The World Dances to a Latin Beat

These artists have brought the melodies and language of our region to the entire planet, making this cheerful music and catchy lyrics into international anthems.

Text: CAROLA REYES  @la_caco

Ricky Martin’s Cup of Life


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On February 24, 1999, Madonna interrupted Ricky Martin’s backstage Grammy press conference to congratulate him. More warm wishes followed the next day from the likes of Sting and Luciano Pavarotti. His star-making performance of the hit “La Copa de la Vida” earned a standing ovation from the audience at Los Angeles’s Shrine Auditorium.

But the Puerto Rican singer was already a household name thanks to the favorable reception of the album A medio vivir by the critics and the public alike. He also gained popularity with English-speaking audiences thanks to his role on the ABC soap opera General Hospital and his performance in the Broadway musical Les Misérables. But that night in 1999 was key. It’s considered one of the best performances in Grammy history and served as the catalyst for Martin’s definitive crossover success with “Livin’ la Vida Loca,” the first single off his first English-language album, which debuted on top of the Billboard charts in both English and Spanish that same year. “I will always be incredibly grateful to the Grammys for letting me perform that night. There was definitely a before and after,” Martin said in a 2015 interview with Yahoo Music.




Photo: getty images

King Romeo

Maybe Romeo Santos takes his status as the “King of the Bachata” a little too seriously: he performs with a golden microphone atop a stand with a base in the shape of a crown. But even his high vocal register is no joke: the numbers prove that Santos – born in the Bronx to a Puerto Rican mother and Dominican father and raised on Latin sounds – really is music royalty.

At four billion views, he outranks Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, and Justin Bieber for YouTube hits. His song “Propuesta indecente” spent 100 weeks on Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart, and he has even performed for Barack Obama (posting photos of the two together on Instagram as proof).

His career really took off when he went solo in 2011 after 15 successful years with the quartet Aventura. In 2014, Santos sold out two nights at Yankee Stadium, something even Justin Timberlake hasn’t accomplished. And it’s with good reason: according to an article in The Wall Street Journal, Santos is the most frequently played artist in New York, followed by The Rolling Stones.




Photo: getty images

Queen Celia

In the world of music, there are certain unspoken – and unquestioned – tenets. Michael Jackson is the King of Pop, Elvis Presley is the King of Rock, and Celia Cruz is the Queen of Salsa. A shining star in a genre previously dominated by men, she charmed the world with her energy, cheer, and warmth.

Born in Cuba, Cruz became a nationalized U.S. citizen in 1966. Over the course of her 50-year career, she recorded 70 albums, and in 1987, she performed the largest salsa concert in history, with more than 250,000 people flocking to her show in Tenerife, Spain.

In 1991, the “Guarachera de Cuba” – a favorite nickname that evokes the tropical rhythms of her birthplace – was given a star on the Walk of Fame, an unequivocal sign of recognition in the United States. And in 1994, President Bill Clinton granted her the highest honor an artist can receive in that country: The President’s Award for the National Endowment for the Arts.

Upon her death in 2003, Cruz was mourned in state in Miami, and then her remains were taken to New York, where then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg paid a farewell visit.




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Shakira: Whenever, Wherever

These days, Shakira is urging an all-ages audience to “Try Everything,” the theme from Disney’s most recent animated film Zootopia. She even lends her voice – in English and Spanish – to Gazelle, the film’s hooved hottie.

That’s just the latest milestone in the international career of this Colombian singer, songwriter, dancer and choreographer, following a star on the Walk of Fame, a Rolling Stone cover, and releases with Beyoncé and Rihanna. Shakira has also served as a juror on the U.S. television series, The Voice. Her video for “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa),” the anthem for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, has had more than a billion YouTube views.

Already a favorite in the Southern Hemisphere, Shakira’s worldwide fame took off with her first English-language album, Laundry Service (2001) and the hit “Whenever, Wherever” (sung in Spanish as “Suerte”). With more than ten million copies sold to date, the hip-shaking tune is one of the best-selling pop singles of all time.



Luis Miguel: The Pioneer


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Luis Miguel can proudly recall that he sang with his idol, Frank Sinatra, on Duets II. The 1994 album from “Ol’ Blue Eyes” features the Mexican star’s collaboration on “Come Fly with Me,” which was also chosen for promotion as a single. All this on the strength of Miguel’s 1991 Romances, an album that sold more than seven million copies worldwide and was the first Spanish-language recording by a Latin artist to go platinum in the U.S. (with sales over one million).

His boleros opened the door for fame, with critics praising Luis Miguel’s rediscovery of the genre. He became the best paid – and first Latin American – artist to perform for a four-day stint at Circus Maximus in Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, as well as the first Latin American singer to sell out New York’s Madison Square Garden.

Luis Miguel is also a super star in countries as diverse as Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Holland, Greece, and Brazil. And always in his native language. Unlike most of the Latin acts that have broken through internationally, Luis Miguel is famous for not translating his lyrics.




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The Miami Sound Machine & “Conga!”

It took a whole year for the song “Conga” to become a hit, singer Gloria Estefan explained to Billboard magazine in 2003: the tune was too groundbreaking for the English-speaking market. “Radio kept saying, ‘We can’t play this,’” Estefan recalled. “But once they played it, the phones would go crazy.” Back in the mid-1980s, the Miami Sound Machine was a huge sensation, with the unbeatable husband-and-wife team of Gloria Estefan on lead vocals and Emilio Estefan as the band’s producer.

Thanks in part to the success of the television series Miami Vice, 1985 was golden year for the city, and the perfect setting for the release of the album Primitive Love, which featured the infectious single that eventually conquered Billboard’s pop, Latin, soul and dance charts. “Conga!” was the first of several hits, like “1, 2, 3” and “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You.”

The group’s career came to an abrupt end in 1990, when an accident cost the singer a month of physical rehabilitation, but the Miami Sound Machine remains the most famous crossover band of the 1980s. And the Estefans? They’re still going strong: Gloria continues to record as a soloist, and Emilio is a sort of godfather for a number of Latin artists in the United States, including Shakira and Ricky Martin.




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Caetano Veloso: From Brazil, With Love

When he celebrated his 70th birthday in August 2012, artists from around the world paid homage with the album A Tribute to Caetano Veloso, featuring covers of his most popular songs from the likes of The Magic Numbers, Beck and Devendra Barnhart. It’s something this Brazilian singer, songwriter, poet, and filmmaker never would have imagined in his youth. The winner of multiple Grammy Awards always thought that the language barrier would prevent him from becoming an international star. “I always worked in my country and thought my songs wouldn’t be of interest to people who didn’t speak Portuguese. I consider it a blessing that there now seem to be people in nearly every part of the world who know my songs,” he said a few years ago in an interview with the Mexican press.

Veloso first transcended the Brazilian music scene with his 1981 album Outras palavras, and his popularity started to grow in countries like France, Israel, and Portugal. Beyond his numerous collaborations with fellow Brazilians, Veloso later lent his talent to recordings with Fito Páez (Corazón Clandestino, 1986) and Nelly Furtado (“Island of Wonder,” from Folklore 2003). in

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