“You have to take risks,” says Gabriel Abaroa Jr., president/CEO of the Latin Recording Academy, of the event that stages its milestone ceremony on Nov. 14.
In 2000, the inaugural Latin Grammy Awards, held at Los Angeles’ Staples Center and broadcast on CBS, became the first bilingual TV show to air on a primetime network -- and capped a pivotal year for Latin music on the mainstream pop charts, led by crossover stars Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez.
It was “the best investment the academy ever made,” Michael Greene, then-president/CEO of The Recording Academy, told Billboard at the time. It was Greene, Rob Senn and Michael Melvoin of the academy who established The Latin Recording Academy in 1997, and by 2002, a board of trustees was in place.
The Latin Recording Academy has since grown from roughly 1,500 members and four staffers to 3,500 members representing 36 countries and a full-time staff of 28, and also includes its Latin Grammy Cultural Foundation, established in 2014. The membership of the academy, which is headquartered in Miami, spans music industry professionals in Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking communities around the world.
Now, in the academy’s 20th year, the awards represent a diverse range of nationalities, languages and subgenres, from Argentine tango to Brazilian sertanejo. Nominees and winners are chosen using the same voting process as the mainstream Grammys, with two distinctions: Latin membership is international, and both U.S. and global releases are eligible for consideration. This year’s nominees are led by Alejandro Sanz (with eight nominations), Rosalía (five), Fonseca (four), Rubén Blades (four), Juan Luis Guerra 4.40 (four) and Juanes (three).
The diversity of territories among academy members occasionally has contributed to controversy. In 2003, academy president/CEO Gabriel Abaroa Jr. moved the Latin Grammys from Los Angeles to Miami for the first time -- a city where arguments raged over the participation of Cuban artists at the show. “I wanted to demonstrate that we could do it,” he says now. “At the end of the day, we Latins understand each other. But I never imagined the scope of the project.”
The Miami move was one of the most visible moments in the program’s development, adds Abaroa, whose mission has always been “overcoming the perception that we were a secondary Grammy.” During that year’s tribute to the late Celia Cruz, a Cuban expatriate, Abaroa began to understand the true impact of the show’s legacy: “The band started to play ‘La Vida Es un Carnaval.’ I started to cry but I caught my breath. I still get emotional today.”
Abaroa previews this year’s awards, which will be handed out Nov. 14.
You have led the academy for nearly as long as it has existed. What has been your biggest challenge?
The main problem was explaining to Latins -- not to non-Latins -- that we weren’t second-rate. This Grammy covered a range of genres that would have never been recognized otherwise. The second challenge was financial. The way we obtained sponsorship and advertising contracts depended deeply on the [mainstream] Grammy structure, and they really didn’t know what value to give to the Latin Grammy. So initially it was guesswork; the calculation was 10% of the sponsorship value [allotted for the mainstream Grammys], without any marketing studies to support this. Once we had those, we increased our sponsorships, sometimes higher than the Grammys.
This economic solvency allowed you, among other things, to create the Latin Grammy Cultural Foundation in 2014.
We dedicate part of our money to fostering the development of Latin music through scholarships and instrument donations. Today, we can boast that we have given $5 million to provide scholarships to 200 young people and support 20 musical projects. Everything the academy doesn’t spend, we redistribute, and today, we underwrite 85% to 90% of costs.
How would you describe the relationship between the Latin and mainstream Grammys?
We have two contracts. One is for use of the brand, and we have to fulfill many requirements, which we have done from day one. That has allowed us to gain the trust of The Recording Academy. The second contract are our statutes, which state we can’t change any element in the award process. Beyond that, there are many differences. The Recording Academy is national; we are international. We have members in 36 countries. The music recognized by The Recording Academy is mainly in English; we honor music in Spanish, Portuguese or any of the languages or dialects generating from our countries. Also, The Recording Academy is regulated by chapters, and we are regulated by a board of trustees.
Why is language such a determining factor in these awards?
First, we honor music, not people. So if, say, Tony Bennett decides to record an album in Spanish, the [Latin] academy would recognize the album, regardless of where the artist comes from. Second, artists who record in English can submit their work to the [mainstream] Grammys, as long as it has been released in the U.S. But the third point is the most important: I don’t make these decisions. We have committees made up of members, and they propose and decide the rules.
There has been some debate about whether artists from Spain like Rosalía should be called “Latin.” What are your thoughts on this?
“Latino” has many meanings and only one truth. In the United States, “Latino” is the name given to people with darker skin -- they call us brown -- or those of us who drink tequila or like salsa. In some cases, we’re also called “Hispanics.” It’s too bad that as Ibero-Americans, we haven’t determined a word that defines who we are and how we want to be identified. It’s still possible, but for now, we are Latinos.
In the Italian Peninsula, there’s a region called Latium, where Latin originated. With the expansion of the Roman Empire, Latin became the seed of many romance languages, which include what today is Spanish, Portuguese, French, Romanian and Italian. However, when people in the U.S. talk about Latins, in a very limited and confusing fashion, they include Central America, the Caribbean and South America. They don’t include everything that derives from Latin, [including] the Iberian Peninsula.
Faced with such ignorance, all we can do is look on sadly and continue fighting to educate those who don’t understand the prestige, pride and love that being Latino entails. Rosalía is Latin. Brazilian Chico Buarque is Latin. Jesse & Joy are Latin. Reik, J.Lo, Laura Pausini, Kevin Johansen are also Latin. And to be even more clear about the topic, the first-ever record of the year Grammy, given 60 years ago, went to “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu [Volare]” by Domenico Modugno [of Italy], and yes, he was Latin.
What have the Latin Grammys learned from the mainstream awards and vice versa?
We have learned that with planning and analysis, everything is possible. And we have learned from the tremendous respect and care they give to their brand, but they have learned to not be so careful. You have to take risks, otherwise the process holds you back, and music doesn’t wait.
For example, a few years ago, we realized that having five nominations for [the main categories] resulted in the same names. We opened it up to 10, and it was a fabulous opportunity to bring in more artists. It took the [mainstream] Grammys years to open it up, initially to eight nominees. They had me speak at a meeting, and my message was, “Take risks.” The other example was online voting. We saw it as an urgent need, given our international territory, and we went online three years ahead of the [mainstream] Grammys.
You shifted from CBS to Univision, where the show remains today. Why is it important to have a broadcast partner whose DNA, so to speak, is Latin?
I applaud CBS for having taken the initiative; they took huge risks. Things would be different today. The Ibero-American artists that felt uncomfortable speaking English today dominate the language. Now, Univision has become the home that has received The Latin Recording Academy with open arms and allowed us to communicate in our language. We didn’t have to explain anything to anyone, and the oven was hot enough to bake a magnificent loaf of bread. Maybe the biggest challenge was differentiating ourselves from other music shows in Spanish.
Resistance to change is natural, language notwithstanding, but we shouldn’t be afraid of bringing to the table people who are removed from our culture. What we can’t do is expect miracles. Everything takes patience, love, dedication and hard work, in any language, and we’ve done that for 20 years.