1. Archive


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 United States.

Ricky Martin. Enrique Iglesias. Jennifer Lopez. Marc Anthony. 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 Latino residents can no longer be denied.

Yet those who have devoted their lives to Latin music _ from Portuguese fado to age-old Cuban son _ 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 tragedy is 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."

Though the recent Latino pop boom would seem to have sparked widespread interest in the culture again, 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 regional distinctions that enrich the broad range of styles characterized as "Latin."

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 co-founder of the Latin Alternative Music Conference to be held in New York next month. "When you look beyond the pop stars, what you see now is a thriving bazaar."

"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."

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.

Can that change? 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.

"It's what I call the Velvet Underground effect," Levinson says, referring to the '60s rock band that was enormously influential without having 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."