RUBEN BLADES TRIED; GLORIA ESTEFAN’S DOING IT. BUT CAN LATINO STARS REALLY CAPTURE ANGLO AUDIENCES?
Paul Emerson admits his musical passion should be Motown, not mambo. But while in Miami two years ago, the Detroit computer salesman heard some merengue and salsa tunes by the Dominican group Juan Luis Guerra and 4: 40. The band’s unique Caribbean pulse thawed Emerson’s Midwestern blood; a year later he sneaked backstage at a New York show and befriended Guerra and his troupe. Emerson, 27, learned to dance salsa and even taught himself Spanish. Last July he attended a group member’s wedding and was hailed as “our No. 1 fan.” Emerson must know his tropical music, because Guerra is now Latin America’s No. 1 act, and possibly its hottest ever. “Maybe I was born in the wrong country,” says Emerson.
Until lately, he was right. Cosmopolitan Americans today celebrate music from such exotic lands as South Africa. But unless they’re on a cruise they usually scorn the torridly elegant sounds at their southern doorstep–as if Latin America’s very proximity rendered its music vulgar to gringo ear. But in this post-cold war age of North and Latin American integration, that may all be changing. If new artists like Guerra have their way, the waves of Caribbean music could soon break over the shores of Emerson’s country. “Latin cultural values are finally gaining acceptance,” says Guerra, poised to start an 11-city U.S. tour Nov. 15. “I want people to feel the dreams of our culture in my music.”
Headed by the lanky Dominican-whose most recent album, “Bachata Rosa,” has sold more than 3.5 million copies worldwide-Latin American music is enjoying an artistic resurgence and a growing crossover popularity among non-Latinos. While Anglo stars like David Byrne and Paul Simon adopt or co-opt salsa and samba (depending on how you look at it), flat-footed Yuppies are filling Latin dance classes in Manhattan. And Latin record labels in the United States are recruiting once-obscure talent to test the Anglo market. “I always wanted to bridge white and Latino audiences,” says Venezuela’s top salsero, Oscar D’Leon, who just signed with New York’s RMM/Sony. “It paid to persevere.”
That bridge has been in construction for decades. In fact, it looked completed 35 years ago when mambo–the brassy cha-cha-cha of Cuba–was the rage in U.S. ballrooms. That faded in the 1960s, and into the void came Puerto Ricans and others, who created an accelerated mambo they dubbed salsa. The best example of the Afro-Indio-Iberian melange that begat Latin music, its syncopated mix of piano, horns and conga drum makes for a sound that burns as hot as a Caribbean noon and sways as serenely as a coconut palm. Joining such masters as Tito Puente and Celia Cruz, young bandleaders like Willie Colon added Latino social relevance to that dance. In 1978 Colon and the Panamanian Ruben Blades recorded their seminal album “Siembra,” which sparked a mini-salsa boom. “We thought we had our own Hispanic Motown,” says salsa pianist Eddie Palmieri.
Yet just when Blades and his politically tinged salsa seemed ready to crack the U.S. market in the 1980s, the party fizzled. Latin America suddenly meant Sandinistas, contras and drug lords, and non-Latinos began to view salsa as the musical turf of sandaled leftists. Enter Guerra and merengue, the breakneck, carnivalesque rhythm of the Dominican Republic. Guerra searched the bruised regional soul and merged his merengue with salsa, Afro-Antillean folk and the romantic ballad known as bachata. The result is a sound for the post-ideological Americas, and one that’s not afraid to throw in a bit of el norte. Guerra, who studied at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, subtly employs such U.S. roots as jazz, gospel and choruses that echo the Beatles and Manhattan Transfer.
That range blossoms on “Bachata Rosa,” which sports at least six hits in Latin America, Spain and the U.S. Hispanic market. Guerra swings from magical realism, as in his bachata “Burbujas de Amor” (Love Bubbles); to pulsating merengue (“La Bilirrubina”) and joyfully romantic salsa, such as “Como Abeja al Panal” (Like a Bee at the Hive), possibly the finest salsa piece since Blades and Colon made “Buscando Guayaba.” A quiet, almost gangling figure offstage, Guerra is a lightning rod in performance. Slipping floral jackets over his trademark black suit and hat, he is a bearded Zorro who–to quote Brazilian author Jorge Amado–is “ready to wiggle his butt.”
But are non-Latinos ready to wiggle theirs with him? The New York boom of the late ’70s did little to spread Latin music. But Miami–practically a Latin capital on the U.S. mainland and home to such stars as Gloria Estefan–is propelling salsa into the heartland. Estefan, whose Latin-based pop is shrewdly bilingual, once had 11,142 Iowans form the world’s longest conga line on the banks of the Mississippi. At Chicago’s downtown Moosehead Bar and Grill, crowds of Loop executives are regularly strutting to Spanish Fly & Co. “Unlike rock, salsa gives you this whole mix of rhythms going on at the same time,” says Jeff Weintraub, a media relations director. “It’s more stimulating on the dance floor.” Europe and Japan seem equally stimulated: Guerra this year was as well received in Amsterdam as in Madrid; and Japan even has a homegrown salsa band, Orquesta de la Luz, which wins genuine critical applause.
In 1989, Talking Heads star David Byrne gathered a host of salsa greats to make “Rei Momo,” an album of Latin rhythms composed and sung mostly in English by Byrne. Last year, Paul Simon did “The Rhythm of the Saints,” which used Brazilian samba. Such gringo cachet would appear to open doors for Latin artists. “Byrne exposed our music to further heights,” says Puente.
Yet other artists who recorded with Byrne argue that such white-bread renditions put up walls, much as black rock and roll suffered under Pat Boone’s imitations in the 1950s. “It’s a real imperialistic attitude,” says Colon, who took part on some songs. “They never truly collaborate with us.” Palmieri is more pointed: “Byrne’s album should not even be heard. It has nothing to do with authenticity.”
Of course, Latin musical authenticity has little to do with English-and for those who dream of breaking into the mainstream U.S. market, the rule is still English or perish. Most major U.S. record labels will demand that compromise of someone like Guerra. Blades objects to “an artificial packaging of an artist’s talents”: “Guerra doesn’t need to have himself reinvented to please a capricious demand,” he argues. And for now, Guerra is betting that “if you’ve got the ballad, it doesn’t matter what language it’s in.” Nevertheless, U.S. music watchers warn that without a couple of English tunes, the gringos may step out to dance to Guerra on Friday night but will never keep him on their car stereo on Monday morning.
Emerson, Guerra’s “No. 1 fan,” insists the synthesized ’90s need Latin music: “While they [Latins] are putting their heart into what they write, we’re sitting here listening to the musical equivalent of fast food.” That is the sanctuary Latin music offers U.S. audiences–it is still played by human hands and danced by couples who can look into each other’s eyes when they do it. Whether you like salsa or not, artists like Guerra have preserved more than just the mambo tradition. They’ve held onto a way of making music that the world is fast losing and would be much worse without.
Of course, lovers of Latin American Music can debate which are their favorite recordings, but their are five indisputable greats.
(Vaya), by Celia Cruz The unchallenged Cuba-born-and-fled queen of salsa at her best; recorded with Willie Colon.
The Mambo King (RMM/Sony), by Tito Puente Yes, he deserves a crown. The 100th album from an enduring legend.
15 Exitos de Oscar D’Leon
(T.H. Rodven), by Oscar D’Leon The best compilation from a salsa giant.
(Island), by Los Van-Van Cuba’s hottest salsa band.
(Sony Discos), by Willy Chirino From one of salsa’s most inventive lyricists.