MUSIC

Translating Spanish into pop success

Nicholas Jennings September 10 1984
MUSIC

Translating Spanish into pop success

Nicholas Jennings September 10 1984

Translating Spanish into pop success

MUSIC

Nicholas Jennings

Throughout the summer in large stadiums across North America—including Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto—evidence of a remarkable new direction in pop music has emerged, and one man personifies the trend: singer Julio Iglesias. Dressed in a dark, formal suit and a lustrous shirt, flashing a smile out of a toothpaste commercial, he fills the air with romantic ballads which mesmerize his sold-out audiences, most of which are female. What is striking is that half of the songs he sings are in Spanish, and the rest, in equal proportions, in Italian, French and English. Despite the fact that English-speaking North Americans are just discovering his talents, Iglesias has become one of the best-selling solo recording artists in history, having sold more than 100 million records around the world—a figure that ranks just behind the sales of Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley. His debut album in English, 1100 Bel Air Place, arrives in most Canadian record stores this week. It will confirm his reputation as the first authentic superstar to emerge from a burgeoning field of Spanish-speaking pop stars now breaking into the English market.

The foundation for the enormous growth of Latin music has been the rapidly increasing Hispanic population of North America. Hispanics now number 15 million in the United States and 250,000 in Canada, making them this country’s second-fastest-growing ethnic group after the Indo-Pakistanis. Latin pop stars Iglesias and the Puerto Rican teenage group Menudo (Small Change) are the first to translate their success in the Hispanic community into the larger and more lucrative English market. But several other Spanishspeaking artists are preparing to master the step that the music industry calls “the crossover”—appealing to at least two demographically separate audiences with the same sound.

Mainstream pop music has digested smaller dashes of Latin American flavor in the past. In the 1950s bandleaders like Xavier (the Rhumba King) Cugat and TV’S Desi (Babaloo) Arnaz brought spice to North American ballrooms. In the 1960s guitarist José Feliciano’s recordings reached the Top Ten twice. But now the syncopated music of Spanishspeaking artists has become one of the fastest growing commodities in the music business. Billboard, the industry’s

largest trade journal, has had an editor specializing in Latin music since 1982 and runs regular Hispanic coverage. This year the prestigious Grammy Awards recognized the growing impact of Hispanic artists by instituting special awards for those artists in three new music categories—Latin pop, MexicanAmerican and Tropical. On the flip side, anglo musicians from the eclectic Brit-

ish pop musician Joe Jackson to the popular Toronto club band Manteca, are incorporating Hispanic pop influences —including conga drums and clave sticks—into their music. As Phillip Rodriguez, publisher of the glossy Hispanic culture magazine Avance (Advance), said, “Suddenly it is hip to be Latino.” Clearly, the artist who has done the most to popularize the Latin image is Iglesias. On a current 60-city world tour which continues until February, 1985, Iglesias is commanding regal treatment from his record company, CBS, which has invested heavily in the launch of his English-language career, and from his sponsor, Coca-Cola. Meanwhile, his duets with major mainstream pop artists

have helped to gain instant recognition for 1100 Bel Air Place: this summer, two selections from the LP, For All the Girls Pve Loved Before, with Willie Nelson, and All of You, with Diana Ross, both surged to the Top Ten charts. With those collaborations and backup from 90 musicians, 20 technicians and two dialect coaches credited on the new album, CBS has demonstrated its confidence in Iglesias. But as the performer himself acknowledges, breaking into the North American market is “very difficult for someone who is not Anglo-Saxon.” Born in Madrid to a wealthy diplomatic family in 1943, Iglesias first gained public attention as a professional soccer goalkeeper. But while he was in hospital after a near-fatal car crash, his life took a fateful turn. A nurse handed him a guitar so he could amuse himself, and he began to write and sing his own compositions. Like a prince in a storybook fable, Iglesias has led a charmed life ever since. His first recorded song, Life Continues All the Same, became the Number 1 song in Spain in 1968. By 1971 he had sold his first million albums, and he began touring throughout Europe, Latin America and the Far East.

To conquer English-speaking audiences in North America, his last market, Iglesias knew that he had to master the English language—his seventh. The 40-year-old divorced father has studied English diligently 10 hours a day for the past year. Still, the Spanish accent remains Iglesias’ most distinctive

feature after his tanned good looks. Said Jeff Jones, East Coast marketing director for a division of CBS in New York: “It adds to his charm and to the image of the Latin lover. Julio is nothing if not romantic.”

While Iglesias appeals to the romantic yearnings of mature women, Menudo strikes the same chord with teenage girls. The five members of the pubescent singing group from San Juan have sold five million copies of their bouncy bubblegum pop hits to Hispanic audiences around the world. Mario De La Higuera, vice-president in charge of RCA’s Miamibased Latin division, predicts that the group will soon enjoy the same success in English markets. “They are clean-cut

kids,” he said, “the kind you want your daughter to marry, and they do not promote drugs or violence.” Last November RCA Records signed the group to a $30-million, six-year contract to release at least one Spanish and one English album a year.

Iglesias and Menudo willingly tailor their musical styles to suit English audiences, but other Hispanic performers proudly flaunt their Latin roots. Rubén Blades, a New York-based poet and lawyer with a penchant for salsa music—a jazz-inflected style that blends African and Cuban rhythms—sings his songs exclusively in Spanish; already his first major release, Buscando America (Searching for America), on Elektra Records, has sold more than 350,000 copies in the United States. But now the intellectual 35-year-old singer—a close friend of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez—is reaching out to a larger, non-Hispanic market. This summer Blades contributed one song to the soundtrack of the film Beat Street. As well, Elektra says that there may be a future collaboration between Blades and Linda Ronstadt, who has admitted that she is a fan.

Even new wave audiences are warming to Hispanic music—particularly to the Los Angeles Chicano band Los Lobos (The Wolves). Its sound—known as TexMex norteño—is a fusion of Mexican dance music and German polkas, and it resembles punk when it is performed at breakneck speed. That feverish musical pace also characterizes the group’s recent rise to cult status. The four-man band released an introductory mini-album on the independent Slash Records label earlier this year, and in February Los Lobos’ song Anselma won a Grammy award for best Mexican-American performance. Singing in both Spanish and English, the group has recently packed nightclubs in Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria. Declared David Fricke, of Rolling Stone: “Los Lobos sounds like the complete history of rock ’n’ roll smothered in hot sauce.”

The sounds are diverse, but the success stories are similar. From Tex-Mex polka-rock and the hot, jazzy sounds of salsa to the smoothly polished pop of Iglesias, Hispanic music is making a full-fledged breakthrough. Enrique Fernandez, Billboard’s Latin music editor, said that to have a superstar like Iglesias is “a real sign of how far we have come.” Crossing over is clearly rewarding for both the music industry and the leaders of the Hispanic invasion. For those who are following, including Blades and Los Lobos, the toughest test of acceptance remains. If they retain the flavor of their Latin music without compromise in the frantic race up the charts, the invasion will be complete.^