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Viva! Chicago Latin Music Festival to begin

At its worst, the annual Viva! Chicago Latin Music Festival organized by the Mayor's Office of Special Events can be an unimaginative rehash of past performances by those popular Latin groups and singers who had already visited the city months prior to the event.

But at its very best, Viva! Chicago can be a showcase for the latest trends in Latin American music, a nostalgic visit to its rich past and a place where an older generation of Latino musicians, singers and songwriters go mano a mano with a newer generation. It can also feature performers who hardly ever visit our city either because they do not get enough airplay in any of Chicago's six full-time Spanish-language radio stations or are not deemed commercial enough by local Spanish-language concert promoters.

This year's 11th edition of the two-day free event, to be held August 28 and 29 from 11:30 a.m.-10:00 p.m. at Grant Park's Petrillo Music Shell and Jackson Stage, falls squarely into the latter. Not only does the festival this year offer a more imaginative and better thought-out lineup of stars than last year's, it avoids the radically strong contrasts between such disparate genres as salsa, Cuban music and norteqas which made last year's event a rather disjointed affair.

Organizers have smoothly integrated Latin music's diverse genres in such a way that, for example, during Saturday's show one salsa and merengue band will follow another at the Petrillo Shell before the balladeers take over the stage. The sequence will be slightly reversed on Sunday night. And the fact that radio station WRZA-FM 99.9 "La Zeta" (a station which specializes in regional Mexican music) is sponsoring the smaller of the two stages has allowed the organizers to further structure the program by styles and regions. Unavoidably, there will be some repeat performances by acts that have already visited the city this past year like the Mexican Grupo Bryndis, Fito Olivares and Los Fugitivos (all three specialize in keyboard-driven romantic ballads with a norteqo accent). But they are the exceptions to the rule.

Saturday's program will really kick off when a battle of generational proportions explodes on the Petrillo Music Shell as old-school salsa improviser Adalberto Santiago (5:15 p.m.) faces off against Brenda K. Starr (6:10 p.m.) and the more sexually aggressive merengues of Gisselle (4:15 p.m.).

A veteran of the Ray Barretto Orchestra in the late sixties and Tipica '73 in the seventies, Santiago is a beloved member of the famous Fania All-Stars, the incredible ensemble of musicians and singers that worked for the Fania label back in the golden age of salsa. Santiago has been seen most recently performing alongside Larry Harlow's Latin Legends band. This time around Santiago will be performing alongside local band Orquesta 12 y 23.

For Latin music aficionados, the real treat will be Saturday night's closing act: bolero penmaster Armando Manzanero's first Chicago performance in close to a decade. Responsible, alongside Argentinean composer and arranger Bebu Silvetti, for pop heartthrob Luis Miguel's successful breakthrough as a bolero singer, Manzanero has composed more than 400 songs in over four decades.

Born in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula on December 7, 1935, Manzanero sold his first song in 1950 and began to play the piano professionally at fairs and with smaller musical ensembles a year later. His real breakthrough as a composer came in 1957 when Puerto Rican balladeer Bobby Caps recorded his single "Nunca en el mundo." And so began a long-term love affair with the island which climaxed in 1996 with the recording of "Un solo beso" alongside Puerto Rican crooner Cheo Feliciano.

"That was an album I wanted to produce for a long time," said Manzanero during a telephone interview as he was driving to a friend's house in Yucatan.

"For a long time I'd been after Cheo to record that album. I know and understand that Cheo has to sing salsa because it sells. But Cheo's contribution to the bolero is invaluable: the way he phrases the song, his timbre. Today many are the singers who have followed in his footsteps. Cheo is without a doubt a musical institution".

And so are the dozens of singers who have sung Manzanero's tunes: Tony Bennett, Perry Como, Elis Regina, Olga Guillot, Roberto Carlos, Frank Sinatra and Ana Gabriel, among others. And, of course, Luis Miguel for whom Manzanero produced the first of the Mexican singer's bolero trilogy. Manzanero recently gave Luis Miguel ten themes for his upcoming pop album out of which two may actually make the final cut.

