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Latin Grammys Struggle With Loss of Momentum

May 18, 2002|AGUSTIN GURZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Enrique Fernandez can't stop picturing the show that never was. It plays over and over in his head. He sees the exciting performances and the big finale, just as the stars rehearsed it in the days before Sept. 11, 2001, the doomed date for the second annual Latin Grammy Awards ceremony at Staples Center.

The Latin Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences' executive director hasn't been able to shake the sense of loss since last year's terrorist attacks, which paralyzed the nation and forced the show's cancellation along with numerous other events. Even as he sifts through the list of new hopefuls for this year's Latin Grammy ceremony, Fernandez laments the musical moments that were lost, including the national debut of Colombian newcomer Juanes.

"It was such a terrific show, it was going to blow everybody's mind," says Fernandez, recalling the planned surprise finale with 25 Asturian bagpipers. "That was going to generate so much energy. I'm still in mourning about it."

The Latin academy hasn't recovered completely either. Last year's cancellation caused an estimated $2 million in losses to the nascent group's parent organization, the Santa Monica-based National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences. And it set back by at least a year plans to make the Latin Grammys financially independent.

"We didn't just lose money, we lost impetus," says Fernandez, whose main office is in Miami.

Now the Latin academy has also lost its founder, president and prime mover. Michael Greene, who cultivated the Latin Grammys as a pet project, resigned in April after 14 years as president and chief executive of NARAS amid questions over his personal behavior and his leadership of the organization. The move means Greene also vacates his post as president of the Latin academy.

Greene's departure, however, is not expected to cause an immediate disruption because he plans to stay on as a full-time consultant to the Grammy organization for six months. Besides, Greene eventually planned to step down as president of the Latin academy, ceding control to new leadership. Events accelerated the transition.

"What we want more than anything is for LARAS to be its own entity, controlled by its own board and having its own destiny in its own hands," Greene said this week.

Greene downplayed the long-term negative effect of a jinxed 2001 that also saw the Latin Grammy show pull out of Miami at the last minute to avoid anti-Castro protests. He said insurance offset some of the losses of the show's cancellation, and that prospects for the future look good.

Plans to create a separate board of trustees for the Latin academy are "right on target," he said. Grammy officials have made overtures to leading industry figures, such as Miami-based producer Emilio Estefan and Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Ruben Blades, to join the governing body, though membership won't be revealed until it is finalized. The new board's first meeting is expected to take place next month.

"It's a volunteer position, yet it's a heavy responsibility," Fernandez says. "They will have the final say on anything we do."

Clearly, there's a lot riding on the third annual Latin Grammy show, scheduled to be televised internationally Sept. 18 from the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. Success could put the Latin academy in the black and put plans to expand membership in other countries back on track.

Unlike the main Grammy organization, the Latin academy recruits members internationally, in Spain, Portugal and Latin America. It now has some 4,000 members, almost half from countries outside the U.S., primarily Mexico, Brazil and Spain.

Last year's problems have delayed plans to open chapters in some of these major markets, Greene conceded. Once the academy finds its footing again, a new drive to promote the Latin Grammys internationally will be a top priority. Greene said the organization is considering sponsoring showcase concerts in economically troubled but musically rich countries such as Colombia and Argentina, where membership is lagging.

Ironically, the Latin Grammys are suffering an image problem south of the border, according to Fernandez. Some Latin Americans, historically wary of their powerful northern neighbor, still don't trust the U.S.-headquartered organization, he said. Others reject what they perceive as imposition of musical tastes by a colonial power.

"Some people think there are five gringos in a smoke-filled room in Los Angeles giving out the Grammys," Fernandez says.

To combat what he calls misinformation about the complicated Grammy rules and procedures, the Latin academy needs to recruit new members in other countries so they can experience the voting process firsthand. Plans call for the group to hire a full-time membership manager.

"Even though we were set back a year by not having a show, we refuse to be stopped," Fernandez says. "We do not want to be victims of events."

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