January 21, 2007 / 10:24 AM / 11 years ago

Pop music scene heats up in Colombia

4 Min Read

MIAMI (Billboard) - Had he been born in Colombia a generation ago, Fonseca might have opted for a career in law or engineering, accepted fields for young men and women of certain means in that country.

Instead, when the now-26-year-old Bogota native informed his parents he wanted to be a professional musician, they sent him to the Berklee College of Music in Boston without lifting an eyebrow.

It all paid off last year, when Fonseca won a Latin Grammy Award for his hit "Te Mando Flores."

Beyond the personal accomplishment, the win represents yet another notch in the belt of a rapidly growing movement of new pop acts coming from Colombia.

"We are living a boom," says EMI Colombia president Alvaro Rizo, who spearheaded the resurgence of major labels' interest in local Colombian talent when he signed Grammy winner Andres Cabas in 2000.

"Twenty years ago no one believed in (pop) Colombian acts," he adds. "We laughed at them. Now everyone wants to sing. I don't have the staff or budget to work the huge number of local acts."

Colombia has always been a hotbed of all kinds of music, but it was best-known as the birthplace of cumbia, the home of vallenato and the breeding ground for new salsa.

In the pop arena, however, Colombian acts had little local credibility and practically no international relevance. That is, until Carlos Vives' fusion of pop, rock and vallenato exploded inside and outside Colombia in the early 1990s.

His success, coupled with that of Shakira and Juanes, has made Colombian pop a cool and viable option and given rise in the past two years to a cohesive musical movement with international possibilities. No other country, save for Mexico and maybe Argentina, has so much international potential in the Latin realm.

"Creatively speaking, we're at another level," says industry veteran Fidel Jaramillo, who headed Universal's Colombian offices for years and is now president of indie Origin Entertainment. "I remember going to international meetings and basically getting shut down when I spoke of (vallenato stars) Diomedes Diaz or Los Hermanos Zuleta. Now there is international awareness."

Sony BMG Latin America president Kevin Lawrie agrees. "Colombia is a creative hotbed. You ignore Colombia at your own risk."

Despite the creativity oozing from Colombia -- it's not only artists, but also producers, arrangers and session players who are in demand -- it's still difficult to export the music. Unlike Mexico, whose extended market is effectively the United States, Colombian acts have to physically move to get noted outside the country's borders.

This poses many challenges. Universal Music, for example, stopped signing acts locally altogether because the local company didn't have the cash flow necessary for new-artist development. Now Universal is reversing that policy with the launch of a joint-venture label with Juanes.

Of course, not all acts signed locally get exported, and of those who do, not all will become a Shakira or a Juanes. A good indicator of who will get picked for outside distribution is local success. Fonseca scored big when his song "Te Mando Flores" hit No. 1 on Colombian charts for 22 consecutive weeks.

And Juanes, prior to leaving Colombia in an effort to get signed in the United States, had local success as lead singer of rock group Ekhymosis.

"Of course we want to export them, but it isn't easy," Jaramillo says. "Today everybody wants winners, and you don't always have that."


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