BY DEBORAH PHILLIPS

ith Hispanics on a growth curve estimated to reach nearly 15 percent of the U.S. population by the end of the decade, experts look to Miami as a precursor of the country’s landscape. In the entertainment industry, trends prevalent in South Florida today may prove to have a significant impact on musical tastes that will define tomorrow’s platinum-selling artists nationwide. Last year Miami hosted the fourth annual Latin Grammys, broadcast in English for the first time and even occupying a coveted prime-time slot on CBS.

Estoy ya cansado de estar endeudado…Dejémoslo todo y vamonos para Miami. Paraphrased, it reads, “I’m tired of being in debt. Let’s leave it all and head for Miami.” Those words that capture the immigrant’s experience also parallel the struggle of the dogged musician. Buoyed by critical acclaim but still searching for the hit that would endear them to the radio-listening public, a band named Bacilos penned the lyrics in 2002. Titled “Mi Primer Millón,” the song took off on Miami radio waves.

Colombian singer and songwriter Jorge Villamizar, B.B.A. ’94, and Puerto Rican drummer José Javier “J.J.” Freire, B.S.C. ’93, met as students at the University of Miami. After drawing crowds with an international flavor at gigs around campus, the duo hooked up with Brazilian bassist André Lopes, B.B.A. ’97, and Bacilos was officially born. The name is a hybrid of the words bacillus—a bacteria that refers to the infectious quality of the music—and vacilón—which means a good time. Ironically, it took a move to Miami from their native lands for Bacilos to embrace traditional Latin sounds.

“This is the first U.S.-driven Latin music growth, meaning that this music is hot in the U.S. first, not in Latin America,” says Richard Bull, B.M. ’97, director of Latin music at AOL who handled product management for the band while at Warner Music Latina. “Latin artists usually are successful the other way around.”

Many artists find popularity abroad before developing a sound that appeals to U.S. audiences. Colombian singer Juanes, for example, enjoyed more than 10 years of success leading a Latin rock band in his home country before relocating to Los Angeles to embark on a solo career. American Music Award nominee Luis Miguel has released recordings since his childhood in Mexico, but it wasn’t until the early 1990s that he became the first Latin music artist with two Spanish-language albums gone platinum in the United States.

The break for Bacilos came with the release of “Mi Primer Millón.” “It takes one hit to take off,” Bull says. “Miami loved ‘Mi Primer Millón.’ That was a Miami song.” The single’s success was a springboard for other recent accolades, including Latin Grammys for Best Group Album and Best Tropical Song, along with a U.S. Grammy for Best Latin Pop Album.

While Miami certainly is a hotbed for Latin music, the genre is on a nationwide growth spurt. “Pop music today has a Latin tinge to it, but the influence has always been around,” Murciano says, citing dance crazes from the 1950s that included the conga. “Historically, Latin music had more of an exotic appeal. Today the tenor is a little different—the concept of foreign is not as foreign as it used to be. In national advertising scores you’re hearing the rumba, mambos. Even the jingle for Charmin is an old cha-cha.”

The expansion of music availability on the Internet also is transforming the industry. In the days of the record label, says Bull, artists were marketed not to consumers, but to media outlets and retail suppliers. With greater numbers of listeners forsaking radio in favor of online stations and music downloads, artists can reach listeners directly. Reggaeton, a relatively new genre that sets Spanish lyrics to Jamaican dance hall beats combined with elements of rap and hip-hop, is one of the first U.S.-driven genres of Latin-influenced music to jump to the mainstream. Outside of Miami, artists like Sean Paul have made reggaeton a national radio sensation. On Bull’s AOL Musica, a Spanish-language Internet music channel, reggaeton garners the most visitors.

 
 

While the appeal of Latin American artists is just beginning to penetrate the U.S. market, English-speaking U.S. musicians have been revered in Latin America for decades. Lopes, the bassist for Bacilos, remembers favoring the music of Metallica and Guns N’ Roses as a teenager in Brazil. “There’s a desire to be like the first world to a certain extent, especially when you’re young. It’s more ‘happening.’”

“The U.S. drives all other markets,” adds Rey Sanchez, B.M. ’80, M.M. ’82, associate professor of music media and industry. “We sneeze and everybody catches a cold.” Sanchez, who is the musical director for Latin pop star Chayanne and the producer for Ecuadorian rock sensation Tranzas, notes that many American artists, such as Bruce Springsteen and Shania Twain, have dominated Latin markets for years. Since they’re still singing in English, he says they’re not really crossing over. “It’s selling to a different market.”

But when Latin music artists like Bacilos sing only in their native tongue, are they limiting their fan base to only Spanish-speakers? Leaders in the industry point to artists popular in the late 1990s, like Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony, and Shakira, who augmented their longtime Spanish-singing careers by switching to English.The key for crossover artists to be successful in another language, Sanchez says, “is that you do exactly what you are already doing.”

Miami Sound Machine is another great example of musicians who switched languages without changing their sound. Performing in the mid-1970s as the Miami Latin Boys, the band’s target audience was strictly Hispanic. In the early 1980s, the band began re-releasing some of their hits in English. “Language is the most direct link to the listener,” Murciano says. “You’re not going to be as enthusiastic about the music if you don’t understand what the singer is saying.”

Bacilos has experimented with breaking the language barrier. “Elena” is the only song on the band’s sophomore album, Caraluna, in English. Villamizar wrote the lyrics with one very particular audience member in mind—a Greek girl who spoke only English. Staying grounded in the culture that has fortified the band from its beginnings, however, remains an important priority. “There is a responsibility to represent your culture,” Lopez says. “The music is who I am. I can’t stop being a Brazilian.”

For now, Bacilos and other Latin artists who have a large fan base in the United States are helping a new demographic define itself.

“There are three general markets,” Sanchez says. “Purebred Americans who speak only English, immigrants who speak only Spanish, and the third, who have largely been ignored, are people like me. These are people who have a Hispanic background but are really Americans. As this third group grows, there’s an opportunity.”

“U.S. Hispanics are carving their own niche with a fusion of different styles,” Bull says of the music that is too contagious to be kept out of the mainstream. “They are looking for their music, that voice they can relate to.”

Deborah Phillips, B.S. ’98, is a communications specialist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York City. Photography by Warner Music Latina and John Zillioux.

Tool Bar