Meet The Spanish-Language Coaches Who Helped Beyonce, Justin Bieber & More Sing Like a Native

From left: Beyoncé, Justin Bieber & Demi Lovato
Getty Images; Design by Jessica Xie

From left: Beyoncé, Justin Bieber & Demi Lovato

With bilingual remixes soaring, meet the emergency language coaches being called in at the last minute to help artists roll their R’s.

In 2017, 19 predominantly Spanish-language tracks landed on the Billboard Hot 100, up from four in 2016, and on the Jan. 27 chart, there are an unprecedented five songs on the tally featuring mainstream acts singing in Spanish. The phenomenon has managers and A&R teams scrambling to find impromptu Spanish coaches to help artists sound authentic.

It’s not easy: Beyoncé battled to correctly pronounce the Spanish word for queen (reina) as she added her fast-paced vocals to J Balvin’s “Mi Gente,” says her teacher, while Justin Bieber struggled to hear the a between pasito a pasito and the a in acuerdes in Daddy Yankee & Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito.” But in the end, Bieber’s Spanish delivery on the recording was flawless.

Jean Rodriguez on Beyonce: 

Rodriguez, like his brother Luis Fonsi, is fully fluent in English and Spanish and sings in both languages with equal ease. He has also worked in multiple translations and adaptions and had helped a myriad of Latin singers record in English, most recently J Balvin for “Hey Ma.” It worked so well, Balvin’s management team thought he’d be perfect for Beyonce’s Spanish language work on “Mi Gente.” However, when Rodriguez got the call, he wasn’t told who he would be coaching. 

Rebecca [León, Balvin’s manager] hit me up but she couldn’t tell me it was Beyonce,” says Rodriguez. “It was, ‘Hey I need you to come to New York tomorrow. Trust me it’s for a huge artist.’ She told me it was for ‘Mi Gente’ and it was already a monster song so I knew it had to be huge.”

Over breakfast the next day in New York, Rodriguez was told he was working with Beyonce. “I was speechless for a few seconds and then just excited. You’re gonna work with the baddest vocalist there is.”

The baddest vocalist was a “sweetheart,” says Rodriguez, and that calmed his nerves. When he got to the studio, Beyonce had already cut her English part and had printed out the Spanish lyrics. 

“We went over them line by line. I had her write down on a paper how she heard it, which helped me out,” he says. For the actual recording, Rodriguez laid Beyonce’s part down, and she began to record on top of his vocals until she got comfortable enough with her Spanish to remove Rodriguez’s guide. 

“She did an amazing job. Obviously I didn’t have to worry about tuning or timing. Every take was perfect on that angle. We really focused on articulation and making sure it sounded authentic. And we also added a little slang.” 

The challenges were similar to those most non-Spanish speakers have: Rolling the rs and closing the vowels on the endings. “Anything that ends with an o, like cantando. There are a lot of words in Spanish that you have to end dry. And the ts are sometimes not pronounced hard enough. It’s those little details that go a long way,” says Rodriguez, who also did takes of individual words. A particularly difficult one? “The word reina (queen) took work. The accent had to be on the wrong syllable -- reiná. It’s almost like you have to teach some incorrect things.” The fact that not a negative peep has been heard about the queen’s Spanish rendition speaks volumes. 

“So many magnifying glasses were going to be on that song,” laughs Rodriguez. “But I felt confident. I was super happy. And after we left studio we went straight to he city, showed Balvin the song and everybody blown away.” 

Mindy Small/FilmMagic
Jean Rodriguez

Juan Felipe Samper on Justin Bieber

Juan Felipe Samper got a call from Justin Bieber’s camp three days before the pop star's concert in Bogota, Colombia, last April. They wanted Samper, a local singer-songwriter and producer with a past Latin Grammy nomination (when he was a member of pop group Sin Animo de Lucro), to do some “translation” work for Bieber in Bogotá. “They didn’t say anything else,” says Samper, who believes he got tapped because he’d submitted his music for consideration to open Bieber’s show. “They told me to go to the studio and wait for him. Just the sound engineer, his sound engineer, who was coming from New York, and me.” 

At around 2 p.m., Bieber arrived with two friends and little fanfare. He sat at the piano and said: “Have you heard a song called ‘Despacito’?”

Samper, who speaks English fluently and has also produced dozens of singers, had been hired to serve as Bieber’s vocal coach in Spanish. But he’d never worked with an English-speaking singer before. He looked at the lyrics, which Poo Bear sent on the spot, and decided to apply a method he had learned working with songwriter and producer Jorge Luis Piloto, who had translated songs for Mariah Carey. “I wrote out the song phonetically so he could read it as if it were in English,” he recalls. 

"Des-Pah-Zee-Toh," he wrote, and handed it to Bieber. It was the beginning of the Spanish recording that rocked world. But it started with half an hour of diction before Bieber went into the recording booth and wowed Samper. 

“The guy is an amazing singer,” says Samper. It’s as if Michael Jackson had invited me to record Thriller. I honestly had never worked with someone with that vocal level.” 

The challenges in the Spanish, says Samper, came with key specific words and phrases, that in Spanish sound different from the way they logically read. Pasito a pasito, for example, actually sounds like "pasitoa-pasito," almost as if it didn’t have an a between words. 

The phrase “Para que te acuerdes” was the most challenging, because “he couldn’t heard the a in te acuerdes.” Samper wrote it out as "Accu-air-des" so it would make sense to the English-speaking ear. In the end, the result was flawless. “Justin finished, left the recording booth, gave me a hug and said he had loved working with me.” 

Photo by @frankiejazz
Juan Felipe Samper

Mauricio Rengifo & Andres Torres on Demi Lovato

Unlike Beiber and Beyonce, who jumped on later remixes of their respective songs, Lovato had been approached to record “Echame la culpa” with Luis Fonsi relatively early on. Even so, the confirmation she would do it came only a couple days before the actual recording. “We were in Spain and they called to say, come on over to New York. We’re recording,” remembers Torres, who produced the track with Rengifo. When they arrived at the studio, they found an artist who wanted to record in Spanish even though her original lines had been conceived only in English. Together with Fonsi, who has recorded in both Spanish and English, they coached Lovato. 

“Demi speaks very little Spanish but she wanted to sing in Spanish and really understand what she was saying. So in her case, it was about repeating every phrase many times and record many takes,” says Torres. “We explained word by word and she took the time to understand what she would be saying.” The struggles were the same as with most artists who don’t speak Spanish: rolling the rs properly (as in the word enamoro) and closing the vowels quickly. 

The coolest thing, says Rengifo, is “this is really a vallenato song, but it has English lines. We thought that was really cool, to record a valleanto in English.” 

The end result “is a mix of having a trained ear and caring,” says Rengifo. “She has a great ear and she really cared. It typically takes us an hour and a half to record vocals. It took her twice that.” In the end, Lovato even ad-libbed in Spanish, using “Soy yo” as a starting point. As for that “Hey Fonsi,” you hear at the beginning, “We explained we wanted to kick off the song with that ‘Hey Fonsi,’ and asked her to record a few. She got it on the first take,” says Torres. “She’s a singer and an actress, all rolled in one.” 

David Livingston/Getty Images
Mauricio Rengifo & Andres Torres

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of Billboard.