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Associated Press Newswires

In Latin America, A Younger Generation Turns From Traditional Salsa To Hip-Hop, Reggae And Fusion


March 20, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Associated Press Newswires. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - Bobbing to hip-hop and reggae beats, Latinos in baggy jeans and oversized shirts pack a San Juan outdoor disco, hungry for the newest grooves.

"This is our music, the music of our generation!" shouts 24-year-old Julio Gonzalez over the thump of scratchy speakers.

A decade ago, people his age would have been gliding to the rhythms of salsa.

Across Latin America and the Caribbean, many young people are turning their backs on that tradition. Mesmerized by music videos and eager to keep in step with their generation, some are listening to major acts such as Eminem and P. Diddy, while others are taking old-school salsa and revamping the sound to make it their own.

The process is not unlike what New York's Puerto Ricans and Cubans did in the 1930s when they created salsa by reworking old Cuban rhythms.

"By all accounts, salsa and merengue are going down, and this is what people are hearing (hip-hop and reggae)," says Leila Cobo, chief editor of Latin Music for Billboard Magazine.

Pointing to "Best Latin Rap Album" - a new category in the Billboard Awards - Cobo says the hybrid market is growing among Latinos in the United States and its Spanish-speaking Caribbean territory of Puerto Rico.

Latin music sales in the United States increased from $260 million in 1995 to $608 million in 2000, according to the American Federation of Musicians, but it's unclear what the breakdown is for different types of Latin-derived music.

Latin rap has soared in popularity, meanwhile, and reggae in Spanish has also taken off, competing with the English-language version.

One of the hottest acts in Puerto Rico is Tego Calderon, who is getting media attention once reserved for pop mainstream acts. The 30-year-old singer laces salsa and Puerto Rico's bomba rhythms of African ancestry with hip-hop beats to deliver social critiques and party songs filled with local lingo and references to old-school acts like the great Ismael Rivera.

Calderon's debut album, "El Abayarde," has sold more than 100,000 copies since its December release in Puerto Rico - a huge number for this island of 3.8 million people.

"Rap is a genre that can be fused with different musical expressions," Calderon said at a press conference to promote a concert in the Roberto Clemente Coliseum, Puerto Rico's biggest indoor arena. "We do it with bomba and salsa, with my DJ and a live band."

The concert Feb. 14 was a perfect example, with a 16-member orchestra playing alongside three DJs as well as percussion legends Giovanni Hidaldgo and Roberto Roena.

Moncho Rivera sang one of his uncle Ismael Rivera's classics, "Las caras lindas" ("beautiful faces"), and two kids danced to the bomba rhythm of "Loiza," in which Calderon denounces discrimination against blacks in Puerto Rico.

In Nicaragua, disc jockey Orlando Mendoza of Radio 1 says callers aged 8 to 23 aren't asking for salsa any more. "We can't explain the phenomenon, but I think it's because the quality of tropical music is fading," he said.

Salsa parlors in Venezuela and Cuba are often packed - but mainly with middle-aged couples and tourists - and some Latin youth still listen to old salsa stars. Discos, meanwhile, are crowded with college students dancing to Busta Rhymes and Ja Rule.

"I almost never listen to salsa music or traditional music like that," said Alfredo Murillo, 23, a student browsing at a music store in Caracas, Venezuela. "I think it's because of the influence of TV. I watch a lot of MTV, and it's the same for many young kids."

Puerto Rico's Cultura Profetica, Puya and Superaquello have taken reggae, hard rock and electronica and fused it with salsa, Latin jazz and Afro-Caribbean rhythms.

"That's the way salsa used to connect with the past, and that's what these groups are doing now," says University of Puerto Rico Professor Juan Otero. "You take tradition and make it into something new."

Superaquello - influenced by Stereolab, Talking Heads, Brian Eno and salsa legend Cortijo y su Combo - is known for its mix of acoustic and electronic sounds. Puya takes salsa and pumps it up with hard rock riffs into a Puerto Rican version of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

"When we started, most of the local rock bands were imitations of American bands," says Puya's bassist Harold Hopkins. "You can do good music with our elements, giving emphasis to what we are as Puerto Ricans."

The Chili Peppers, meanwhile, are turning to Latin music for inspiration.

"We love the energy we get out of Latin American audiences. They really dance," lead singer Anthony Kiedis said during an October tour stop in Venezuela. He said the band from Los Angeles plans to produce Spanish versions of its songs.

In the meantime, Latinos are content with their own creations.

"I love this music," says Mayte Rodriguez, 25, at an outdoor concert by Cultura Profetica, the Puerto Rican reggae group. "It makes you want to move and just dance."

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