Houston Goes International with the Latin Grammys

Thursday night, for the first time in its history, Houston will be front and center on the international musical stage when the curtain rises on the ninth annual Latin Grammy Awards at Toyota Center. Broadcast worldwide on Univision (Channel 45 in Houston), the ceremony is expected to be watched by approximately 80 million people in more than 100 countries.

It will be the first major entertainment awards ceremony held in the state of Texas, and the first held outside a popular entertainment destination; previous Latin Grammy sites include New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Las Vegas.

"It's a really, really large feather to be selected as the site," says Casey Monahan, Director of the Texas Music Office in Governor Rick Perry's office. "Miami and Los Angeles dominate the Latin music business in North America, even though so much business goes through Houston and San Antonio. It's taken awhile for that to sink in."

Historic. Unprecedented. Lucrative. Lindsey Brown, Director of Marketing for the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, recently told the Houston Press's Olivia Flores Alvarez the GHCVB expects the event to have an economic impact of more than $35 million.

It's also, well, downright bizarre. What in the world is such an important event — 49 awards in categories ranging from cumbia, ranchera and norteño to urban and alternative, most of which will be handed out Thursday afternoon — doing in Houston, of all places?

"Every city has its own challenges," says Latin Recording Academy President Gabriel Abaroa. As a "risk-taking body," he notes, the Latin Grammys have elected to change location every year, not tying the event to one or two locations like its English-speaking counterpart. (The only time those Grammys were held outside New York or L.A. was 1973 at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium.)

"Even though Houston is not perceived to be an entertainment city, it has a lot of population," says Abaroa. "We don't need a population that's only Hispanic-driven, we need populations where they like Hispanic kinds of music, and we found that Houston was very open to that. In addition to that, most of the people have been extremely, extremely accommodating."

The Latin Grammys coming to Houston is a direct result of the efforts of official host committee Houston es Musica. A who's who of leading Houston executives, politicians and marketing minds, the committee is co-chaired by Daniel Barreto, President and CEO of Blue Door Marketing; Alex Lopez Negrete, President and CEO of advertising agency Lopez Negrete communications; and Dan Wolterman and John Hofmeister, the current and immediate past presidents of the Greater Houston Partnership.

Others on the committee include Mayor Pro Tem and District H city councilman (and, as of last week, Harris County Sheriff-elect) Adrian Garcia; Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Sylvia Garcia; Susan Christian, Deputy Director of the Mayor's office of special events; Port of Houston Authority Chairman Jim Edmonds; and Jorge Franz, the GHCVB's Executive Director of Tourism. Abaroa's description of his early contact with Houston es Musica sounds suspiciously like Houston itself — sprawling, independent and, just maybe, a little disorganized.

"It's funny, because they did not appoint one single person," he says. "Initially we met with [about] 30 people who introduced themselves to us as the committee to bring the Latin Grammys to Houston, but then I found that this was not an established committee. It was just a bunch of people who were trying to do something. They didn't even have an internal structure.

"I just asked, 'Who's in command?'" Abaroa adds. "Then I found there was one guy who was the leader, but not because they elected him — every time there was a difficult question, they'd turn and look at him, and he always found the answer. It was Adrian Garcia."

Because the spectrum of Latin music is so broad — "Hispanics joke that we are one culture divided by a common language," Abaroa laughs — the Latin Recording Academy doesn't make much of an effort to appeal to non-Spanish-speakers, he admits, but in some ways it doesn't have to. Asked how much coverage Thursday's awards have gotten in the non-Hispanic media, Abaroa replies, "Oh gosh — if you tell me how to quantify it, I will follow your rule."

"We don't want to be an organization that only communicates in Spanish, that only cares about [Hispanic] types of media and only having contact with Latinos," he says. "I think part of our mission is to try to promote music regardless of culture."

Besides, Abaroa says, correctly, there's never been any shortage of Latino presence in American music at large. He cites El Paso native Vikki Carr — recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Latin Grammy Thursday — and Carlos Santana as two examples, and also notes Mocedades' 1974 song "Eres Tú" was a major success on English-speaking radio (it peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100).

More recently, of course, Latin artists such as Ricky Martin and Shakira have enjoyed considerable crossover success, while bands like Mexico City alt-­rockers Café Tacuba (a performer and leading nominee Thursday) have a significant Anglo component in their fan base.

"I think this country has been very much used to receiving music in other languages, provided it comes natural," he says. "What I think this country doesn't accept is when you try to sell it by obligation. If it's authentic, they will embrace it."

Houston certainly has. While they're in town this week, if Latin Grammy officials are looking for ideas how to boost Latin music's profile among non-Spanish speakers, all they need to do is step out into the clubs and sample some of our homegrown talent. Although the city currently lacks a powerhouse local traditional Latin group like La Mafia, every significant area of local music has a distinct Latinpresence.

In hip-hop, there's everyone from Karina Nistal, Tha Fucking Transmissions' front man Cornbredd and DJ Akshun Kid to, well, South Park Mexican. Indie-rock groups with Hispanic roots include Spain Colored Orange, Wild Moccasins, the Kimonos, the McKenzies and Young Mammals. Getting rootsier, Umbrella Man's Gulf Coast hodgepodge includes a healthy portion of conjunto, while groups like Espantapajaros, Chango Man and Yoko Mono take rock en español to the outer experimental fringes.

Los Skarnales, hands down one of Houston's most popular bands for years, laces its ska-punk with generous amounts of Mexican and Cuban music, while the Flamin' Hellcats and Vatos Locos are but two Houston bands mingling Latin, punk and rockabilly. Like metal itself, Houston's headbanger community has always had a heavily Hispanic element, and when Noise asked a friend to name a few local Latino hardcore bands, she texted back — only half-jokingly — "like all of them."

"I've seen Asians [here] that dance salsa better than Colombians," says Karina Nistal. "Plenty of people come up to me and tell me, 'I don't understand what the hell you're saying, but I love it!' I'm like, 'Cool, I have translations.'"

"People are definitely interested, and I think they're looking at a larger scope of what they're listening to, and they're not just basing it on, you know, this is just a Latin thing," she adds. "And [the Grammys] might open the door to getting bigger events, like the Latin Billboards [awards]. That would be awesome."

Hosting the Latin Grammys "just means Houston means music business," says Casey Monahan, uttering those words for probably the first time in recorded human history. "It means y'all have the infrastructure necessary to pull off such an international event."

But not just the infrastructure. Houston also has the wherewithal and what Noise's Latino friends might call the cojones to pull off an event of this magnitude. Just like any true international city should.

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray