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The Philadelphia Inquirer

Cultural Disconnect Masks The Diversity Of Latin Music

By Tom Moon

July 7, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved.

It's been called the "Latin invasion," the constellation of pop stars with roots in Puerto Rico, Mexico and elsewhere who have arrived like messengers from a tropical galaxy, to conquer the States.

Ricky Martin. Enrique Iglesias. Jennifer Lopez. Marc Anthony, who performs Saturday at the First Union Center. Shakira. Paulina Rubio. Each embodies a different type of heat. Each rides a faintly exotic rhythm tweaked to appeal to Anglo ears.

Every time a star is born, there's celebration in the Latino entertainment industry, which accounted for $642.6 million in U.S. recorded-music shipments last year, up 6 percent from 2000. It's seen as further proof of creeping changes in the U.S. cultural appetite, confirmation that the power of the country's 32.8 million Hispanic residents can no longer be denied.

Yet those who have devoted their lives to Latin music - from Portuguese fado to Brazilian bossa nova to age-old Cuban son, all on stage next weekend at the Kimmel Center's "Fiesta Latina" - can't help but cringe.

"I love Shakira, she's beautiful," legendary New York salsa and Latin-jazz pianist Eddie Palmieri says, referring to the Colombian star, whose English-language debut was released in November. "But the tragedyis that people in this country think she is Latin music.

"The fact is, what she's doing is very limited, rhythmically, compared to what else there is. People who get excited by her music, they should prepare themselves, because they're going to get blown away when they hear the real thing."

If, that is, they do hear the real thing.

Though the recent Latino pop boom would seem to have sparked widespread interest in Hispanic culture, many veteran musicians accuse the industry of promulgating the millennial equivalent of "Babalu." The music's emphasis on gloss, its goal of assimilating by baldly embracing American pop tropes, has obscured the energy and the regional distinctions that enrich the broad range of styles characterized as "Latin."

Some groan that Latin pop has perpetuated the notion, entrenched since at least the mambo craze of the '50s, that the music coming from the Afro-Latin diaspora is nothing more than mindless dance music.

At the very moment that Latin music has arrived in the mainstream, some of its most important musical attributes - its rhythmic intricacy, staggering array of splinter styles, and juxtaposition of exacting precision against wild, flowing inspiration - are being slighted by the Latin-pop marketing machine.

"What's happening now is, when [the labels] get one thing that works, they want everything else to sound like that," says Albita Rodriguez, the Cuban singer now living in Miami, who will play Saturday in Verizon Hall.

Hyped as a salsa siren when she arrived a decade ago, the former Emilio Estefan protege - who performs under her first name - received the major-label push on several records, didn't break, and recently released Hecho a Mano, a small-label Unplugged-style back-to-basics son collection whose title is translated as "handmade."

The labels have rigid notions of what will appeal to Latin or crossover buyers, she says. "They don't care if it's a vulgar copy. They're scared of the diversity that's out there... . A lot of that, they don't know how to sell."

Albita, who says she left pop to grow musically, believes that the industry will eventually realize that Latin music's diversity is its strength. It's the very thing that attracts many Anglos fed up with the rote postures of pop.

Just when the musically adventurous tire of Bebel Gilberto and the other Brazilian electro-acoustic hybrids, a new rhythmic style from the African communities of Peru or the clubs of Monterrey, Mexico, (typified by the currently hot electro-Latin band Kinky) comes along to expand the horizon a bit further. Where Latin pop parades uniformly pretty (and "Americanized") sex symbols, the rest of Latin music is a bustle of styles, contentious philosophies, and highly individual dance pulses colliding in unexpected ways.

"The beauty of what's going on now is that Latin music is no longer based on one sound or one rhythm," says Tomas Cookman, an artist manager and cofounder of the Latin Alternative Music Conference to be held in New York next month. "It's not like we're all out here selling the 'Macarena.' It's all over the place. When you look beyond the pop stars, what you see now is a thriving bazaar."

The wares in that bazaar are influencing pop in unexpected ways. Non-Latin acts are taking a mix-and-match approach to Latin styles that's similar to the collage mentality of hip-hop. "I Can't Stop," the most compelling song on Will Smith's new Born to Reign, is built on a surging Enrique Iglesias-style gallop.

Also transcending geographical and linguistic barriers are romantic balladeers and songwriters who have upended longstanding Brazilian forms. Artists who incorporate Afro-Cuban religious chants or electronica's undulating loops. Singers who can melt ice with the slightest whisper, and others revered for their razor-sharp timing.

There are the wise septuagenarians of the Buena Vista Social Club and the anarchist teens of rock en espanol bands. Latin music's beats stretch from Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes' agitated displays of jazz virtuosity to torturously slow songs of longing performed by Misia, the fado singer who plays next Sunday at the Perelman Theater.

Latin's themes venture into the same territory explored in "serious" singer-songwriter pop. "Plastico," from the 1978 Ruben Blades/Willie Colon classic Siembra, is as trenchant a commentary on materialism as any in pop. Its arrangements - developed by producers who work both Latin and Anglo projects - may sound streamlined, but they're really a collection of elaborately choreographed interlocking parts, each contributing to an unstoppable locomotion, articulating a different facet of the syncopated clave rhythm that is the heartbeat of much Latin music.

"Latin music has as many, if not more, genres than American pop music," says Bruno del Granado, head of Miami's Maverick Musica, the Latin branch of Madonna's Maverick Records.

"Even those who are working on the pop side aren't just proud of their roots, they're knowledgeable. They can talk to you about Radiohead, and they can talk about Beny More [the pioneering Cuban singer of the '50s]. They're citizens of the world, not just bilingual, but bicultural," del Granado says.

The problem is that the Anglo audience isn't correspondingly fluent, many contend. A profound cultural disconnect keeps Latin music's creative explosion mostly underground in North America, where Anglo ears hear salsa, calypso and samba as the same basic limbo-line-at-the-resort fare. They are unable - or, perhaps, unwilling - to get beyond its utility in order to discover the music's distinctions and differences.

"What people outside of the Latin world don't understand is that, in Cuba, and Puerto Rico, and all over the place, the popular music is also the high culture," says Dita Sullivan, who manages the forward-looking Cuban singer and songwriter Juan-Carlos Formell.

"You dance to it, yes. But it's also regarded as art music. There isn't this middlebrow American prejudice that says everything popular is low. There's respect. It's loved, and cherished, and celebrated as an expression of something vital to the life of the people."

Will that indifference ever go away in the United States? Philadelphia producer Aaron Levinson - whose next project, Un Gran Dia En El Barrio, by the New York all-star band Spanish Harlem Orchestra, will be released in September - believes it can. He's noticed that, when Latin music is approached with an open mind, the conversion experience can be profound.

"People are curious about it now," Levinson says. "It's sort of all around us, and the people who are paying attention know how powerful it can be. One of the heaviest [non-Latino] house DJs in New York put Un Gran Dia on his top 20. He's taking these pure salsa vocals and spinning them in a deep house context. We didn't seek that out: The record's not even out yet. He's finding us."

A triumph like that sends out ripples. "It's what I call the Velvet Underground effect," Levinson continues, referring to the '60s rock band that was enormously influential without ever experiencing commercial success.

"You may only sell 10,000 copies of a record, but those people who bought it are like zombie converts. Their world has been changed; they can't stop talking about it. And they come back for more."

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