knew"), Santander's guitar gently caresses Fernandez's vocals as the singer begs his lover to return from afar. It stayed on the Billboard Latin charts longer than any other song in the chart's history and, in 1998, won a Grammy. In those happier days, Santander broke down the division of labor at Crescent Moon for a Miami Herald reporter as follows: "Alejandro Fernandez is now a hit for two reasons: my music and Emilio's vision and capacity to market it."

As Santander continued to churn out hit after hit, winning award after award, that division of labor looked less and less attractive. It rankled him that his less productive peers appeared to be getting the same deal as him. He also began to wonder about Estefan's "supervisory" role, especially because it seemed as though the supervisor often took credit for his underlings' work. It must not have sat well that the 1998 Billboard Latin Music Awards named Santander composer of the year, but ranked him second as a producer, behind Estefan.

Around this time Santander says he approached Estefan, asking for some kind, any kind, of special recognition. "And Emilio made him feel like he was a dime a dozen," claims Santander's lawyer, Richard Wolfe.

"Kike never asked for a renegotiation of his contract," clarifies Estefan's outside counsel, Karen Stetson. "Maybe he had this resentment building up; we never knew."

It is very likely Estefan did not know, or that he did not notice. From where the mogul sat, Santander looked like one of many songwriters and producers he had nurtured before and since. If the jingle writer was doing especially well, it must be because Estefan Enterprises had given him the resources to do so. "We invested a lot of time in him," confirms Estefan.

Besides, the mogul's mind was on other matters. He had restaurants to run, a hotel to manage. He signed a reported $15 million deal with Universal TV to supply Latin programs. Sony hired him as their president of artist development, and he was already working hard on this thing that would be called the Latin Grammys.

The great man's many occupations, Santander remembers, led him to announce at a production meeting in 1999 that he would be spending less time in the studio. While the enterprise would continue to provide projects, Santander says Estefan suggested the producers could start drumming up work on their own.

Another producer recalls Estefan saying, "You're all full-fledged producers now; you're going to be calling your own shots." But the producers were not children Estefan could push out of the nest; they were in fact paying Estefan Enterprises a fee for services. "That really marked a turning point for me," Santander recounts. If he was to seek out artists on his own, Santander must have wondered, what did he need Estefan for?

That year Santander built a state-of-the-art studio in his own home and recorded what he considers his first outside job, Cristian Castro's blockbuster, Mi Vida Sin Tu Amor. Estefan Enterprises contends that Santander could not have made My Life Without Your Love without Estefan. "Cristian came to Emilio first," says Stetson. The lawyer claims Santander hijacked the sensitive singer and then refused to pay the 25 percent cut of his earnings he owes the empire for hiring out his exclusive producer services. Or is it 25 percent of the total production budget?

How you read the contract matters. Let's say, making up figures, Castro pays Santander $400,000 to deliver a record and it costs $350,000 to make it. Santander earns $50,000. If he pays Estefan Enterprises 25 percent of his profit, he's left with $37,500. If he forks over 25 percent of the total budget, he's in the hole by $50,000. Santander says Estefan Enterprises demanded the latter. In any case, Stetson points out, the profligate producer never paid his bosses anything at all.

While Santander peddled his services elsewhere, funny things began to happen to his royalty statements. A new bookkeeper found that by some fluke, Santander had never been charged the company's standard administrative fees for songwriting. He was docked $63,000 retroactively in June 1999 and $75,000 more on January 1, 2000. The day before, an additional $75,000 came out of his songwriting royalties from FIPP to make up for losses that Estefan Enterprises claimed on his producer account; but his songwriter contract carries no provision for that kind of deduction (what's known in the biz as "cross-collateralization"). As for the royalties from all those hits he'd produced for Gloria, those were trickling in by the hundreds of dollars.

Estefan Enterprises president Frank Amadeo called Santander in for a special meeting. Staring into the distance at the enormous blue circle painted on the building opposite Amadeo's office, Santander listened to the list of expenses he owed. He listened to a lecture about his participation in the company. Estefan did not attend the meeting. Instead, passing by the conference room, he hugged his former protégé and told him that he was looking for new songs from him. Then he walked away.

