Salsa Sizzles

Latin dance and music are gaining fans. Young Latinos find roots there - and everyone finds an irresistible beat.

It's Tropicana Latin night at Joy Boston, a stylish dance club with 30-foot ceilings and hardwood floors. A dramatically lit staircase leads to the second floor where young couples are swiveling hips and shuffling feet to the beat of salsa, merengue, and Latin house music.

Jan and Elizabeth are the first to show off their lively moves. As dozens of people watch from the side, the couple never misses a beat as Jan spins, twirls, and dips his partner.

Neither is Hispanic. But they represent the growing number of Americans who are passionate about Latin music.

"There's nothing quite like it," says Jan, who came to the United States from Denmark. Latin music "makes you want to get up and move."

The market for Latin music in the US is red-hot. Not only are crowds burning up the dance floors in clubs, but fans are snatching up the music in stores: According to the Recording Industry Association of America, US sales of Latino music sizzled in the first half of 1998, up 17 percent from 1997.

Just as the movies "Swingers" and "Swing Kids" inspired lounge music and swing dance, films such as "Dance With Me" and "Selena" and the latest Latin genre, Rock en Espaol, have helped draw a new generation of fans (see "Latin Rock Is Funky, Danceable" below).

Radio City Music Hall now books Latin acts for 50 percent of its shows, according to a recent report in The New York Times. And artists such as Boyz II Men, Celine Dion, Madonna, and Toni Braxton have released recordings in Spanish.

Not surprisingly, a key to the accelerated growth of Latin music is population growth: Latinos under the age of 18 represent the fastest-growing segment of the US population. By 2050, the nation's Latino population is expected to more than double to 24 percent of the total population, or 96.5 million, according to the US Census Bureau.

Although Latin pop is seeping into the mainstream, interviews with record company executives, music producers, and writers suggest that it's a one-way street: A majority of Latinos are tuning out generic Top 40 hits and celebrating their Latinness. "There are many Latinos who are thoroughly bilingual - and many for whom English is their first language and Spanish their second - who now recognize and incorporate that aspect of their background into their lives," says Kerry Dexter, contributor to the forthcoming MusicHound Guide to World Music.

Bco Dranoff, executive producer of the Brazilian-pop soundtrack for the movie "Next Stop Wonderland," has a simpler theory: "People are tired of singing along and dancing to electronic music," he says. "They're ready for something different."

Frank Ceraolo, senior director of marketing for the Epic Records group in New York, also sees a growing appreciation for Latin music - whether it's pop, salsa, or merengue - in the Latino communities. "There are a lot of pockets of Latin population in this country, and they're growing," he says. "And their dollar is just as powerful as the mainstream dollar."

Mr. Ceraolo speaks from experience. Earlier this year, he helped select the music for the salsa-inspired "Dance With Me," starring Vanessa L. Williams and Chayanne (he uses just one name, think "Madonna"), one of salsa's biggest stars. Even though the movie wasn't a box-office hit, Ceraolo knew the soundtrack would take off. And it has - it peaked at No. 54 on Billboard's 200 list of top-selling albums. This week it's No. 1 on Billboard's tropical/salsa chart.

Many genres fall under the Latin music: Brazilian (bossa nova), merengue (accordion-led and big-band), mambo (Cuban big band), and cumbia (a combination of Andean Indian, African, and European elements) (see "Latin Music Lingo" above).

Cuban music, especially salsa, is enjoying the highest profile these days. In the late 1960s, the popular Cuban beat made its way into the US via New York City with the help of salsa legends Tito Puente, Machito, and Celia Cruz.

The newest generation of salsa artists include teen heartthrob Marc Anthony, Albita (Madonna's favorite), and Alejandro Fernandez. Even in Japan, groups such as Orquestra de la Luz have spawned a salsa craze.

Even "salsa now isn't really salsa," argues Yale Evelev, president of Luaka Bop Records. "It's gone though a couple of evolutions; salsa romantico is internationally popular today. "But it's more of a pop form as opposed to a rock form."

The dance component is also important, Mr. Evelev says. "A lot of the stars are good-looking guys, and there's a romantic relationship between the singer and the audience."

Sharon Blynn, marketing coordinator for Verve Records, says Latin music has always had "various ebbs and flows in popular mainstream culture." The big-band era, Ms. Blynn says, featured bandleaders like Louis Prima and Machito. Then "going a step further into the mainstream via television was the 'I Love Lucy' show with Desi Arnez and Lucille Ball. More recently, films such as 'I Like It Like That' or 'Selena' broadened its appeal."

As Americans are exposed to Latin music more, a splintering effect is coming into play: People are delving into specific genres such as Latin jazz (Southern, African-American and Afro-Cuban in origin), Brazilian bossa-nova, and Rock en Espanl.

Says Blynn: "Latin music and culture are constantly evolving."

LATIN MUSIC LINGO

Bossa Nova - A syncopated Brazilian dance music that developed out of a mixture of samba and cool jazz from the late 1950s and early '60s.

Cha-cha-cha - Became popular in the 1950s in dance halls. What separates this movement from other dances is three steps forward and three steps backward.

Lambada - Extremely popular in Europe in 1989, this close dance is done to Afro-Brazilian rhythms.

Latin House - A Hispanic twist on house music using Latin percussion and string instruments.

Mambo - This Cuban big-band music swept the US in the 1950s; also the name of the instrumental section in contemporary salsa.

Merengue - Even faster than salsa. The music is played with a tambora drum and giro in both accordion-led and big-band styles.

Rumba - A US misnomer for the son, which became an international dance craze in the 1930s. Features Afro-Cuban percussion with various offshoots.

Salsa - Fast-paced dance music sung mainly in Spanish.

Son Flamenco - One of the oldest rhythms from Cuba, it originated around the beginning of the century in the province of Oriente and became popular in the dance halls of Havana. Son is played with guitar, maracas, clave, bongo, and trumpet. This genre evolved and influenced many rhythms, including what is today known as salsa.

Tejano - Nontraditional music from Texas; a blend of country, rock 'n' roll, and accordion music. Popular among Mexican Americans.

- From 'All Music Guide' (Miller Freeman) and 'Latino! Latino!' (Putumayo World Music)

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