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Roots as a Latin Grammy theme

November 13, 2008|Reed Johnson | Johnson is a Times staff writer.

Remember the "crossover" craze in Latin music? Just three years ago, the music press was buzzing about how Shakira, Ricky Martin and other Latin superstars were raising their game and their album sales by making discs in English.

The long-term results were mixed.

Shakira, the Colombian pop princess, emerged on the strength of her albums "Laundry Service" and "Fijacion Oral" (Oral Fixation) Vols. 1 and 2, as a bilingual marketing property on par with Madonna.

Martin, on the other hand, after ripping up the international charts with his highly caffeinated hit "Livin' la Vida Loca," alienated part of his Spanish-speaking fan base as he moved toward synthetic English-language dance pop. He has since regrouped by returning to more traditional, lushly romantic Spanish-language music.

Martin's saga supplies a cautionary tale, and perhaps a theme, for the ninth annual Latin Grammy Awards ceremony, which will be broadcast tonight on Univision from the Toyota Center in Houston.

This year's nominees -- who include promising young talents such as the Mexican singer-songwriter Ximena SariƱana as well as the familiar faces of Cafe Tacuba, Juanes and Julieta Venegas, among others -- share a tendency of keeping faith with their Latin roots or, in some cases, of having recently returned to them.

Gabriel Abaroa, president of the Latin Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, believes this reflects a rising level of comfort and confidence among Latino musicians that they don't need to retool their artistry to attract English-speaking audiences.

"If the song is good, it will be good in any language," Abaroa said by phone from the academy's Miami headquarters.

The Mexico City native said that the "crossover" concept itself is nothing new, and that its promotion in recent years was something of a media invention.

"The Latino countries have been living in a crossover world for decades," he said, "because Frank Sinatra was singing beautiful music and the Beatles were singing beautiful music and the Rolling Stones maybe were singing beautiful music and maybe not 90% of the people understood the lyrics but they loved it."

Similarly, Abaroa said, English-speaking audiences have a history of accepting such Spanish- and Portuguese-language artists as Trini Lopez, Celia Cruz, Astrud Gilberto and Carlos Santana. That's equally true today, as Latin culture continues to spread its influence across the U.S. through music, television ("Ugly Betty") and movies ("Beverly Hills Chihuahua").

In literature, Dominican American author Junot Diaz's "The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," which slides between English, Spanish and Spanglish, won this year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

"Juanes would be a perfect example," Abaroa said of the 12-time Latin Grammy-winning Colombian rocker whose "La Vida . . . Es un Ratico" (Life Is but a Moment) is up for album of the year and best male pop vocal. "Juanes has been performing in places as far away as Minnesota, and he packs the venues. And many of the attendees don't speak Spanish."

Some believe that the growing confidence accruing to Latin performers making music in Spanish has been reflected in the awards telecast itself. In its early years, the broadcast was carried in English on CBS, but it has since switched to the Spanish-language Univision.

Over the last four years its U.S. ratings have tripled, while its international audience has soared to between 80 million and 85 million.

Julio Rumbaut, president of the Miami-based media and consulting firm Rumbaut & Co. Inc., says the ceremony now receives exposure on multiple platforms, including the Univision television network in league with its sister entities Univision Radio and Univision Online, and through the popular pre-show Latin Grammy Street Parties organized by Eventus Marketing.


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