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MUSICA LATINA : Latino Music on the Upbeat


The signs are everywhere. Latin music is not only saturating Latino population centers such as Los Angeles but is also reaching the living rooms of mainstream America.

After gaining increased visibility and popularity for several years, Latino music in 1991 gained new clout, both among a growing body of fans and in the U.S. entertainment industry:

* Live concert venues with Latino artists increased, as did box office returns, in an otherwise slow national market.

* Latino rap provided a new avenue for Latino expression. Gerardo became a mainstream bilingual rap star.

* Gloria Estefan made a smashing comeback from a serious highway accident with a new hit album and a national tour.

* The Texas Tornados won a Grammy for their first album and promptly re-recorded it in Spanish.

* Linda Ronstadt, following up on her Grammy-winning Spanish-language album, has just released "Mas Canciones."

* Rock en Espanol proved to be a potentially strong force in Latino music as rock fanatics crowded concert halls.

* Both English-language and Spanish-language radio programmed more bilingual music, and mainline record stores carried more Latino music.

* Martika's new album included a hit single, "Love . . . Thy Will Be Done"" that also featured Prince and, in a change of pace, she paid tribute to her Cuban roots in "Mi Tierra," a duet with Celia Cruz.

* Tejano music crossed into national Latino markets. Tex-Mex legend Little Joe's bilingual album, "16 de septiembre," received critical kudos, while the group Mazz's "Una Noche Juntos: Live" debuted at No. 3 on Billboard's Latin charts.

* Wilson Phillips and Janet Jackson were among a growing number of musical artists who record their hits in Spanish.

* Veteran pop singer Vikki Carr--whose "It Must Be Him" topped Billboard's pop charts 25 years ago--was back on the charts, only this time it was for a best-selling Spanish-language album, which reached the top spot in the "Latin pop" category.

Back in 1983, when Menudo-mania introduced a new type of Latin youth music, record industry executives scoured the market for both talent and products that might appeal to U.S.-born Latinos. Their efforts met with limited success.

"Back then the crossover (Spanish-language singers recording English-language material) was the ultimate goal of the Latino artist. Julio Iglesias proved to be the most successful," said Luis Medina, an L.A. music producer. Medina worked for A&M's then-groundbreaking Latin division, whose roster of talent included Lanie Hall, Antonio de Jesus and Maria Conchita Alonso.

"Now when you talk about crossover, you're talking about English-language artists trying to reach the Spanish-speaking audience," Medina said. The target audience includes not only U.S. Latinos but also the huge Spanish-speaking population worldwide.

Eydie Gorme, for example, is about to release an album with Johnny Albino, one of the original members of the Trio Los Panchos, her husband, Steve Lawrence, and Armando Manzanero. Gorme's original albums with the Trio Los Panchos three decades ago paved the way for the current trend.

Pop superstar Madonna included Spanish-backing vocals and lyrics in "Who's That Girl," and "Isla Bonita." Others include Spanish-language remakes by a range of performers from Barry Manilow to Color Me Badd and upcoming cuts from a new album by Julian Lennon.

Mainstream pop and rock superstars Estefan, Martika and Ronstadt regularly record in Spanish. East L.A. rockers Los Lobos' remake of Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba" reached No. 1--higher than Valens' original version--on Billboard's national charts.

Gerardo's bilingual rap "Rico Suave" was both a Top 10 hit and a most-requested video on MTV. His sexy looks also garnered him a shirtless centerfold spread in Rolling Stone.

Latin music is cutting across language barriers and entering the U.S. mainstream with greater frequency.

After years of ignoring Latino music, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences established several Grammy categories for Latin music in the early 1980s, including "Best Latin Pop," "Best Mexican-American performance" and "Best Tropical Latin" performance. Billboard now charts Spanish-language Latin music under the Pop, Regional Mexican and Tropical/Salsa categories on a weekly basis.

Live concerts once limited to small venues or to a few major cities are expanding. Now, Latino music artists are finding a more lucrative audience in U.S. cities with large Latino populations.

"Our booking of Latin artists has increased every year. Now, 15% to 20% of our shows feature Latin performers," Emily Simonitsch, director of Special Events at the Universal Amphitheatre, told Nuestro Tiempo.

According to Simonitsch, such diverse musical talent as Luis Enrique, Rocio Durcal, Celia Cruz, Luis Miguel and Ronstadt have filled Universal's 6,000-plus-seat capacity amphitheater.

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