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Latin Stars Unite In Benefit Concert With Radio Roots


December 11, 2001
Copyright © 2001
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

Marc Anthony-------------

Marc Anthony at Madison Square Garden on Sunday.
[Rahav Segev for The New York Times]


From across the hemisphere Latin pop singers gathered at Madison Square Garden on Sunday night, December 9th, for a benefit concert, Hispanos Unidos por New York. It paid a triple tribute: to the victims of the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center, to the victims of the crash of Flight 587 to Santo Domingo, and to the dominion of the Spanish Broadcasting System, which operates 25 radio stations, including two in the New York region, WSKQ (97.9 FM) and WPAT (93.1 FM).

The concert, which raised $402,590 for the United Way and the Hispanic Federation, provided a cross section of the music heard on mainstream Spanish-language radio across the United States. The throng of performers were smoothly deployed through more than four hours of music, nearly all of it love songs. In the wake of disaster, performers urged the crowd to seek peace and love and to reaffirm Christian faith.

Latin rock was conspicuously absent from the concert, as it is from most commercial Spanish-language radio programming. But the diverse bill showed local styles spiffing themselves up for international consumption. A firmer beat, a keyboard gloss, a smoother voice or a fancy suit may be all it takes for bolero, cumbia, rumba, merengue, vallenato or son jarocho to hold its own against rock and hip-hop.

The concert's lineup hopscotched from Cuban-American Florida (Jon Secada, opening the concert with patriotic songs) to Colombia, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Mexico, winding up with a New Yorker: Marc Anthony, whose female fans screamed with joy. Mr. Anthony has a magnificent voice, a soaring tenor that starts out almost diffident as he confesses his need for love. Then he opens it up, somehow maintaining a gentle core as he sustains clarion notes to superhuman lengths.

Onstage he was a skinny, boyish figure, both supplicant and showboater. By the end of his first song, his jacket and shoes were off, his cuffs were unbuttoned, and he was skipping and twirling across the stage to his band's salsa riffs.

Later he knelt and kissed the stage while applause washed over him. Despite his absolute command of the music and the arena, he projected humble vulnerability, and during his finale it seemed every woman in the house was eager to be the one who had inspired his all-consuming jealousy in "Celos."

Perhaps in honor of Flight 587, the Dominican songwriter Juan Luis Guerra made his first New York appearance in seven years. In the 1980's he built his own kind of Dominican pop on rural styles distinct from hard-driving urban merengue, and he reached an international following with songs that matched far- flung poetic metaphors to his melodies. His short, ebullient set included past hits ("May It Rain Coffee," "Visa for a Dream"), a prayerful song about Jesus and yet another hybrid, blending the guitar lines of Congolese soukous with merengue.


Olga Tañon, a singer from Puerto Rico, offered merengue and rumba during her set Sunday at Hispanos Unidos por New York, a benefit concert at Madison Square Garden.
[Rahav Segev for The New York Times]


Olga Tañon, from Puerto Rico, is a convert to the Dominican merengue; she growled one in a deep, throbbing alto. But she also hopped on another bandwagon: the kind of pop-flamenco that Europeans call rumba. Rubén Blades, from Panama, reclaimed a deeper version of rumba, the kinetic pattering and sustained incantation of the Afro-Cuban guaguancó.

Carlos Vives, from Colombia, has turned the accordion-driven vallenato, from northern Colombia, into a national and international pop style. His songs praising love and the land bounded along on a cumbia beat, punctuated by frisky lines from rural button accordion and wooden flute.

The Mexican singers Alejandro Fernández and José José each brought mariachi bands, in full glittering suits and sombreros.

The son of Vicente Fernández, a Mexican superstar who turned rancheras into hits, Alejandro Fernández has established his own career. He used the mariachis in traditionalist style, strumming vigorously while he bemoaned lost love in his dramatically sobbing baritone.

Mr. José treated his mariachi group like a pop string section, then crooned a second song without it: "40 y 20," about a man telling his much younger girlfriend to ignore others' disapproval.

Charlie Zaa, from Argentina, devoted most of his set to boleros, holding a red rose along with his microphone. But for his last song, he switched to Colombian cumbia while women in long ruffled dresses danced around him.

There were modern moments, too. Thalia, from Mexico, lip-synced a cumbia-rap amid dancers in fashionably shredded American-flag T- shirts, and Carlos Ponce, from Puerto Rico, showed off his 1980's-style stubble as he sang pop-flamenco. José Feliciano belted the inevitable "Feliz Navidad." Yet for most of the concert, it was clear that even while Latin pop seeks listeners across national borders, it won't give up its back-country memories.

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