When the nominations for the 2009 Latin Grammy Awards were announced, the absence of Aventura seemed like a glaring omission. After all, for the last 16 weeks, the Bronx-bred quartet has held the No. 1 spot on the Latin album charts with "The Last," their latest recombination of spit-polished R&B grooves, frisky reggaeton beats and bachata(music), the angst-ridden genre of rural romantic music born in the countryside of the Dominican Republic.
So far, the record has spun off three hit singles and helped the group sell out concert arenas across the country, including tonight's gig at Staples Center, with a second show Wednesday evening.
But Anthony "Romeo" Santos, the group's honey-toned lead singer, isn't upset about the perceived slight, which stirred up bewilderment and outrage among Aventura's fans and music industry professionals who expressed their unhappiness on tweets and Facebook postings.
Although missing out on the awards was "definitely something that made us sad," Santos conceded, "I feel the first award any artist can have is his audience."
By all visible signs, in Aventura's case, the band's audience is satisfied and expanding, as the bilingual act punches into mainstream consciousness. Topping off several months of strong reviews and copious praise from U.S. critics, Aventura was asked in October as part of Hispanic Heritage Month to perform at the White House, where Santos asked the president of the United States if he was familiar with bachata.
"Yes, I know your culture," Barack Obama replied.
"It was a beautiful experience," Santos said, speaking by phone last week, "and an honor."
A quintessential immigrant success story, Aventura consists of mainly second-generation New Yorkers of Dominican and Puerto Rican extraction. Its sound fuses the recessive gene of a traditional genre with a new urban sensibility and sleek production values.
Like its Argentine cousin tango, bachata initially was regarded as a vaguely disreputable style of music, linked to after-hours parties in barrio brothels. "If you listened to bachata 20 years ago, they would call you, 'Oh, that's nasty, that's music for whores and pimps,' " Santos said.
But as its popularity grew during the 1980s, and enterprising musicians and producers began to blend it with merengue and pop elements, bachata acquired a patina of respectability, accompanied by increased radio airplay and international awareness.
Meanwhile, Dominican immigrants of the post-Trujillo dictatorship era had begun importing the music to the U.S. East Coast. That set the stage for a new wave of neo-bachata acts such as Aventura, whose other members are singer-composer Henry Santos Jeter, Anthony's cousin; and brothers, guitarist Lenny Santos and bassist Max Santos, no relation to their bandmates.
Aventura still is seeking acceptance from the English-language pop media, which until this year had paid it scant attention. But it already has accomplished a different type of "crossover" feat that often eludes hard-bodied boy bands: crafting a sound that appeals to men and women. In performance, Aventura can affect a macho strut with the best of its peers. But the group's heart-broken musical expressions of loss and longing convey a certain male emotional vulnerability that, combined with the group's unpretentious public image, helps endear them to female listeners.
"I think church served a great purpose and prepared me to sing very melodic," Santos said. "It was kind of love songs, but love songs to God."
Aventura's current tour, titled "The Last," refers not only to the album but to an aesthetic transition. The group's next record, Santos said, will be "like 50-50" divided between bachata and other kinds of music. "We're going to do more urban music, maybe boleros, ballads."
Although the breakout success of "The Last" will be hard to replicate, Santos said, 2009 -- even minus a Latin Grammy nomination -- has been a year for the group to savor. "Oh yeah," he said, "I can't complain."