Quintanilla Says 'Shhh'

At some point it might have been possible to attribute the success of A.B. Quintanilla & the Kumbia Kings to the pull of his famous, and late, sister Selena.

At some point it might have been possible to attribute the success of A.B. Quintanilla & the Kumbia Kings to the pull of his famous, and late, sister Selena.

But once his debut album, "Amor, Familia Y Respeto..." (Love, Family And Respect), sold 100,000 copies, then more than half a million -- and once the album remained stubbornly clinging to The Billboard Latin 50 for a full 96 weeks -- it was clear the older brother was on his own roll.

Now, it's up to Quintanilla to best himself with the upcoming "Shhh" (EMI Latin), due in stores Feb. 27 and already one of the most-anticipated Tejano releases of the year.

"The Tejano format, it's such a regional format, such a small format, that any little shakeup really creates huge waves," says Johnny Ramírez, PD at KXTN (Tejano 107) San Antonio, which has been playing "Shhh's" first single, "Boom-Boom," since early January. "I like something the older folks can still dance to, but he's got so much music that is aimed toward youth," he says. "To me, it's exciting to see an artist that can bridge those gaps between teenagers [and older listeners]."

But beyond bridging audience gaps, "Shhh" is also aiming to bridge format gaps. The 13-track album (21 if you count the five brief spoken interludes and three remixes) is neatly divided into English (six tracks) and Spanish (seven tracks). It is also divided into genres -- half cumbias (tropical dance music that originated in Colombia and was modified in Mexico) and ballads, the other half mostly slow R&B with lots of harmonization, à la Boyz II Men.

"It should have been an English album, and one month later, a Spanish album," says Quintanilla, who was slated to record in English with Capitol but declined the offer. Already armed with a set of English tracks, he decided to include them on his Spanish album with EMI Latin. Having more Spanish than English tracks was simply a marketing decision to ensure the album would be considered Latin by organizations like the Recording Industry Association Of America and the Grammys.

The dual languages and styles also highlight Quintanilla's dual identity as a Mexican-American, something he explores in "Primer Acto" (Act One), an introduction of sorts to the album in which he muses on neither being Mexican enough for Mexicans nor American enough for Americans.

"There's a lot of people in professional positions in Mexico who don't see us as real Mexicans," he says. "And it's the same thing as Nuyoricans and Puerto Ricans. I'm letting you know culture is something that's in your heart. I represent my Mexican culture in every sense. I call my grandma 'abuelita' [grandmother]. Even the music I represent is of Latin descent. The cumbia comes from South America and then through Mexico."

But obviously, in "Shhh" you can pick which Quintanilla to listen to, according to your mood. While the upbeat cumbia "Boom-Boom" is playing on Tejano stations, for example, "Say It" is played on mainstream station. Likewise, it's become customary for Quintanilla to tour both as a Tejano act and as a pop act catering to different audiences.

"You have the best of both worlds," says Quintanilla. "It's hard to do two singles when one weekend you're with Ramón Ayala in Mexico and the other you're with Sisqó or Pink, but we're able to do it. We change the shows around."

It's an approach EMI believes in. "The moral of the story is, with A.B. Quintanilla, I think he's such a brilliant talent, give him leeway," says EMI Latin president Jose Behar. "Give him the space to create, to express himself, to explore, and don't place limitations."

EMI Latin is planning to initially ship 250,000 copies of "Shhh," according to BÉhar, a huge number by Tejano standards. At the same time, the company will rely on sister label Capitol to help market the Kumbia Kings in the mainstream market. Already, some R&B stations are playing "Say It," even though Capitol has yet to market it or release it as a single.

Although Behar has worked with Quintanilla since 1990, when he was the main songwriter and arranger for Selena (he wrote her big hits, including "Amor Prohibido"), he signed him as an independent artist only after her death. At the time, Quintanilla was already an established songwriter even outside Tejano circles, having written and produced for artists like Thalía, Christian Castro, and Tito Puente Jr. and produced for artists such as Veronica Castro.

With the Kumbia Kings, Quintanilla didn't go for the soloist spotlight but chose to preside as a leader and guitarist on the sidelines and, above all, as the sole composer responsible for the band's sound.

And while "Amor" featured a host of guests, on "Shhh" Quintanilla drew solely from the Kumbia Kings' strengths, featuring two members of the band as lead singers -- one who focuses on Spanish tracks, one on English songs. With Spanish, a language he admittedly is not perfectly fluent in, Quintanilla gets help from sound engineer Luigi Giraldo, a former member of Venezuelan pop group Los Fantasmas Del Caribe.

Beyond that, from the onset of the Kumbia Kings, Quintanilla created his own label, Iron Tigga, to carry both his band and new artists. A female singer, Flor, is the first signing, although Quintanilla says he's looking for "Tejano, rap, merengue, anything that comes my way.