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POP MUSIC | ANALYSIS

Latin Grammys' real victor: vibrant music

Juanes, winner of five awards, achieves a new kind of crossover stardom by being true to his cultural roots.

September 05, 2003|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — The big winner at the Latin Grammys was not just Juanes, the Colombian singer-songwriter who swept the international competition Wednesday with five trophies, including best song, record and album.

The victory transcends this one unassuming artist and his popular and important -- but creatively flawed -- album, "Un Dia Normal" (A Normal Day). This was really a triumph for what Juanes represents: the new era in Latin American music.

From Mexico to Medellin and Madrid, artists have been reclaiming the rich native music that had been downgraded by the industry as "noncommercial." Juanes has led the way in showing that an artist can be true to his roots and still sell records by the millions, and in many countries.

In this sense, Juanes is Latin music's first modern pop crossover star within the field's own boundaries. He wears his Colombian identity like a banner, breaking down the borders that had confined good pop music to local consumption within each country.

Gone are the days when multinational marketing executives created international successes by homogenizing an artist's image and music. With the exception of romantic crooner Luis Miguel and Brazilian balladeer Alexandre Pires, the seven other nominees in the top three categories represent this new generation of roots-conscious artists: Bacilos, Molotov, Tribalistas, Ruben Blades, Natalia Lafourcade and, nowadays, even Ricky Martin.

And with the exception of Martin, they all write their own music. That's a big difference from the old days too.

Correction: Those days are almost gone. The Latin Grammys reserved a performing spot on Wednesday's telecast -- again! -- for Mexican pop singer Thalia.

This is an artist who never met a commercial pop trend she didn't like. But the wife of music mogul Tommy Mottola has a lot less talent than she has palanca, the Spanish expression for big-time pull.

Her appearance -- after appearance -- represents the old way of doing business, pushing an artist because she's got a pretty face and hefty connections. But the only thing Thalia and her creators accomplished this week was showing how out of place she is in today's Latin music world.

Being a Latin pop star is not so easy anymore. The image-makers can't cover for you if you don't have real talent. That was proved by a charismatic young star from Spain, David Bisbal, who won best new artist.

Here's a curly-headed kid from the flamenco country in southern Spain who came out of "Operacion Triunfo," the Spanish equivalent of "American Idol." But he's no Kelly Clarkson, who did a lame duet with Pires on the CBS telecast.

Bisbal burst onto the scene with an energy and sexiness reminiscent of Martin, circa 1999.

This Spaniard can really dance and sing and steal a spotlight. His winning debut on U.S. television -- popping up among the audience at the AmericanAirlines Arena before zooming down a slide to the stage -- took a little of the sting out of his beating Lafourcade, the young Mexican singer-songwriter who was the critics' favorite.

Wednesday's awards were also a big victory for Gustavo Santaolalla, the Argentine-born record producer whose stamp was all over the categories. Santaolalla, now based in L.A., produced the albums for Juanes and Molotov, the Mexican rap-rock group that won for best video with "Frijolero" (Beaner), a stinging look at racial hatreds at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Santaolalla also co-produced "Bajofondo Tango Club," a tango-meets-electronica project that won best pop instrumental album. And his alternative label, Surco, released Orishas' excellent, Cuban-tinged "Emigrante," which won for best rap/hip-hop album.

The graying Santaolalla represents the new mentality in Latin music more than anybody else. From the very start, the producer's ethic has been based on his belief that Latin America has a natural wealth of music resources that should be mined, not ignored.

That was the very note struck on the eve of the awards at the Latin Grammys' Person of the Year banquet for Brazilian artist Gilberto Gil, recently named his country's minister of culture. This night yielded a couple of nominees for most eloquent political speeches delivered at normally nonpolitical industry events: singer Harry Belafonte and Mexican author Jorge Castaneda.

In his keynote speech, Castaneda, Mexico's former foreign minister, urged Latin America to develop a "vigorous cultural personality" as "the best way to be different" in an era of globalization and convergence. The Latin world, he concluded, should develop its strongest resource, its arts and culture.

"This is our soft power," Castaneda said. "This is what we do best. This is the result of our history of blood, poverty, chaos and authoritarian strains. This is what we should devote our talents and resources to. This is where our destiny lies."

But Belafonte issued a veiled warning to the Latin Recording Academy about unleashing this revolutionary power of culture. His comment came almost as a joke at the end of his grave, impromptu speech touching on the problems of racism, poverty and the endangered environment, lifelong concerns of honoree Gil, who was jailed and exiled when his early music was considered subversive by Brazilian military leaders at the time.

""I would like to thank the academy," Belafonte told the black-tie audience at a swank South Beach hotel. "Little do you know what you may be doing."

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