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Latin Grammys' Crossover Bid Lost in the Translation

October 06, 2002|AGUSTIN GURZA

If the Latin Grammys were a chemical experiment instead of a cultural one, a dark cloud of acrid smoke would have engulfed the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood the night the third annual awards were handed out.

Something went terribly wrong with this attempt to bring Latin music to a mainstream audience. Ratings of the prime-time CBS telecast proved that "crossover" is an unstable element: The show bombed.

The question now is: Shall we brave the laboratory again? Or should we just let this exciting music crawl back to the ethnic ghetto where some people think it belongs?

It would be a shame if this year's poor ratings meant the end of the Latin Grammys. The awards have made a strong contribution to Latin music, acknowledging excellent artists we may never have heard of otherwise. Finally, Latin music was starting to get its due.

But at this point in the Latin Grammys' brief history, it's time to either give up or get smart. Surely, there must be better ways to present Latin music to uninitiated, English-speaking viewers than simply ignore the fact that they are, well, uninitiated and English-speaking.

The telecast didn't seem to care whether anybody understood what was going on. Most of the songs and many speeches were in Spanish. And there was no attempt to explain who anybody was or why we should care who wins.

For example, mariachi singer Vicente Fernandez was introduced as the person of the year, having been honored the night before at an annual fund-raising banquet for Grammy charities. But viewers learned little about this larger-than-life personality, a man whose hits are like anthems for immigrants ("Volver Volver") and the poor ("El Rey"), and who endured the kidnapping of one of his sons, singer Vicente Jr., who had two fingers cut off in the ordeal.

Why not run a short film tribute to "Chente," as fans call the King of Rancheras? Why not visit his ranch and interview him with a voiced-over English translation?

And for heaven's sake, why not make it clearer to viewers that he is competing with another son, the handsome heartthrob Alejandro, for best ranchero album?

A father-and-son rivalry could add a touch of drama to the otherwise overlooked category. Instead, after Fernandez finished his number, his son simply appeared in his tight leather charro suit and sang his own song. Viewers unaware of the family connections must have wondered: Who's this guy?

And so it went all night, one missed opportunity after another.

The point that escaped the producers is that culture is composed of a million bits of shared data, stored information that groups accumulate all their lives.

Without that bank of common understanding, things don't make much sense or have much emotional impact. Elton John's "Candle in the Wind" gains power and meaning if you know about the lives of Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana.

People bring a lot to these pop culture events. We care who wins because we know enough to care.

This is where the Latin Grammys failed their potential audience. The show didn't give them a reason or a way to relate.

The Latin Grammys debuted in 2000, after Ricky Martin's crossover success. But "Livin' La Vida Loca" was an American, not a Latin, pop music phenomenon. Martin's lyrics and sexiness required no translation.

Same for Shakira, this year's crossover sensation. She's a global hit partly because the whole world appreciates a talented pelvis. And the whole world embraces pop music in English.

Thus, American and British rock stars don't have to struggle to be accepted in Latin America. Spanish-speaking fans follow the Rolling Stones (nicknamed Los Rolling, not the Stones) whether they understand the lyrics or not.

Selling culture in the other direction takes a lot more work. The occasional Spanish-language act sneaks through to the U.S. mainstream, but it's either a novelty such as "La Macarena" or a fluke, a la the Buena Vista Social Club.

There will never be enough crossover acts to carry a Latin Grammy show year after year. And reaching for ratings by trotting out the same ol' names every year, such as Gloria Estefan and Celia Cruz, only makes the scene seem stale.

But that doesn't mean the show is doomed. It simply means it must change its approach.

Perhaps the Latin Grammy ceremony should not be aired live. Maybe it should be taped and then prepared for later broadcast. That would give producers the chance to fill in all that missing information--the background on artists, the musical context in various countries, the trends in the different categories. And most important, subtitles could be provided for lyrics and acceptance speeches.

A small taste of what this show might look like was provided four days after the Latin Grammy fiasco. That Sunday, KABC-TV's weekly public affairs show "Vista L.A." focused on the Latin Grammys, the artists and the music. With background interviews and reporting, the show seemed so much more interesting and understandable.

This year's disappointing awards show led some people to ask why we need a separate Latin Grammy anyway. We don't have Chinese Grammys, do we?

Every bold experiment is bound to spark a backlash. But let's not let ignorance or cultural narrow-mindedness spoil a good thing. Let's not put such a rich culture back in its little ghetto box. Instead, let's find smarter ways to present it so others can come to appreciate it too.


Agustin Gurza is a Times staff writer.

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