AUSTIN, TEXAS — In culinary circles, the buzzword is fusion cooking. But kitchens aren't the only place where regional styles are blending to create new flavors. Musicians also have fusion fever, and the latest strain is coming from a southern direction - as in south of the border.
Latino-influenced music is nothing new, but today's artists are getting more adventurous, merging traditional sounds with reggae, country, and even hip-hop and electronica in addition to more familiar forays into jazz, blues, and pop.
Take Texas' hottest export, Los Lonely Boys, a band of brothers who fuel their Stevie Ray Vaughan-meets-Santana influences with the "Texican" sensibilities they absorbed while backing their Beatles-and-Elvis-loving father's conjunto band.
Their self-titled debut album is climbing Billboard magazine's top 200 albums chart and their single, "Heaven," is getting airtime on both VH1 and radio.
Los Lonely Boys are just the latest example of a trend that has existed since Ritchie Valens taught the US to dance "La Bamba." More recently, in 1999, Ricky Martin, Enrique Iglesias, and Carlos Santana all shot up the US charts, giving rise to talk of a Latin music revolution.
But before he partnered with a batch of young popsters, Santana had amassed a 30-year catalog of recordings that infused Latino-influenced rock with blues, jazz, and soul leanings. Los Lobos has a similar body of work that merges their East L.A. upbringing with their Mexican-American heritage. On May 4, they'll mark their 30th anniversary with the release of "The Ride," on which guest collaborators range from the legendary likes of Elvis Costello, Bobby Womack, and Tom Waits to fellow Latinos Ruben Blades and Café Tecuba.
Those stylistic blends have finally stopped being regarded as anomalies. They're now simply indicative of what's going on in Latino music.
Ramiro Burr, who covers Latin music for the San Antonio Express-News and wrote the "Billboard Guide to Tejano and Regional Mexican Music," says mainstream acceptance of Latino music has been going on in cycles since the 1940s, but is on the rise again - and this time, it's probably not temporary. This may be partly because fusion is happening throughout the music industry, and partly because of demographics.
"I've seen the whole face of America change, and that face is getting browner," says Louis Perez of Los Lobos. "We've always felt that where we've succeeded is that we've kind of opened up this door.... We have changed the way that America listens to music ... that comes from Latin bands."
Today, acts don't think twice about recording in both Spanish and English - and "Spanglish." Last week in Austin, while singing almost every song in Spanish, crossover band Ozomatli rocked a 1,400-capacity club of white and Latino fans who apparently didn't care what language they were listening to.
"Audiences are increasing - not only Spanish-speaking people, but Americans ... because they feel it's a very aggressive and emotional kind of music," said famed Mexican rocker Alex Lora during a panel discussion at the recent South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin. "And that's what makes them enjoy it, even if they don't know what the words are saying."
Burr agrees that more bands are crossing over on a regular basis, but says there's not yet a concrete way of calculating the percentage of non-Latino supporters. For anecdotal evidence, take Austin's Waterloo Records. Store owner John Kunz reports "Los Lonely Boys" album sold 10,000 units faster than any disc in the store's history, including Norah Jones's debut and the "O Brother, Where Art Thou" soundtrack.
Billboard magazine, which is hosting its 15th annual Latin Music Conference & Awards Monday through Thursday in Miami, reports Latinos now make up 13 percent of America's population (the African-American population is 12 percent) and have $650 billion in spending power. That may be why Colombian pop star Shakira appears in Reebok and Pepsi commercials and rising star Thalia just signed a deal with Hershey.
Billboard also says sales of English and Spanish albums by Latino artists have increased from 23.7 million in 2002 to 27.5 million in 2003. The jump is attributed to increased availability at stores like Best Buy and Wal-Mart. On Tuesday, those stores will begin selling a double-disc compilation of Linda Ronstadt's groundbreaking Spanish-language albums, titled "Mi Jardin Azul: Las Canciones Favoritas."
"As much as I like the idea of cross-pollination," says Ms. Ronstadt, who dates her Mexican heritage to the 1600s. "I don't think you have to leave behind your roots. A great song transcends language, because the emotion will always speak to you."