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Leila Cobo's New Book Takes A Look At The Latin Music We Can't Get Enough Of


The song "Despacito" by Luis Fonsi, featuring Daddy Yankee, came out in early 2017 and quickly became a smash hit. Later that year, Justin Bieber was added to the mix, and it went stratospheric, topping the charts in 47 countries. A Puerto Rican singer, a Puerto Rican rapper and a Canadian pop star in the first mostly Spanish song to top Billboard's Hot 100 since "Macarena." So it makes sense that Leila Cobo, Billboard's vice president of Latin music, highlights it in the title of her new book, "Decoding 'Despacito': An Oral History Of Latin Music." NPR's Felix Contreras sat down with Cobo for our podcast Alt.Latino.

LEILA COBO: The book is ostensibly a history of Latin music, but it's told as the oral history of 19 songs. And it starts with "Feliz Navidad" from 1970. It ends with "Malamente" by Rosalia in 2018. And each song that was selected was selected because it opened a door for Latin music that was not open before, like, a major door.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: What did you learn? What did you learn about the music?

COBO: You know, I spoke with Julio Iglesias. His song is "To All The Girls I've Loved Before," which is a song in English. But he says during the interview, the biggest story about the song is, I spoke no English at all when I recorded it. Like, he didn't, and he goes to meet Willie Nelson, who he had - he didn't know who Willie Nelson was. Nor did Willie Nelson knew who Julio Iglesias was the first time he heard him sing. So it's like this coming of two very different worlds, and it's beautiful.


JULIO IGLESIAS AND WILLIE NELSON: (Singing) The winds of change are always blowing, and every time I tried to stay...

CONTRERAS: I really admire the fact that you used this song as one of the moments where that cross-cultural thing happened. And people don't notice. I mean, all of a sudden, I'm sure there are people - in west Texas, they're saying Julio Iglesias with Willie Nelson, and they never would have even put the two together, right?

COBO: Yeah. And I think one of the really beautiful things about the stories in this book is that there was absolutely no barrier of entry in these songs. They're such a mishmash. You know, Gloria Estefan talks about "Conga" and how they performed a conga line in Holland, in a nightclub in Holland. And people went nuts. And so they got on the plane, and they're like, oh, my God, we should write a song about this. And then they record the song in English because it was too percussive to do in Spanish, but they sampled James Brown. And then the label says, oh, no one's going to want to hear - like, radio is not going to play that. That's, like - that's too Latin for radio. But then radio plays it.


GLORIA ESTEFAN: (Singing) Everybody gather 'round now. Let your body feel the heat.

COBO: So all these songs are, in a way, about breaking little barriers of entry and creating something beautiful as a result.

CONTRERAS: The title of the book is "Decoding 'Despacito'," so let's talk about that song because that - even for Alt.Latino, that was a pivotal point for us. That was a marker where we had to spend some time looking at that song and its social as well as musical impact.

COBO: That song really, like, finished opening the floodgates of Latin music to the world or of the world to Latin music, rather. And Luis always talks about how he really wanted a cuatro player to play in that song. And so he got this guy called Christian Fernandez in Puerto Rico, and the song begins with that cuatro.


COBO: So it opens up with this very quintessential Puerto Rican instrument. And so you have Luis Fonsi, who is a Puerto Rican guy. He's a pop singer that's very soulful, sings in Spanish. He recruits Daddy Yankee, who's a hardcore reggaetonero, to do, like, a rap part. And then he works with these two producers from Colombia, who give it, like, that reggaeton beat. That mix is what makes it such a powerful thing at the end of the day.


LUIS FONSI: (Singing in Spanish).

COBO: And then Justin Bieber hears the song in a disco in Colombia because that's exactly how it happened, and he's like, oh, this song is really cool. Like, what if we do something with this song? And while he's in Bogota, he goes into the recording studio and records his part.


JUSTIN BIEBER: (Singing in Spanish).

COBO: So in like three days, he heard it, recorded it, and it got released.

CONTRERAS: I've always considered people who are doing what you do at Billboard. It's like you are helping the broader community, the broader society. Do you think about that? Like, who are you writing for when you sit down to write? When - after all your interviews are done, and you've got all your material, and you're writing, like - who are you - do you have someone in mind that you're writing to? Is it, like, I hope someone understands this?

COBO: Yeah, I think about that all the time. I think I have a great responsibility in the sense that, definitely, the industry reads Billboard. So it's very important that the industry know that this music exists and that it drives the number that it drives. People need to see that there is a business, that there is a viable economic proposition behind it. And so when I am able to say, here is the music, and it's fantastic, and here are the numbers that this music generates, and they're also fantastic, then people really sit up and listen.


J BALVIN: (Singing in Spanish).

COBO: That's Leila Cobo speaking with NPR's Felix Contreras. Her new book is called "Decoding 'Despacito.'"


BEYONCE: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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