Manzanero continues to write and perform non-stop. He just released his 40th album, "Hoy no," and after his Chicago show Manzanero will tour Japan. But, as he proudly sees a new generation of singers perform his old songs, Manzanero knows that no one will pick up the song writing mantel once he retires from the music scene.

"We are unfortunately colonized by music from other parts of the world. Even our [Mexican] youth prefer American music over Mexican music. For that reason, our young musicians are not interested in writing boleros. I dare say that they don't even have the ability to understand this kind of music just as my generation can't understand theirs," said Manzanero.

"Besides, even if there was an interest, they would have to face a long and weighty list of composers that preceded them. It's far much easier for them to record old material than to create new one."

Yet, it is thanks to Luis Miguel and groups such as Colombia's Los Trm-o that the bolero enjoys a new life among a generation that may have labeled this genre as old fashioned in the past. Indeed, Sunday's once-in-a-lifetime reunion of the beloved Trmo Los Panchos would not have happened had Los Trm-o not scored big in the Billboard Latin charts with their debut album "Nuestro amor," a tribute to the New York born Mexican trio.

During their long career, Los Panchos recorded over 2,500 songs on more than 250 albums. They suffered innumerable permutations. Their most recent reincarnation reunited singers Johnny Albino and Enrique Caceres who breathed new life into the group during the 80s. Their songs, as well as Manzanero's, are part of Latin America's rich cultural heritage. (Both Albino and Caceres will perform on Sunday's reunion.)

Following is a complete list of performances. Please note that all appearances and times are subject to change. For more information, call (312) 744-3370.

11th Annual Viva! Chicago Music Festival

Saturday, August 28

La Z Day Stage (Jackson Stage):
11:00-11:30 a.m. Eduardo Partida and the Mariachi Perla (rancheras)
11:30 am-12:00 p.m. Josi Julian and the Mariachi Perla (rancheras)
12:05-12:35 p.m. Arnoldo (retro pop)
12:45-1:25 p.m. Tierra Minera (norteqas/ballads)
1:35-2:05 p.m. Samantha (pop)
2:15-3:00 p.m. Malo featuring Jorge Santana (R&B/Latin rock)

Petrillo Music Shell:
2:50-3:00 p.m. National anthem
3:00-3:30 p.m. Cecilia Infante (rancheras)
3:35-4:05 p.m. Santa (tropical/cumbias)
4:15-5:05 p.m. Gisselle (merengue)
5:15-6:05 p.m. Adalberto Santiago & Orchestra 12 y 23 (salsa)
6:10-7:05 p.m. Brenda K. Starr (salsa)
7:15-8:10 p.m. Los Fugitivos (ballads/cumbias/pop)
8:20-9:30 p.m. Armando Manzanero (boleros)

Sunday, August 29

La Z Day Stage (Jackson Stage):
11:00-11:30 a.m. Josi Julian and the Mariachi Perla (rancheras)
11:30 am-12:00 p.m. Cecilia Infante and the Mariachi Perla (rancheras)
12:05-12:35 p.m. Edgar Cortazar (norteqas/ballads)
12:45-1:20 p.m. Tierra Minera (norteqas/ballads)
1:30-2:05 p.m. Grupo Pesado (norteqas)
2:15-2:55 p.m. Arabz (salsa/merengue)

Petrillo Music Shell:
2:50-3:00 p.m. National anthem
3:00-3:40 p.m. Malo featuring Jorge Santana (R&B/Latin rock)
3:50-4:20 p.m. Iridian (pop/cumbias)
4:30-5:30 p.m. Trmo Los Panchos with Johnny Albino y Enrique Caceres(boleros)
5:40-6:25 p.m. Fito Olivares (cumbias)
6:35-7:25 p.m. La Makina (merengue)
7:35-8:20 p.m. Tito Nieves (salsa)
8:30-9:30 p.m. Grupo Bryndis (cumbias/ballads)

Alejandro Riera is a Staff Writer for !Exito!, the Spanish-language weekly published by the Chicago Tribune.

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