There are artists who embody the very essence of Latin music. Its poetry, transcending barriers both geographical and cultural. Its power to survive beyond decades and younger generations. And its remarkable ability to combine words with rhythm and melody for the creation of timeless anthems. Catalan singer/songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat is one of them. And the tribute offered to him by The Latin Recording Academy during the 2014 Person of the Year gala underscored the staying power of such classic Serrat songs as “Mediterráneo,” “Penélope” and “Aquellas Pequeñas Cosas.”
It was an emotionally charged evening that began at full force with a solemn version of “La Saeta” performed by the trio of Lila Downs, Soledad and Niña Pastori. The percussive patterns, evoking the distant echoes of a military march, enhanced the intensity of the voices from three different countries: Mexico, Argentina and Spain. “I’m so proud to sing for you tonight,” exclaimed Lila as soon as the performance ended.
Before the capacity crowd could recover, Colombian singer/songwriter Juanes emerged onstage armed with his electric guitar and delivered a high-voltage take of “Hoy Puede Ser Un Gran Día” marked by explossive brass riffs and creamy female choruses.
Serrat has composed delicate melodies in a wide variety of formats – from the baroque harpsichords of the ‘70s LPs that made him famous across Latin America to the more sparse, acoustic sound of recent efforts. He writes in both Spanish and Catalan, and his songbook includes hundreds of musical gems. Showcasing a fair representation of his output was an interesting challenge, but the illustrious gallery of guest artists delivered the goods with ease.
Joaquín Sabina, Serrat’s partner on several international tours, momentarily transformed the Mandalay Bay hotel into an old-school cabaret through the jazzy chords of “No Hago Otra Cosa Que Pensar En Ti.” The melancholy voice of Miguel Bosé – named Person of the Year in 2013 – shone during a lilting, semi-acoustic version of “Lucía”, while the reckless vocal shenanigans of former Fabulosos Cadillacs singer Vicentico and Puerto Rican urban collective Calle 13 on “Algo Personal” had Serrat jump out of his seat to applaud them with a burst of contagious laughter. Pre-recorded video greetings included a moving tribute by longtime fan Alejandro Sanz, as well as a hilarious skit courtesy of veteran Buenos Aires comedic ensemble Les Luthiers.
If there’s one singer/songwriter who mirrors Serrat in his endless search for a new, progressive song format in the Spanish language – a tune that may be hummed joyfully while forcing us to reflect on the human condition – that would be Panama’s Rubén Blades. Now that the salsa troubadour has delved into other genres recording a full length album of tangos, it was gratifying to watch him onstage belting out “Para La Libertad” with plenty of swing and Afro-Caribbean flavor. Serrat smiled throughout, enjoying the generosity of friends and colleagues.
Following a speech as nostalgic as it was optimistic about his 50 years perfecting his songwriting craft, Serrat fulfilled the audience’s expectations and closed the procedures with the happiest ending imaginable: performing his anthemic hit “Mediterráneo.” More than the wonderful arrangement at hand, brimming with orchestral textures and interesting details, it was the youthful state of his voice that stood out. Serrat’s singing, much like his compositions, shines with the vitality of a true legend.