Songs for Latin lovers find a new audience

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IT WAS not quite on the scale of 1964, when 15,000 screaming fans greeted the Beatles at New York's Kennedy airport. But adolescent girls did bring one of London's main shopping streets to a standstill yesterday as they fought for a glimpse of Puerto Rican singer Ricky Martin.

Martin, 27, who cruised down Oxford Street in a red vintage Chevrolet Corvette before signing autographs at a record store, is the latest teenage pop sensation. He is also at the forefront of an explosion of interest this summer in Latin American music and rhythms.

Thanks to the popularity of artists like Martin, fellow Puerto Rican singer Jennifer Lopez, 28, Spanish flamenco star Joaquin Cortes and Cuban band The Mavericks, Latin music has moved into the mainstream. In America, the two biggest singles of the year are Martin's "Living La Vida Loca" and Lopez's "If You Had My Love".

Here, "Living La Vida Loca" went straight to the top of the charts last Sunday, an astonishing feat for a man who was virtually unknown in Britain until a couple of months ago.

Yesterday, police sealed off Oxford Street as 3,000 fans, some of whom had camped out all night, awaited Martin's motorcade. Dancers in tight trousers gyrated on podiums and "Living La Vida Loca" belted out of speakers outside the Virgin Megastore.

Following in the footsteps of singers like Cuban-born Gloria Estefan, Martin, Lopez and the rest of the new wave of Latinos have popularised and Anglicized the music of their roots.

They have also succeeded in making hip a music once ridiculed for its associations with chest hair, gold medallions and rampant machismo.

There was no greater exponent in decades past of those questionable characteristics than Spaniard Julio Iglesias, who once boasted that he had slept with 3,000 women in 71 countries.

Now, to the delight of many the crooner's son, Julio Iglesias Jnr, is forging a link between old and new.

Iglesias Jnr, 24, whose female teachers used to give him items of underwear to take home to his father, is a best-selling recording artist in his own right.

His forthcoming album, Under My Eyes, is described as an amalgam of soul, pop and gospel. While his looks are classic sultry Latin, he told a recent interviewer: "I make love in English."

A pretty face is also part of Martin's appeal, although some have remarked unkindly on the acne scars airbrushed out of his photographs.

Martin, who has sold 15 million albums in America and resides in a palatial villa in Miami, can probably afford to ignore such barbs. Certainly, he does not lack self-confidence. He recently declared himself to be "an ambassador for my culture, for my music and for humanity".