Carlos Santana backstage at the Latin Grammys/ Photo by Olivia Flores Alvarez

Aftermath: Latin Grammys at Toyota Center, Pt. 1

Is music really the universal language? There was no better place to test that ragged old saw than at Thursday’s Latin Grammys at Toyota Center.

As one of the few (if not the only) non-Spanish-speakers in the building, Aftermath had a unique opportunity to sample the best Latin music had to offer, at least according to Grammy voters. And thanks to a very nice Toyota Center security lady named Diane, a curtain on the upper level opening into the arena became a literal window on another world.

As he kind of expected it to, a lot of the music Thursday night sounded familiar, even in Spanish.

Columbian superstar Juanes, who went on to capture five awards, opened the evening’s performances with “Me Enamora/Odio Por Amor,” which fused gritty rock guitar with a solid cumbia rhythm before yielding to a slow New Wave piano interlude (with full gospel choir) reminiscent of the Killers. R&B crooner and rodeo regular John Legend joined Juanes for “If You Are Out There,” an Obama-referencing bilingual piano ballad (“Time for change”) bolstered by heavy Brazilian drums and a gospel climax that was some production in any language.

Banda queen Jenni Rivera sounded hoarse on her plinking mariachi tune “Sufriendo a Solas,” but like most of Thursday’s performers, she sure can project. Not as much, though, as her brother Lupillo’s deep, operatic tenor, or the much poppier Olga Tanon on “Presencie Tu Amor.” By the time Texan and Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Vikki Carr joined Tanon and the Riveras for “Cosas Del Amor,” it turned into a virtual belt-off. Decision: Carr.

Best Urban Song winner Flex and Belinda’s duet “Te Quiero” was likewise bilingual, Spanish pop-R&B set to an easygoing reggae beat with a set straight out of Grease, rollerskating carhops and everything. A four-man accordion jam featuring Emiliano Zuleta, David Lee Garza, Michael Salgado and Fernando Otera sampled norteno, tango and Tejano before Julieta Venegas added her own licks on “El Presente,” buoyed by a ska undercurrent not far from the Specials and Venegas’ beautiful, dusky voice.

The closest thing to country last night came from Los Tigres del Norte, impeccably clad in brilliant green suits and hellbent for leather on a medley of “Somos Mas Americanos,” “Sangre Caliente” and “Mis Dos Patrias,” a trio of tunes that couched identity issues (“Mis Dos Patrias” means “My Two Homelands”) in driving basslines and lively polka-style accordion twists. – Chris Gray

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