Sharps & Flats

On the "The New Latinaires 2," transnational artists fusing Latin, house and electronic music suggest that the Ricky Martin explosion was not a fluke.

Published December 17, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

1999 is the year that Latin music went cheesy. A few months ago, a credit-card company promised that its plastic would offer entrie into Miami's tango academies. The hot-hot-hot bubblegum of Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez and Lou Bega dominated radio and will surely be the soundtrack at all-inclusive three-star Caribbean resorts and discount cruise lines well into the next millennium.

Like most fads -- drag queens, for example, or grunge -- the whole Latin dance music thing seemed to come out of nowhere. In reality, of course, it was built on a percolating underground scene that, as usual, was completely overlooked in all the breathless hype about the trend it spawned.

For over a decade, Latin sounds have been a crucial element in house music; for starters, the CDs put out by the legendary New York house party Body and Soul are crammed with Brazilian and Caribbean rhythms. In the '90s, more cerebral producers have grown infatuated with Tropicalia, the '60s Brazilian mongrel pop genre, as well as the melancholy sounds of bossa nova. Meanwhile, DJs have been scanning the globe for new influences, from the aboriginal chanting favored by New-Age-bookstore darlings Deep Forest to Talvin Singh's entrancing bhangra-jungle fusion.

These three strains in electronic music were brilliantly united on "The New Latinaires," released earlier this year on the San Francisco label Ubiquity, whose imprint CuBop is one of the country's best sources for Latin jazz. Now Ubiquity has repeated the coup on "The New Latinaires 2," a gorgeous record that examines the intersection between Latin music from the '60s and '70s and contemporary electronica.

Like its predecessor, the second "New Latinaires" album features both original Latin tracks remixed for nightclub dance floors and new songs by artists from all over the world. Far more than simply adding a bit of picante to spice up old pop formulas, the latest "New Latinaires" album, with its alternating currents of tradition and innovation, shows how beats can bridge both decades and continents.

The chain of influence is most clearly delineated on the first track, house DJ Joe Claussell's remix of contemporary drummer Snowboy's cover of Brazilian composer Edu Lobo's "Casa Forte." With its mesmerizing interplay between rapid polyrhythmic percussion, wild jazz strains, forlorn Portuguese vocals and lush house production, this nearly 12-minute epic is rich with a warm, organic funk missing from most new electronic dance music. Part of "Casa Forte's" depth comes from its layers of history, the way it links three varied dance cultures.

Similar links are implicit in the Japanese group Calm's "Donde Sal El Sol," especially the strange connection between Brazilian percussion and drum 'n' bass. For the first few minutes, it's almost impossible to tell where the congas end and the break-beats begin. Over it all are entrancing bossa nova melodies complimented by diaphanous ambient sound.

As Calm attests, the latest "New Latinaires" album doesn't define its genre geographically. In fact, one of the album's highlights, "Diana Park Nites," an ambient number spiked with funky Cuban horns, comes from, of all places, Helsinki. World music purists may blanche at such transnational bricolage, but there's something lovely about the idea that, even as Ricky Martin blankets the world's airwaves, an underground stretching from icy Finland to warm Havana is united by the same beats.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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