Michael Jackson Salsa Tribute Album Producer Protests Not Being Eligible for Latin Grammys

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Michael Jackson sings at a concert August 27, 1984 in Buffalo, NY. Jackson, who was the lead singer for the Jackson Five by age eight, reached the peak of his solo career with 1982''s 'Thriller,' the best-selling album of all time and recipient of eight Grammy awards.

When is salsa not Latin? When it’s in English, according to the Latin Recording Academy.

On Oct. 9, Unity: The Latin Tribute to Michael Jackson will air as a concert special on PBS, preceding the channel’s broadcast of the 28th Annual Hispanic Heritage Awards. Hosted by Sheila E., the pre-recorded concert, like the 2013 album of the same name, features a big band of seasoned Latin players, and well-known salsa singers including Michael Stuart and Obie Bermudez.

“Iconic songs will be heard like never before -- with inventive, energetic and distinctively Latin twists,” enthuses the PBS promo copy about the concert broadcast.

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That’s right, Unity is an album of salsified Michael Jackson covers. The made-in-Miami recording was released in April jointly by Universal Music Classics, Universal Music Latin Entertainment and Universal Music Mexico.

The album began when its producer and arranger, Tony Succar, put together a salsa version of “Thriller” for a Halloween party. The Latin tribute project was subsequently funded by a Kickstarter campaign. It reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Tropical Albums chart.

But one place where Unity will definitely have no victories at the upcoming Latin Grammys. The album will be not included on the list of nominees that will be revealed tomorrow (Sept. 23). It did not even qualify for consideration.

The reason is clear, according to the rules of the Latin Recording Academy: what’s missing in this album’s “sauce” is the Spanish.

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“For a recording with vocals to be eligible for a Latin Grammy Award, 51 percent or more of the vocal delivery and lyrical content must be in Spanish or Portuguese,” a spokesperson for the awards told Billboard. “The Latin Recording Academy considers music based on the contents of the recording itself -- the technical elements that go into the art of music making -- not based on how a recording or an artist is marketed externally.”

“I don’t know how much more Latin the project can get,” counters Peruvian-American Succar, who is 29 years old. A drummer and graduate of Florida International University’s School of Music, he was a newcomer to the hard knocks of the music business when he started the project five years ago. 

Succar cites the recording’s consecrated Latino musicians, the tropical rhythms, and the salsa arrangements as enough to ensure its “Latin” pedigree.

But the Latin Academy stands by its rules. “The recording in question is 75 percent English...10 of the 12 tracks were recorded in English,” the spokesperson says.

Actually, that’s not exactly true, since other tracks on the album are bilingual. But that still may not  bring it up to the 51 percent requirement. Succar says that he calculated Unity is 50.6 percent in English.

In an email to Latin Academy President Gabriel Abaroa protesting the disqualification from the Latin Grammy pre-nomination process, Succar contested the Latin Grammys' ruling in detail. He criticized the Latin Grammys for counting the number of Spanish and English words in his album's songs to determine whether or not it was eligible, decrying, in one surrealistic passage in the email, that even vocal sounds were considered English by the Latin Grammy’s count.

“Uh-huh huh huh huh -- this was counted as four English words,” Succar wrote in the email. “Since when are the words uh and huh considered as English words? To my defense, who says that the singer or background singers are singing 'uh'? If you sound it out, you’ll actually hear 'ah'. If this is the case, then isn’t 'ah' supposed to be considered a Spanish word? When I recorded the song, I made the singers sing 'ah '… and then 'ooo'… but trust me, I definitely was not thinking 'hey, is this Spanish or English?'

"I would like to ask you to please take a step back for a minute and analyze the situation from a more musical perspective, rather than such an obscure arbitrary procedure. For us to have to sit down and literally count word by word to prove a point…which is supposed to be a musical point, this is something I would have never thought in my wildest dream we would ever have to do in order to qualify for a Latin Grammy pre-nomination, especially when dealing with a project where everything about it is Tropical/Latin. Please use the instrument we all use in order to feel the music, our ears."

In this case, the decision is final, and the rules -- clearly stated on the Latin Academy’s website -- are rules. But it does beg the question, at what point is a salsa record not considered a salsa record? And, more generally, how much should Latin music be defined by language?  Particularly in the U.S., a country whose population, and music, has grown increasingly bilingual in the fifteen years since the Latin Grammys began, how much does language have to do with it? As far as the Latin Grammys are concerned, everything.

“For an album to be considered instrumental, it would need to be pure instrumental without vocals,” explained the spokesperson. “In the case of Unity, based on the instrumentation alone, it’s likely that it would have been submitted in the best salsa album category. However, Unity is not an instrumental album, so it would be inaccurate to ignore the lyrical content and vocal delivery of the recording as they are key components that make up Unity’s musicality.”

“Maybe they want to change the name to the Spanish Grammys,” huffs Succar.