Berklee Latino debuted last week (January 13-18) with a series of songwriting, performance and production workshops in Mexico City. It was the nearly 70-year-old Berklee College of Music’s first program to be conducted entirely in Spanish, and the start of an ongoing Spanish-language initiative that, if Berklee Latino Artistic Director Javier Limón has his way, could lead to a permanent campus in Latin America. Enrollment for the 2014 Mexico program was competitive, with more than twice the number of applicants than spots for 180 students. The curriculum included clinics with two LatinAmerican legends: iconic ballad composer Armando Manzanero and torch singer Tania Libertad.

By speaking the language of Latin music in the classroom, Berklee is stepping up its commitment to the Latin-tinged area of its curriculum that has been taught in English for several decades on its Boston campus. That inclusion of Latin music styles as part of its contemporary music mandate in more than a token way is indicative of the artistic and academic decisions that have made Berklee the widely acknowledged leader in higher music education in the U.S.  

“We want Berklee to be the benchmark for Latin music,” says Spanish producer and musician Limón, a seven-time Latin Grammy winner known for accessibly erudite albums including Bebo y Cigala’s “Lagrimas Negras,” who sees the school as the home of “cool Latin music.” He is courting the participation of artists like Paco de Lucia, Gloria Estefan, and Juan Luis Guerra for furture Berklee Latino programs. Alejandro Sanz has been Berklee’s most visible Latin star supporter, performing live at the 2013 Latin Grammys with a big band of Berklee students and receiving an honorary doctorate from the school.

The Latin Music Studies program in Boston, advocated through the years by Berklee Latino Academic Director Oscar Stagnaro and other Latin American faculty members, has become more than just an investment in the music’s legacy. It now serves as a calling card forrecruiting the growing young Hispanic demographic, and the dollars that seek its attention. And it provides the base for the new Spanish-language program, which positions Latin America as a key territory in the college’s current strategy of expansion, which Guillermo Cisneros, the school’s Vice President for Global Initiatives describes as “a vision to be a global leader in contemporary music education and train the future leaders of the global music industry.”

Cisneros reports a “very important and growing Latin presence on Berklee’s Boston campus.” Twenty-eight percent of the students at Berklee’s Boston campus come from abroad, a very high number for a U.S. academic institution, and a desirable one in terms of potential recruitment dollars. (Berklee’s base tuition is currently $36,514 a year.) The school is on an economic upswing, with total revenues for fiscal 2013 of $200.7 million and an endowment valued at over $300 million.

In 2012, Berklee opened its first campus outside the U.S., investing over $8 million to outfit a spectacular Santiago Cavaltrava-designed building in Valencia. Cisneros says that the campus, which offers a Master’s program only, is on track to be self-sustaining by 2015.

Courses in Valencia, in English, are designed for international students, 40% of whom are from the U.S. But its location in Spain provides an obvious opportunity as a site for future Spanish-language courses.

In Latin America, Berklee enters fertile territory for music and music education -- it is, for one, the land where El Sistema was born. While it might seem like offering Latin music studies in Latin America is teaching to the converted, Berklee Latino’s Pan-Latin faculty can offer a unifying approach to disparate Latin traditions and its fusion with jazz and other styles. More important for Berklee’s global strategy, in Latin America and elsewhere, is the brand. The school’s unique hook, Cisneros notes, is teaching “the Berklee educational method to people who don’t speak English.” Scoring, music technology, music business are likely to be big draws for Berklee Latino.

“Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world and the first language for composition,” says Limón, who gave administrators the aha moment for the creation of Berklee Latino when he successfully taught a songwriting class in Boston in Spanish. “I’d like to see Berklee looking at a permanent campus that’s integrally Spanish-language in less than five years,” he said. “It could be in Miami, it could be in Mexico, but that’s my dream.”

More so, it’s a smart business decision by Berklee to enhance their Latin music curriculum in Hispanic-heavy 21st-century America, while at the same time acknowledging that the career goals of the world’s Spanish speakers don’t follow an exclusively Latin beat. Berklee's inclusive approach could serve as model for companies confounded when trying to reach both U.S. Hispanic and Latin American markets.

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