As of the year 2000, Santander was no longer active on the Estefan roster. There were no more production jobs, no new songs placed. Whether his departure was by choice or as punishment is a matter the courts will decide, with a trial not likely to begin for another eighteen months.

In the meantime Santander and his brother Gustavo have been busy building an empire of their own. To the four production companies Kike has incorporated in Florida since 1994, the brothers added last year Orbital Enterprises, Inc., and, for songwriting, Clear Mind Publishing. In addition to Santander's lucrative relationship with Cristian Castro, the producer has a number of new artists in development and is rumored to have been tapped for a collaboration with rock legend Carlos Santana.

The real battle will be waged from the rivals' respective recording studios. It's not clear who will win. "One of them has the resources and the charisma," says a source close to both Estefan and Santander. "The other has the talent. I don't know if that will be enough."

If the conflict with Santander was essentially a struggle over artistic integrity, the dispute with the Chirino Sisters seems to arise from the capricious exercise of power. When Estefan founded a record label named after his studio in a joint venture with Sony, among the first groups signed was Willy's singing offspring: Jessica, Nicolle, Alana, Olgui, and Angie.

The Chirinos made their professional debut in May 2000 at the prestigious OTI Song Festival in Acapulco, where the sisters entered a Spanish-language lament, "Hierba Mala" ("Poisonous Weed"), written by Angie, Olgui, and Emilio Estefan. Dressed in shimmering jewel-hued dresses, the Chirino Sisters delivered an ode to self-destructive love. "You please me/And you frighten me," Angie wailed. "Your soul is dark and dangerous." Her sisters responded with gorgeous gospel harmonies.

Not everyone in the audience was pleased when the Cuban Americans beat out representatives from nineteen Latin-American countries; boos greeted the second group from the United States to win in the OTI's 28-year history. The nine-member international jury included Kike Santander and Charlie Zaa, a Colombian crooner who had recently recorded with Estefan. Although the sisters assured members of the press their victory had nothing to do with Estefan's connections, when they accepted the award they made sure to give special thanks to their patron.

Under Estefan's supervision the sisters selected songs for their first disc and began to work with a staff producer, Juan Zambrano. Crescent Moon president John Doelp monitored the project closely. A few months in, Doelp says he heard the first tracks and was pleased. "They sing like angels," he offers.

Estefan had already been working closely with Angie, the eldest sister, as a producer and songwriter. He doted on his young charge, taking a personal interest in her career and even baby-sitting her little girl. One day, when Chirino came to the studio abuzz with the news that she had placed a deposit on a dinette set, Estefan tracked down the store and purchased the furniture outright as a gift.

Such fatherly behavior had its limits. On July 1, 2000, as the sisters put in long hours at the studio, Angie completed the third year on her publishing and production contracts, a time when Estefan Enterprises had the option to keep her for another year or let her go. The company opted to hold on to her as a songwriter but to drop her as a producer, cutting her guaranteed annual income in half, from $50,000 to $25,000.

As a songwriter she'd had hits, including Marc Anthony's huge, Grammy-winning "Dimelo" ("I Need to Know"), but royalties roll in as swift as molasses. Her little girl needed day care; Chirino needed money now. When she approached Estefan, he offered to advance her $5000 in anticipation of her earnings from the following year. The gesture was actually generous, Stetson points out, because the company was not getting anything for this money that was not already its due.

At least not on the face of it. As Chirino ascended in the copper-lined elevator of Estefan Enterprises' South Beach offices on November 13, she understood she was on her way to sign a "receipt." Instead she found a single-page document containing legal language she didn't quite understand. She sent the letter to her manager, Steve Drimmer. "When I looked at it, I realized it was a lot more than a receipt," says Drimmer. "I realized it was completely onerous."

A clause in the document could be construed to mean that the money Chirino made as a songwriter could be withheld by the company to offset the costs she had racked up as a producer or the costs that were adding up for the Chirino Sisters. The clause could even be interpreted to mean her contract would not end until she had paid off all those costs. Richard Wolfe, who represents the Chirino Sisters as well as Santander, declares dramatically: "This says she could never make any money and her contract would go on forever."

