The idea of creating a separate organization to honor the diversity of Latin music was a discussion that took place for years before it actually happened, but an event driven by one of pop music’s most important crossover artists solidified it.
During the 41st Grammy Awards ceremony, a young Ricky Martin was scheduled to perform “La Copa de La Vida (The Cup of Life),” the theme to the 1998 World Cup. The success of the song put Martin on the map, and with the help of Miami Sound Machine producer-executive Emilio Estefan, the Recording Academy booked him to perform at the 1999 Grammy Awards.
Martin’s voice, moves and charisma so captivated the audience that a phenomenon the press called the “Latin Pop Explosion” ensued.
“It was a ‘before and after’ for my career when I had the opportunity to perform at the Grammys,” Martin says. “Things were never the same.”
Martin not only won a Grammy and got a sales boost from his performance that night, but his following album, released three months later, also became the one of the biggest-selling of all time.
“Because of the success of that evening, it was a green light to now start celebrating the Latin Grammys,” Martin adds.
His breakout year cemented the game-changing music being made by legendary Latin artists ranging from Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, and Willie Colon to Ruben Blades, Gloria Estefan and so many others. In 2000, the Latin Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences was founded as an independent entity. Mike Greene, Rob Senn and Michael Melvoin were appointed as founding directors and the inaugural Latin Grammy Awards ceremony was held that year at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
“I remember the first time I walked onstage at the Latin Grammys,” says Martin, who performed alongside Cruz and Estefan. “Just being able to walk with these two amazing legends — people that I love, that I respect, that brought our language to the rest of the world before the phrase ‘crossover’ was even invented.”
Emilio Estefan, who spent years earning industry recognition for Latin music’s diversity and dynamism, saw the birth of the Latin Academy as a way to recognize artists while educating the mainstream about the diversity of its music and culture.
“There was a lot of confusion about Latin music,” he says. “Not everything is mariachi, not everything is salsa. We have all different kinds of music. We took a lot of chances in the beginning.”
Recalling proposing that Martin perform at the 1999 Grammys, Estefan says: “It was difficult to get people to [include us], and to tell them ‘Let’s put Ricky Martin onstage’ and have them approve.”
Twenty years later, as the Latin Grammys are set for Nov. 14, Estefan says he approves of how far the Latin Recording Academy has come. “We are in good hands, and we are lucky and blessed that we can do this and build bridges with music.”
Under the leadership of Gabriel Abaroa Jr., who was appointed president in 2003 and added the role of CEO in 2010, the Academy took significant strides culturally and philanthropically, too. It has 3,500 Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking members in more than 34 countries. The organization comprises recording artists, musicians, songwriters, producers and technical recording professionals who rate and decide which artists receive nominations within the dozens of different categories, and ultimately who wins a Latin Grammy.
“I have zero weight and influence in anything, because that isn’t within my role or my job: It’s the job of the members of the Latin Recording Academy,” says Abaroa, who is also president of the Latin Grammy Cultural Foundation.
Along with producing the Latin Grammy Awards, the Academy has developed an array of educational and outreach programs either directly or through the Cultural Foundation.
“We do other events, like our Latin Grammys in the Schools, where artists talk to students on the importance of reading, studying, being disciplined and pursuing music as a career, or events where an artist is interviewed,” Abaroa says. “With tickets at $1,000 per person, we collect funds for scholarships that our organization gives out every year.”
The Latin Recording Academy has 200 scholars, and it has donated more than $5 million while paying for four academic years of tuition and housing for some of the students enrolled in music programs at Berklee College of Music, Boston University, Manhattan School of Music and New York School of Jazz.
“We also have [initiatives] where producers or recording engineers travel to meet young students and talk about technical things like how to handle frequencies and microphones,” adds Abaroa.
Other programs the organization is involved with include the Latin Recording Academy Producers and Engineers Circle, the Leading Ladies of Entertainment, the Special Awards Presentation and the Person of the Year Ceremony, where a musician is recognized and awarded for their artistic achievement and support of up-and-coming artists as well as their philanthropy.
The road to the 20th anniversary was at times “hard,” says Emilio Estefan. “I hope that all of the things we did at the beginning have opened the door for new talent and the second generation of Latinos, many who are born in the States now.”
Producing the Show
“When nominations come out, we sit down and say, ‘That’s cool, we haven’t done that before,’ and then we have a team of creative people work on it,” says the Latin Grammys’ executive producer Jose Tillan. The main goal is to bring out the “wow” factor to every show.
“Conversations have to do with who is going to perform and what song, and the nominations. When you’re producing a show of this magnitude, it’s almost like a domino effect. You can’t do certain things until you have certain things done beforehand.”Discussions about key elements of infrastructure and stage design occur about six months in advance. Ideas and decisions on the design of the set made up a four-month process and construction began in September.
Two weeks leading up to the show, some 14,000 man hours of local labor are clocked to build the set, which includes three performance stages that will logistically serve 17 to 20 performances throughout the evening.
“The lighting, the screens, the audio and staging has a timing and it has to be in the right flow and the right rhythm,” Tillan says. “If you ever go backstage to one of these things it’s like being in war.” No wonder: the staging team only has about four minutes between performances to set up the next act and transform the stage’s look.
After all that, it takes less than 24 hours to break everything down on Nov. 15. But the echo of the Latin Grammys show rings for far longer.