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Pop Music | LATIN SPOTLIGHT

Familiar faces take secondary places

With more participation from Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries, the Latin Grammy Awards are less tied to local tastes.

August 29, 2004|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

I'd love to see Jay Leno do one of his "Jay Walking" skits this week, interviewing Latinos on the streets around the Shrine Auditorium, site of Wednesday's fifth annual Latin Grammy Awards. Just as many Americans can't identify photos of Vice President Dick Cheney, I'll bet the average Latino would be stumped when asked to identify many of the stars nominated this year in major categories.

For the most part, this is not the music heard on commercial Latin radio in Los Angeles. Thank heavens.

The nominations are both eclectic and esoteric. Some come from so far out of left field -- Brazilian rock group Skank, for instance -- that even professional Latin music watchers have been caught by surprise. Faces more familiar to local fans, such as Ricky Martin, Luis Miguel and Paulina Rubio, don't appear at all in the top categories, though they're nominated in the secondary pop field.

As the Latin Recording Academy has gained more participation from members in Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries, the awards were bound to become more international, less tied to local tastes. Unlike the Grammys, which cover only U.S. releases, the Latin Grammys encompass music from all over Latin America and Spain.

That makes it harder to predict winners, because the voters are such a diverse and scattered group. So here are my personal choices in the top three categories:

Album of the year

There's a rich mix of candidates in this category, truly representative of the best in Latin music, which the awards purport to honor. Any one of the five entries would make a respectable winner, so picking just one required a process of elimination. Surprisingly, my final pick was not my first choice.

The easiest to eliminate is "Cuatro Caminos," the uneven album by Mexico City's venerable Latin alternative band Cafe Tacuba. Despite terrific moments, it doesn't rise to the level of Tacuba's previous works. Still, the very presence of the progressive, rock-influenced outfit in this category says a lot about how far Latin music has come from the routine romantic pop that formerly dominated the industry.

If they gave out a Latin Grammy for "personal best," Spanish pop superstar Alejandro Sanz would take it for the introspective "No Es Lo Mismo," undoubtedly the best work of his career. It's also one of the most sophisticated pop albums from a major Latin star in a long time. But Sanz has been a big winner before in this competition and for far less deserving albums. Maybe it's time to share the spotlight.

"Sur O No Sur," the provocative sophomore work by Argentine American singer-songwriter Kevin Johansen, has received much deserved praise from critics and industry insiders alike. The bilingual album is inventive, witty and original, qualities often missing from pop music. But a few of the 17 songs fall short of the album's overall quality, defusing its energy in places. Perhaps a little editing could have helped keep the work sharp and focused to the end.

The final two nominees represent three inexhaustible sources of musical creativity -- Spain, Cuba and Brazil. That's powerhouse competition.

Cuban pianist Bebo Valdes and Spanish Gypsy singer Diego El Cigala are odds-on favorites to win for "Lagrimas Negras," a shimmering set of flamenco-tinged standards. The album has been compared with the Buena Vista Social Club, partly because Valdes is an elderly Cuban from the pre-Castro era doing old songs with a timeless quality. Like Buena Vista, "Lagrimas Negras" has been popular for more than a year in jazz and world-music circles, giving it competitive momentum.

But this album is not just a nostalgic rehash. It's a distinct creative reinterpretation by two artists who are generations and worlds apart. If it wins as expected, it would be a triumph for the classy and cosmopolitan wing of Latin music.

My favorite, however, is the impressive, self-titled debut album by Brazilian singer Maria Rita, daughter of pop singing legend Elis Regina. The album has helped generate seven nominations, including producer of the year for Tom Capone, who also produced Skank.

This is a lovely, fluid work that grafts American influences onto a strong Brazilian base. It has the carioca cool of bossa nova, the swing of jazz, the soul of blues. The songs flow from fragile to sassy and festive, carried along by Maria Rita's tender vocals. She could emerge, deservedly, as the Norah Jones of the Latin Grammys.

Song of the year

The best song award goes to a songwriter for a single track in Spanish or Portuguese and must be new during the eligibility year. That automatically eliminates the oldies by Bebo and Cigala.

Two songs in this category come from Mexican alternative artists, Tijuana's Julieta Venegas and Cafe Tacuba's Emmanuel Del Real. Though catchy and appealing, neither entry has enough artistry or craft to rise above the rest.

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