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Latin Music's Quiet Crossover

by Rachel Devitt

Latin Music's Quiet Crossover


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Pretty much since the beginning of time, the industry's go-to line about Latin music has been to fixate on how, when and why that very line will be transgressed -- in other words, to constantly, perpetually, obsessively invoke the legendary crossover. From early Latin dance crazes to Santana's rock-cut cover of Tito Puente's "Oye Como Va," from Gloria Estefan's conga-doing to Ricky Martin's bon-bon-shaking, music journalists, label reps and other industry watchers have breathlessly predicted the vaunted coming of the Latin crossover: that moment when the not-so-sleepy giant that is the massive, sprawling, powerful Latin-music world would finally spill over into the mainstream music industry. Well, we're here today to tell you that that dream is dead.

Or, more accurately, that the much-ballyhooed crossover was never based in reality to begin with.

Because in reality? Latin and "mainstream" music have never been all that divided. Look at jazz, for instance, one of our earliest forms of popular music and fed by all sorts of Latin streams and sounds, from pachuco boogie, whose zoot-suited purveyors zipped around the country wreaking musical havoc with all the other hipsters in the 1930s and '40s, to the continued preeminence of the timbales a number of jazz genres. Or how about hip-hop, founded by black and Latino DJs, emcees and b-boys? Or take the very existence of hybridized genres like Tex-Mex/Tejano, with its myriad rural roots and routes, or the accordion-driven Mexican (by way of Eastern Europe) polkas of conjunto. And don't forget the Bo Diddley beat (aka the "Hand Jive" beat), a formative rhythm of American pop music that is essentially synonymous with (and probably derived from) the clave that drives salsa and other son-based Latin dance musics.

But popular music history, especially American popular music history, all too often gets written only in black and white. In the process, the critical contributions of Latino musics and musicians get so effectively erased that writers and scholars have to unearth "secret" histories of genres like punk -- even though it was a Chicano band (? and the Mysterians) that may have been one of the first ever to be called punk. In the process, we end up with terms like "mainstream" and "crossover" -- even after decades upon decades of stars like Ritchie Valens, Sam the Sham, Selena and JLo.

And now, here we are in a world where the United States just reelected its first African American president, thanks in large part to swelling numbers of Latino voters at the polls. Here we are in a world where the pop charts are populated by artists of Latino descent from Bruno Mars to Miguel, where Pitbull and Shakira have everyone singing in Spanish and swaying to rhythms like reggaeton's dembow and cumbia, where Romeo Santos (he of the Madison Square Garden-selling-out bachata boy band Aventura) got a bachata song (featuring Usher) onto the Hot 100. In other words, the "mainstream" is very seriously listening to what's really going on in Latin music.

So what is going on? Well, for one pretty big example, immigration -- that hot-button issue that had such a huge impact on the U.S. election. The increased movement of people around the world in the last couple decades has also, naturally, resulted in an increased movement of Latino musicians and musics around the world. As part of that movement, Latin music fans have watched bachata, for instance, evolve from its roots as a gritty and sometimes critical music created by the rural poor and mocked by the merengue-loving elites in the Dominican Republic.

In the hands of the new generation of bachateros who have grown up in New York, however, today's bachata is a slick, sleek, decidedly urban genre that interweaves Caribbean pop and traditional rhythms with American and Latin hip-hop beats, R&B crooning, and pop. It's also one of the fastest-growing pop genres and is increasingly omnipresent (I have personally heard it in locales as far-flung as Belgium and Hawaii recently).

Along with increased immigration comes an upsurge in musics that deal in intimate detail with the realities of borders that are at once more fluid and more hotly contested than ever before. In this camp, you'll find regional Mexican genres like banda, ranchera and norteño, Latin country musics that were once the old-fashioned provenance of your abuela but are now among today's most meaningful and popular Latin genres for vaqueros of any age for their ability to speak to the lived experiences of people who have lived or have loved ones on both sides of the border.

