TORONTO — Singer Alx Veliz is certain that a recent swell in the popularity of Latin music is signalling a change of tastes with many Canadian listeners.
He points to the numerous Latin songs that broke into mainstream consciousness across the country last year, led by the colossal hit, “Despacito,” performed by Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber. Veliz’s 2016 hit single “Dancing Kizomba” left its own mark when it was released in an alternate Spanish version.
The Mississauga, Ont.-based singer with Guatemalan roots says it seemed like the perfect time to record his newest album entirely in Spanish. He believes the project will appeal to his English-speaking Canadian fans who increasingly blast Latin songs on streaming music platforms.
“Streaming has levelled the playing field,” Veliz says. “A couple years ago we would only listen to what radio considered a hit.”
Lolaa, a Toronto-based sibling pop duo with Mexican roots, made a similar move by releasing a Spanish version of their English self-titled EP earlier this year.
Both acts hope to challenge what they consider to be long-held perceptions at Canadian radio stations that Latin music is only an occasional trend.
For years, the genre existed on the sidelines across most of the country, getting little mainstream attention, with the exception of the occasional crossover track like Los Del Mar’s “Macarena” in 1995.
Even international superstars like Ricky Martin saw most of their Spanish-language albums slip under the radar in Canada. The same went for songs from Christina Aguilera’s 2000 album “Me Reflejo,” Jennifer Lopez’s 2007 effort “Como Ama una Mujer” and Nelly Furtado’s 2009 “Mi Plan,” which sold well but still faced an uphill marketing battle in her homeland.
Veliz thinks those days are numbered as more Canadian clubs dedicate entire rooms to Latin music.
“This is a movement that’s been happening for over a decade,” Veliz argues.
“We’re slowly starting to see the rise of the Latin artist.”
Figures compiled by Nielsen Music Canada suggest listeners on streaming music platforms are choosing to play Latin songs more often. Streaming plays of the genre are up 71 per cent for the week that ended July 12 compared to the same week a year ago when “Despacito” sat atop the Canadian Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Overall, Latin music represents two per cent of Canadian streaming so far this year, a small uptick from the same period last year, even though there hasn’t been a new breakout hit comparable to “Despacito.” That track is still going strong on streaming platforms though, ranking as the ninth most popular song of 2018, despite being released well over a year ago.
The sisters in Lolaa have a complicated relationship with “Despacito,” which they recognize is an indisputable success, though they don’t necessarily like that many people only seem to listen to the remix with Bieber singing additional English vocals.
“I’m happy that Justin helped facilitate that exposure, but I don’t think it’s fair that he got a lot of the credit,” says Lolaa singer Lex Valentine.
“I want to see Latin artists being celebrated for their things, without having a big name like a Justin Bieber — someone who’s not Latin American — to be the one pushing it forward.”
It’s one of the conversations Valentine and her sister Nadia King revisit often as they pursue Spanish music in a Canadian market where most listeners don’t speak the language.
They made the decision to sing in Spanish not as a commercial move, they say, but for artistic and cultural reasons, since the nuances of the language offer more creative space. But they consider it a risky move to expect the Canadian marketplace to support Spanish songs.
Few musicians have been able to hack it, says Valentine, with the exception of Colombian-born Canadian Lido Pimienta who has carved a loyal fanbase outside the mainstream, helped by attention from her Polaris Music Prize win.
“We always ask ourselves if can we can do the same thing here. You see people like Lido who have started, but even for her it’s just like, who else is there outside of Lido?” Valentine says.
“It’s like finding unicorns.”
But Veliz is confident that even if popular culture hasn’t permanently thrown open its doors to Latin music, there isn’t anywhere to go but up.
“I think within the next few years you’re going to see a surge of brand new artists.”
At Corus Radio, which operates radio stations in Alberta, B.C., Manitoba and Ontario, programmers at Top 40 radio are tasked with finding the right mix of songs.
Lars Wunsche, regional director for Corus in southwestern Ontario, says more than in the past his stations are often considering Latin music.
“‘Despacito’ definitely made it more open,” he says, pointing out that Spanish tracks by Jennifer Lopez, J Balvin and others are currently in rotation.
“We tend to play in Canada more crossover stuff — the English-Spanish scenarios… but a catchy song is a catchy song.”