Estefan and ‘La Bamba’ Cover Only Part of America’s Latin Culture in the 1980s


This article by Wesley Morris appeared in The New  York Times.

My favorite sound to come out of the Miami Sound Machine goes something like this: Hhhwoo! That happens toward the end of the chorus for “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” which kicked off the second side of the band’s album “Let It Loose.” It was 1987, and most of us had to flip something over — an LP, a cassette — to hear it. The song stalked summer radio back then.

Gloria Estefan co-wrote the song and sang the hook, but the “hhhwoo” and the two bars of four or so “na-nas” were the dudes of the machine. They were personifying the rhythm, which, here, was tribal, on-the-loose and non-negotiably infectious. And it was talking. To you.

The reason to bring it up now is that Ms. Estefan is mattering again. “On Your Feet!,” the new musical about her life, career, talent, Miami-ness and marriage to the producer and genial Svengali Emilio Estefan, has hit Broadway, with the Estefans as producers. But the musical’s rhythm — thathhhwoo — barely says anything. That song, performed by a multipiece band, welcomes you in, but it’s all overture for the generic, feel-amazing uplift that makes a case for the Estefans’ sainthood. But their not-unjustified self-consecration neuters Ms. Estefan’s artistry and erases its 1980s musical context.

Selective memory persists. HBO just aired “The Latin Explosion,” 60-plus minutes of documentary exclamation that pins the rise of Latin people in the United States to the prevalence of Latin entertainers, specifically musicians. It pings from Tito Puente and Desi Arnaz to José Feliciano, Carlos Santana, and the Fania All-Stars, from Ms. Estefan to Jennifer Lopez to Ricky Martin to Marc Anthony to Shakira, Pitbull and Romeo Santos. And the pinging got on my nerves, especially the ping from the Sound Machine and the 1987 Ritchie Valens biopic, “La Bamba,” to Selena, whose superstardom began to crest at the start of the 1990s. That’s a pivot that egregiously bypasses landmarks.

Both the Estefans (somewhat understandably) and this documentary (indefensibly) overlook what else was going on with Latinos in pop in the 1980s. “On Your Feet!” lets you think that “Dr. Beat,” the breakthrough single, from 1984, by the Miami Sound Machine, was all that mattered in nightclubs at the time. And the documentary leaves the more egregious impression that “La Bamba” (the movie and Los Lobos’s rendition of Valens’s 1958 rendition of that Mexican folk song) was — after Ms. Estefan, of course — all that American Latin culture contributed to pop during the MTV era.

In rebuttal, history provides two words: Lisa Lisa.

Yes, her.

Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam was a trio manufactured and produced by the gym-rat R&B act Full Force and fronted by Lisa Velez, a spiky, compact 18-year-old from Hell’s Kitchen who could stretch her vocals to churchy stank. In 1985, the group had a couple of club hits with “I Wonder If I Take You Home” and “Can You Feel the Beat” and a year later turned the slow-jam melodrama of “All Cried Out” into a Top 10 song. The next year the production somehow found extra thump and shifted to more melodic, Motown-style arrangements and really took off. In the summer of “La Bamba” and “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” Lisa Lisa’s “Head to Toe” and “Lost in Emotion” hit No. 1. (They stood atop what was then Billboard’s black music chart, too.)


True, by the early 1990s, the group was virtually no more. But it happened. So did its early sound: slinky prehouse, bass-heavy, danceably percussive synth music that found a tributary to the Billboard Top 40. Key-wise, the music went down; the singing went up. Your head kept losing to your hips, heels and heinie. Officially, the songs were called Latin freestyle. Really, it was just pop, created in New York and Miami. And it made waves surfed by Latinos and American artists of Latin descent for 15 years.

Few of these acts — the Cover Girls and Timmy T and Corina and Sweet Sensation and Linear — were household names. In the moment, a few of them actually were — Exposé, Stevie B. Others were embarrassments. (Hi, Gerardo!) And some were besotted impostors, like the D.J. and producer Junior Vasquez, who was born a white guy named Donald Mattern, and Madonna, who, in the video for “La Isla Bonita” (also from 1987), put on a red flamenco dress and danced among the Mexicans in the streets of a Los Angeles “barrio.”

Skipping over all of this is like sending the Acela from Washington to Boston and pretending Philadelphia doesn’t exist. That’s somebody’s stop. Was this moment of Latin music less worthy of celebration than the one that gave us, I don’t know, Ms. Lopez’s “Jenny From the Block”?

Some of the omission is a matter of where the country was in the 1980s versus where it was in the late 1990s and now.

One of the many complicating and exciting developments in pop in the 1980s was the incorporation of Latin, African and Afro-Caribbean sounds into everybody’s music, only some of which was by Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon. Much of it was by black and Latin artists, like Billy Ocean, Sade and Ms. Estefan. These weren’t artists advertising authenticity or reclaiming territory. They were just being themselves.

The lawlessness of pop was fun and unpronounced. Pointed identity politics, which are now part of the way we ingest popular culture, were mostly being waged in academia. Ms. Estefan wasn’t on television calling Madonna a kleptomaniac, and Latin freestyle and Latin artists weren’t part of any identifiable movement. Things were what they were.

Yet, Ms. Estefan was a visionary of sorts. She became a star, in part, by bringing us together, imploring stiff white audiences to get up and move with everybody else — first, nicely, with 1985’s “Conga,” in which Ms. Estefan more or less plays aerobics instructor. Then more aggressively, with the even more complicated primitivism of “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” which is like the “Thriller” of dance entreaties.

She has remained a star by sensing the multicultural present — churning out generic hit ballads, making repeat visits to the American songbook, recording in Spanish and in different Latin American styles, looking to groom young Latin artists and make them stars.

That is credit the Estefans deserve, credit that, because of a dearth of critical reappraisal, they seem consigned to give themselves. For what it’s worth, it was just announced that they’ll be recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, along with folks like Barbra Streisand and Steven Spielberg. The Estefans made rain for themselves, and now other people want to salute their weather.

Crossing over was part of the Estefans’ game in the 1980s. “On Your Feet!” is the museum-gift-shop version of how they crossed. It sends a conga line snaking off the stage and into the audience. You see the line headed your way and think about how hard and inventively the show’s next-door neighbor, the musical “Hamilton,” works to make a similar point and you kind of think, Why didn’t the founding fathers just feel that conga beat?

By 1999, the talk was of a “Latino explosion” in music and in the nation. The country was bracing itself then for a Godzilla-size pop invasion — led by Ms. Lopez, Mr. Martin, Christina Aguilera, Enrique Iglesias — and the commercial excitement and simultaneous immigrant influx helped fuel a latent paranoid racism. Basically: “The Latinos are coming. The Latinos are coming.”

We’re still talking like that today. But if you were a child in 1987 watching, say, the “Lost in Emotion” video and seeing Lisa Lisa strut around an amusement park in a reverie (and fantastic black parachute pants), you knew what was up. The Latinos were already here.

For the original report go to

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