In particular, narco-corridos -- the narrative songs that spin tales of the cross-border drug trade and its victims and heroes (and that Napster's Sarah Bardeen once called "Mexico's gangsta rap" -- have become big business themselves. O.G.s like Los Tigres del Norte are still very much in the mix, even as a crop of swaggering young things has come onto the scene, including artists like El Bebeto, Larry Hernández and Gerardo Ortiz, whose prominence verges on pop stardom (even as their often dangerous proximity to the real drug trade shows how fine the line between art and life can be).

And of course, if the ability of people to move around the world more easily has increased exponentially in recent years, then the ability of ideas (including musical ideas) to do so has jumped to warp speed, thanks in part to a little thing we like to call the Internets. The ability to share music, videos and musical ideas has allowed people to stay sonically connected to their ancestral homes -- even as they adapt those sounds to reflect life in new places and cultures. (Don't take our word for it -- just ask Michel Teló, the Brazilian country singer who basically has YouTube to thank for the massive global smash his "Ai Se Eu Te Pego" became.)

Some types of music are more adept at this kind of movement than others. Take cumbia, for instance, that prolific rhythm that has shuffled its way across much of Latin America. Originating on the coast of Colombia as a hybrid folk blend of European, African and native characteristics before gradually spreading out across Latin America, the sound has dipped into vastly disparate styles, from big band-influenced dance music and Mexican regional pop to Peruvian psychedelic rock and Chilean alt rock. Today, cumbia is at once a pop music de rigueur, cropping up in everything from urban-tropical to big-time Colombian pop music to the zumba class down the street from your house in AnyTown, USA. Cumbia has also become the rhythm of choice for discriminating knob-twiddlers and indie-pop hipsters throughout Latin America. Artists as widespread as Colombia's global bass-heads Bomba Estéreo, Argentinean electro-art-rocker Mati Zundel and kings of sonic irony and political criticism Mexican Institute of Sound can be credited with the development of the EDM-adjacent, often hip-hop-friendly synth-shuffle known as ñu-cumbia.

A word about zumba, by the by, while we're talking about it. Sure, it may seem like the new, improved, more "exotic" Sweating to the Oldies. But the dance-fitness craze is also one of Latin music's biggest evangelizers at the moment. Zumba classes around the world are, at this very moment, introducing soccer moms and gym rats to all sorts of music they probably (still) don't hear all that much on the radio or TV, serving up reggaeton, bachata, salsa, samba, quijada and cumbia as exciting, accessible dance musics. Now, are there issues (at least aesthetic ones) with everyone and (literally) their grandmother thinking they can effectively merengue or execute a "reggaeton bounce" (as Zumba calls it)? Perhaps. But it's also important to keep in mind that Zumba was created by a Colombian dancer/choreographer (Beto Perez) who actually knows what he's talking about -- and that the classes have also supported real Latin musicians like Pitbull and Don Omar, who have created original songs for the fitness franchise.

Zumba is really just another example of life in our post-cultural world. The old borders and boundaries simply don't carry the same rhetorical weight they once did, and, thanks to the rapid pace at which people, ideas and sounds zip around the world, everything is kind of a free-for-all. The Latin music industry is no different: The lines that used to stringently divide certain genres are, if not fluid, then in the process of being reshaped and realigned.

So young bachateros are collaborating with young R&B stars and older merengue legends. And young salsa groups like N'Klabe and NG2 have revived the genre with a bit of hip-hop sabor. And some of the fiercest hip-hop and most solid dance pop of recent years has come from reggaeton kings like Don Omar and politicized Chileans like Ana Tijoux. (A quick aside about Chilean music: Check it out. Chileans are killing it on the indie circuit.) And regional Mexican stalwarts (like Jenni Rivera, who released both banda and pop versions of her most recent album) are becoming pop stars -- while pop stars on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border who wouldn't have given a cowboy-hatted ranchero-slinger the time of day a couple decades ago are lining up to collaborate with the big guns of norteño (see Los Tigres' recent party of a live album). And oh yeah, one of the buzziest sounds/scenes of the last few years was the product of a bunch of baby-faced hipsters (including 3BallMTY and Toy Selectah) taking banda, conjunto and pre-Colombian folk musics and fashioning them into super-chic electro beats that were grabbed up by global scenesters and pointed-boots-clad cowboys alike.

The Latin crossover is dead. Long live the Latin crossover.

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