x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

The hits don't lie

Feature As Shakira is set to take the stage in Abu Dhabi, we look at how Latin music is thriving as the rest of the industry struggles.

The singer Shakira performs at the Pyramids of Giza outside of Cairo.
The singer Shakira performs at the Pyramids of Giza outside of Cairo.

At first glance, Shakira seems an unusual sort of Latin music performer. After all, she has an Arabic first name, a father of Lebanese descent and a heritage on her mother's side that reaches as far as Catalonia and Italy. Her full birth name only underscores her heritage: Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll.

If Middle Eastern audiences are familiar with her - she is playing the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi tonight - it is partly because of her family ties to this region, and partly because of her musical influences. She first heard the doumbek at the age of four, when her father took her to a Middle Eastern restaurant in her native Colombia, and the rhythms of the east permeate much of her music, including her hit albums Laundry Service (2002) and Oral Fixation (2005).

Shakira is certainly unusual because of the sheer extent of her appeal. She is Colombia's best-selling performer. She has Grammys and Latin Grammys by the fistful, as well as the promise of a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, due to be unveiled sometime next year. But the Shakira phenomenon is not so much an exception as a sign of the irresistible rise of Latin music, in the North American market and beyond. At a time when the recording industry is struggling to come to terms with the switch from CDs and vinyl to MP3s, iTunes and the rest of the digital universe - shedding artists, shutting down labels and rethinking everything it does - Latin music has shown consistent growth.

Besides, Shakira's cultural heritage and musical interests do not really make her much of an exception at all. The hallmark of popular Latin music has long been the diversity of its inspirations and influences. America - the continent, not just the country - has always been a big melting pot, where innovative ideas are formed in a crucible filled with disparate elements and ingredients. The tango was born more than a century ago when Argentinian musicians took the body language of Buenos Aires and grafted it on to the dancing style of the European waltz and polka.

The mambo, which hit Cuba in the 1940s and became a craze in the United States in the 1950s, started out as a fusion of rumba and big-band jazz, with a few borrowings from the Congo. Much more recently, developments such as reggaeton - a blend of Jamaican reggae rhythms and North American hip-hop - attest to both the eclectic roots of Latin music and also the musical reality of our globalised world, which is that everybody is listening to everything and blending it into their local musical culture.

But Shakira is also something else, an altogether more recent phenomenon - a Latino musician who is a bona fide pop superstar. What she has managed in the United States is to cross over into the English-speaking market and put herself on a par with top-selling North American artists. Partly, of course, that is a matter of her talent and musical interests. She openly expresses her admiration for the likes of Led Zeppelin and The Police, and frequently performs a cover of AC/DC's heavy metal classic Back in Black.

But it is also about the ways America is changing - musically, politically and demographically. While it is certainly true that Latin music has been a presence north of the border for more than a century, there is a big difference between Joao Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim hooking up with a prominent jazz musician such as Stan Getz to promulgate the bossa nova back in the 1960s, and the sort of multi-platinum record sales that Shakira has managed to rack up.

The difference is that Latinos are much more numerous now in the United States, and their music has seeped into their culture to such an extent that it seems a lot less foreign than it might once have. The first big Latino pop star in the United States was Gloria Estefan, in the 1980s, who made it to the top by blending salsa rhythms with mainstream pop. She found a ready and willing audience in the expatriate Cuban community in Miami, where she grew up. Her father had worked as a bodyguard to the family of Fulgenico Batista, the Cuban leader overthrown by Fidel Castro in 1958, and she became a willing spokeswoman for the anti-Castro cause.

A few years later, the Tejano tradition of blending Mexican music with country and rock sounds from Texas found its own superstar in the precocious Selena, once dubbed the "Mexican Madonna". She too burst into the mainstream until her promising career was cut down at the age of 23, when the president of her Texas fan club pulled out a gun in the middle of a financial dispute and shot her in the back.

That was in 1995, when Shakira was first beginning to emerge and about to record her breakthrough Spanish-language album Dónde Están Los Ladrones?. America had already been briefly swept by other Latin crazes, such as the lambada, a form of dance that came and went, and the macarena, essentially a Latino version of the chicken dance. By the end of the 1990s, other crazes had taken over: big mainstream hits recorded by Ricky Martin (whose Livin' La Vida Loca raced to the top of the charts) and Lou Bega (a pseudo-Latin musician - he is Italian and Nigerian - who took an old Perez Prado mambo and added witty words and new rhythms to make his Mambo #5).

This was also the period when an older generation of Cuban musicians was rediscovered by Ry Cooder for the album and documentary film The Buena Vista Social Club. Marc Anthony, even before he married Jennifer Lopez, was creating a stir over his brand of salsa - itself a new twist on the work of older artists such as Ruben Blades. And Lopez, rebranding herself as J-Lo, was also launching a musical career with her tough, street-kid image and matching musical style in hits like Jenny From the Block.

Taken together, these developments caused the North American recording industry to sit up and take notice. By 2000, they had launched the Latin Grammys, an offshoot of the US recording industry's annual awards ceremony targeted specifically at acts from south of the border. This was, of course, principally a marketing ploy, designed to help promote new artists with language or other musical barriers to overcome in the world's biggest music market. And it almost came unstuck before it started because of the tensions that exist between the anti-Castro Cuban community in Miami and Latinos in the rest of the United States. The Cubans, naturally, wanted the Latin Grammys to take place in Miami. Almost everyone else favoured Los Angeles, where the Latino population is principally Mexican but also includes less ideologically strident Cubans who care less about the politics of their home island than they do the opportunity to make and record music.

In the end, the Latin Grammys struck a compromise, and the venue now skips between different cities in border states - the 2008 event was held in Houston, Texas. Strangely, though, the urgent need for a special platform to showcase Latin music may well have come and gone. Nothing is more normal now for mainstream English-language artists to sample Latin beats, or for Americans of all backgrounds and ethnicities to spend their weekend nights salsa-dancing. Nothing is more normal, too, for music industry executives to pay attention to new crazes, such as the bachata, which originated in the Dominican Republic, and think up ways to promote it and create a roster of new stars.

The politics of Latin music remain as fraught as ever, as the Cuban question has taken a back seat to the broader problem of immigration. An increasing hostility, among some Americans, towards the influx of new arrivals across the Rio Grande has been counterbalanced by a surge in political activism among Latino immigrants. Spanish-language radio stations in California and the other border states have developed a profile as community forums for discontent and a potent organising tool for pro-immigrant protest marches. The music, meanwhile, plays on, its rhythms and vocal passions becoming an ever bigger part of our global sound system.