Attorney Karen Stetson calmly explains, as she does about similarly ambiguous points in Santander's contract, that of course the company never had any intention of enforcing such an unreasonable interpretation. But the words were on the page. Drimmer advised Chirino not to sign.

Dinette set notwithstanding, Estefan was not pleased by Chirino's antics. E-mails were exchanged between manager Drimmer and Estefan executives, each more accusatory than the last. On November 15 Estefan's in-house attorney Jessie Abad withdrew the offered advance. When Chirino weighed in on November 16, she implored her onetime benefactor: "I really need some help right now, and this company is being very coldhearted with me."

On that day, Drimmer claims, Crescent Moon president Doelp called to tell him "that production had been suspended until Emilio had returned from China." (Anti-communist Estefan shares credit for the official song of the Beijing Olympics.) "He told me," Drimmer claims, "“It has something to do with Angie's publishing.'"

Doelp maintains he had only the vaguest notion about the conflict with Angie, although records show that he too received a copy of her plea on November 16.

The sisters were turned away from the studio that same day.

"It's just bad timing," says Estefan Enterprises president Amadeo. "A complete coincidence," Stetson agrees.

With a hint of sadness in his voice, Doelp explains the decision had nothing to do with the $5000. It just so happened that when he played the first Chirino Sisters' songs for Sony at a meeting that November, the shirts deemed the project not commercial enough to proceed.

Juan Zambrano, whose work with Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez suggests that his sense of the commercial is very strong indeed, disagrees. "I know the reason is not the music," says the producer. "The people who approve were listening, and they never questioned anything. Everyone was pleased. It was a hit until the day they said it wasn't."

The final decision came down ten days later, when Estefan returned from the People's Republic of China: The Chirino Sisters were through at Crescent Moon.

What happened next is not clear. Doelp says the label tried to convince the sisters to go back to the studio and get commercial. Drimmer says efforts to rescue the project only began after Wolfe asserted that Sony owes the Chirino Sisters $322,000, whether they release the disc or not. Whatever the catalyst, the salvage effort was doomed. By spring 2001 the bitterness of the dispute had silenced the angel voices.

Willy Chirino intervened, patriarch to patriarch, asking Estefan to work something out with Sony. A settlement meeting was arranged for September 14, conveniently scheduled after the Latin Grammys.

This year there will be no Gramilios. The Estefans did not receive a single nod from the Latin academy and will not even be in attendance at the ceremony that honors Latin pop's hottest stars. The only nominations garnered by Estefan Enterprises go to Celia Cruz's Siempre Viviré; the self-titled debut from the Crescent Moon party band from Panama, Los Rabanes, produced by Roberto Blades; and Thalia's crossover launch, Arrasando (It's My Party), produced by Marco Flores. Both Blades and Flores (represented by Wolfe) recently settled out of court and slipped quietly away from the empire. Zambrano also has recently negotiated an early release from his contract.

"A lot of people leave and come back," shrugs Stetson. "They find out the grass isn't any greener."

But neither Santander nor Angie Chirino are likely to return. Santander will, however, be at the Latin Grammys, as a nominee for writing merengue singer Gisselle's single "Júrame" ("Swear to Me"). And last week Santander signed Chirino as a songwriter at his Clear Mind Publishing.

It is too soon, however, to predict the fall of Estefan. The hunger that drove him to build his empire from the trunk of a car will likely make him determined to hang on to the throne. There is no shortage of talent, young or old, eager for the benefit of Estefan's fatherly attention and star-making image. Who cares if his name shows up on the credits, too?

Two weeks ago the Santander phenomenon that is Cristian Castro's "Azul" was knocked out of the top spot on Billboard's Hot Latin Tracks by Jaci Velasquez's "Como Curar una Herida" ("How to Heal a Wound"). Listed among the many producers on her album Mi Corazon (My Heart): Emilio Estefan, Jr.

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