Miami emerges as cultural nexus of two continents

Popularity of Latin music turns industry toward south Florida.

In an alley off the main thoroughfare here sits a pleasantly weathered Caribbean cottage, its front stoop decorated with conch shells. It's the funky new home of Iman Records.

Then there's Criteria studios - which which was just bought out by a New York recording studio - just north of town. Indeed, all across the metro area, Latin balladeers, industry publications, and cutting-edge DJs are moving in to capitalize on Miami's music renaissance.

With Latin pop stars like Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez making it big on the English music scene, the industry is increasingly turning to Miami for new talent. And this flood of interest is helping the city -previously known mostly for political corruption and college football's Orange Bowl - improve its image.

But Miami isn't just the new Nashville of Latin music. From radio to TV to film, it's also emerging as the new cultural nexus for the Americas - combining America's economic stability with Latin flair.

"Miami isn't seen as [part of] the US. It's neutral," says Mike Zellner, editor of Latin Trade magazine. "If shows are broadcast from here, it doesn't stir up rivalry between Venezuela and Mexico."

Tito Puente Jr., son of the famous salsa percussionist, grins and puts it another way: "Miami is the best city in Latin America to do business."

To be sure, mambo kings and cross-over queens who succeed in the Anglo music scene come here for plenty of reasons, but one of the most important is economics.

For artists from Latin America, Miami offers security. "One of the tragedies of Latin America is people go to bed and wake up with devalued currencies," says Sergio Rozenblat, executive director of the Latin Grammys. "Miami is a comfort zone."

And for artists from the rest of America, it represents a fresh city with fewer hassles. Iman's owner Jamaican Suelan Wan, for instance, likes paying one-third of New York real-estate rates for her alley-view recording studio.

Even though the the mammoth, tentacular home of Estefan Enterprises is just a few banana fronds away, Ms. Wan says the neighborhood still has a fresh, vibrant atmosphere.

"Parts of this place are like an artist colony," she says.

This dynamic new feel is attracting many edgier entertainers to Miami, say some members of the industry.

"You have something unique here - it's small in scale, it's not gentrified - and that appeals to creative people," says Ellyn Harris, president of the Committee for the Advancement of Dance Music. "They come from all over to spin here."

Wearing black go-go boots, Ms. Harris cites the gritty local club scene along Miami Beach as stimulating to disk jockeys and young impresarios alike.

Yet there is another side to the Latin music boom here, one that has all the trappings of Beverly Hills - set on south Florida's bays.

Nowhere are these new entertainment fortunes better displayed than on the gilded archipelago of gated islands - Hibiscus, Palm, and the Star Islands - situated between mainland Miami and Miami Beach. Tropical Tuscan palaces with docks vie with mansions owing more to Louis Prima than Louis XV.

Cristina Saralegui, the Cuban-born dynamo whose Spanish talk show is locally taped and purportedly reaches 100 million people a week, lives here.

So does Spanish singing star Julio Iglesias and his extended family. And, of course, the original "crossover" Latin star, Gloria Estefan, who is reportedly worth more than $200 million.

Some of this increased clout has manifested itself in a growing nationwide acceptance of Latin culture in America - the Latin Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, based in Miami Beach, recently announced its first Latin-only Grammy awards to be broadcast next year.

And Ms. Estefan has even been courted by politicians. She took a prominent role at President Clinton's post-Littleton round-table discussion on youth and violence.

What does this all mean for Miami?

With the Latin music industry bringing in more and more fame and money, the tourist-dependent city may soon be changing its tune.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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