Get ready for the "Grammy Latino 2002" tonight. I'm really excited about the awards because some of my favorites are nominated: Celia Cruz, Alejandro Sanz, Carlos Vives, etc.
Also, I'm looking forward to the live performances by some talented artists tonight.
Who are some of the artists that you will be rooting for tonight?
Long live Latin music!!
By AGUSTIN GURZA
Producers of the third annual Latin Grammy telecast, which CBS is broadcasting from the Kodak Theatre on Wednesday, must have been scrambling these past few weeks for big-name presenters to boost the ratings. They even trotted out those old standbys Gloria Estefan and Jimmy Smits as co-hosts for the prime-time show, which aims to honor the best in Latin music.
Part of the problem this year is the scarcity of superstar names among the major nominees--at least, the crossover kind of superstar, like Ricky Martin or Enrique Iglesias, most familiar to American audiences.
Colombian vallenato singer Carlos Vives, who garnered a field-leading six nominations in this year's competition, is a respectable contender but hardly a ratings heavyweight.
For really exciting prime-time appeal, producers were lucky to tap Shakira for a scheduled performance. The Colombian singer-songwriter is nominated for her video of "Suerte," the Spanish version of "Whenever, Wherever" from her hit album "Laundry Service." The album itself, however, is not in the running because it's mostly in English. To qualify for a Latin Grammy, the first international version of the prestigious music award, an album must be at least 51% in Spanish or Portuguese. (The eligibility release period is April 1, 2000 to March 31, 2002.)
The celebrity search may be a dilemma for those who worry about TV ratings. The good news is that in some categories at least, the Latin Grammy voters don't really seem to care how their choices play on the tube in the United States.
Roughly half of them don't even live here. The U.S. still has the largest voting block in the Miami-based Latin Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, with a tad more than 50% of its nearly 4,000 members. The rest are spread across Mexico, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Latin America.
That geographical diversity makes for some pleasant surprises for music lovers, especially in this year's pop music categories. Many of the pop nominees aren't just unexpected--they're totally unknown here.
The only practical way to hear some of this excellent music, much of it coming from Spain, is to schedule a private listening session at the Grammy offices in Santa Monica. The awards organizers there keep a copy of each nominated album, works you will never see in your local music stores.
That means most people will never hear the mature brilliance of Spain's Ana Belén, the celestial vocals of Chile's Cecilia Echenique and the searing social insight of Uruguay's Jorge Drexler.
That's assuming the public cared to discover something new. Too many people have been conditioned by commercial Spanish radio to think that all Latin pop is Paulina Rubio and Luis Miguel.
Still, for those who want to look beyond the big celebrities and the TV glitz, the Latin Grammys have become a credible guide to sampling the undiscovered side of Latin music. With the Internet, fans can easily access this enormous and endlessly fascinating realm of hidden treasures. Almost all of the international nominees have Web sites, as do their labels.
In the regular Grammys, handicapping the contenders and predicting the winners has become an annual sport. In the Latin Grammys, that game becomes a much more risky bet.
First of all, the Latin music awards don't have enough of a history to establish a voting trend. But more important, the membership is too scattered and too much in flux to act as a cohesive group with predictable tastes and prejudices.
"The membership is very spread out and it's very hard to tell how people in Spain will respond to an artist from Argentina," says Enrique Fernández, executive director of the Latin Academy. "I think it's a very, very tough call."
Still, it doesn't take a soothsayer to weigh the relative chances of artists nominated in major categories.
Keep in mind these three names in the top three categories: Vives, Cruz and Sanz.
All three--Colombia's Vives, Cuba's Celia Cruz and Spain's Alejandro Sanz--are nominated for record, album and song of the year. And all three are favorites in the U.S. Latin market, with significant domestic label support.
Chances are good that one of them will walk away a big winner.
Vives launched the vallenato craze in the early '90s with his smash Latin club hit "La Gota Fria." He subsequently slipped into a commercial, though not creative, slump.
The dynamic performer is experiencing a comeback with his latest album, "Déjame Entrar" (Let Me In), whose title cut has two major nominations. The marketing savvy of Miami producer Emilio Estefan Jr. gave Vives another hit--and a good chance at a Latin Grammy victory, which honors clout as much as artistry.
Artistically, Vives deserved every accolade for his 1997 masterpiece "Tengo Fe," a complex and uplifting album that got almost no attention. His new work falls far short, especially the title cut with its calculated pop appeal and routine romantic theme. But the rest of the album still reflects some of the earthy, skin-tingling excitement of Colombia's coastal music.
Cruz, the so-called Queen of Salsa, will be a sentimental favorite with her latest work, "La Negra Tiene Tumbao," which means something like "that black woman's got the groove." There's something slightly undignified in this album's attempt to make Cruz sound hip and modern, with rap and timba thrown into her salsa mix.
But voters are likely to find it endearing that this salsa elder has a contemporary dance hit more than half a century into her career. They won't know, or care, that her once robust vocals have noticeably weakened with age (which she never reveals).
Sanz was the big winner in last year's ill-fated Latin Grammys, whose presentation was canceled after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. The unassuming singer-songwriter won four awards for his album, "El Alma Al Aire."
He's nominated again for some of those same songs, this time performed live for his "MTV Unplugged" album. One song that appears on a previous album--"Y Solo Se Me Occure Amarte"--is nominated this year for both song and record of the year.
We trust voters won't be fooled by retreads, no matter how improved the new acoustic versions may be.
Here are the other contenders in the top fields.
Record of the Year
Cruz, Sanz and Vives are competing here with two lesser-known challengers--new Peruvian singer-songwriter Gian Marco and veteran Chilean rockers La Ley.
Like Vives', Gian Marco's album comes out of the Estefan shop, where he worked as a writer. His romantic pop material sounds fresh and the arrangements are nicely textured with folkloric instrumentation.
La Ley has the least interesting entry, with another "MTV Unplugged" concert.
Album of the Year
What a pleasure to see Brazilian singer Ivan Lins appear here with "Jobiniando," his sophisticated bossa-style album whose title cut is a tribute to Antonio Carlos Jobim. The Brazilians have their own extensive categories in the Latin Grammys, but they rarely rise to the top ranks in nominations. Brazil may be a world unto itself on the continent, but its exquisite music deserves wider attention. Still, Lins is a dark horse to win.
Closing out the field is a surprise--veteran Spanish singer Miguel Bosé with his album "Sereno." After some very appealing pop hits in the '80s, Bosé started doing dense and ponderous pop music, and essentially disappeared from the U.S. market. For that reason, this album isn't likely to prevail.
Song of the Year
Juanes, the bright young Colombian singer-songwriter who had an impressive seven nominations last year for his debut album, "Fijate Bien," didn't release his follow-up, "Un Dia Normal," in time for this year's awards. But the single "A Dios Le Pido," did qualify, earning a nomination in this songwriting category alongside Sanz and the writers of hits for Vives, Cruz and Bosé. This uplifting tune may just carry away voters with its hopefulness and infectious rhythm.
Best New Artist
This is the category that helped make Juanes an international star. It's become the most interesting of the major Latin Grammy awards, spotlighting worthy new artists.
Gian Marco is here, along with Jorge Moreno, another fine Miami pop singer-songwriter. Also in the running are Mexico's Sin Bandera and Puerto Rican rockers Circo. But the most exciting entry is Cabas, another Colombian singer-songwriter who fuses folklore with rock in an intoxicating blend.
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Agustin Gurza is a Times staff writer.