Tracking the stories behind some of the biggest Latin songs of the past fifty years that have stood the test of time – from José Feliciano’s 1970 “Feliz Navidad” to Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s 2017 “Despacito” – was the goal of Leila Cobo, Billboard’s vp of Latin music, with her new book Decoding “Despacito”: An Oral History of Latin Music.
The collection gives behind-the-scenes looks at 19 anthemic songs that “defined movements and moments,” as Cobo writes in her book. “All these songs, they have several things in common — one of them being that they are very different to what was playing at the time,” she says. “None of them sounded like anything [else] at the time and I think that was key to their success.”
In a span of nearly two years, Cobo — an authoritative voice in Latin music, and writer for Billboard since 2000 — collected accounts from key players (including artists, songwriters, producers, managers, executives and the arrangers) behind needle-moving tracks ranging from an array of genres such as salsa, reggaeton, ballads and corridos.
In celebration of the book’s release, Fonsi will sit down with Cobo for a virtual conversation at 7:00 p.m. ET in partnership with Books & Books. (You can register here.) Below, Cobo discusses Decoding “Despacito” An Oral History of Latin Music.
In the prologue you write, “their growth has been my growth; their breakthroughs have also been mine.” What did you mean by that?
I interviewed Luis Fonsi when he was just starting — I think I was still at the Miami Herald — so being able to work at a place where you can begin covering someone right at the beginning of their careers and follow their growth is really wonderful. And that’s the case for most artists in this book. I think that’s what allows you to have these lasting relationships with them, where you interview them when they are just starting, when they’re in the middle and when they’re superstars. It does say something about you having believed in them at the beginning, and it also makes you happy when people that you kind of pushed do well.
What sparked the idea for this book? And how did you land on the concept for it?
Penguin [Random House] wanted a history of Latin music, and the idea started to be tossed around after “Despacito” somewhere in 2018. They called me and asked if I would be interested in writing, and I really was hesitant because I thought a history of anything was kind of boring and I didn’t know if anyone would read it. We went back and forth on what a history would be and at first I said, “Let’s do just an oral history of Latin music.” But that was really hard for me to grasp. I thought, “God this book is going to be so long and so hard to write” that I couldn’t wrap my head around it.
And finally, I don’t remember how I came on the idea — which isn’t my idea, it’s a Billboard idea — but it comes from “The No. 1s,” which is when we do the history of the songs [that top the Billboard charts], because I love writing those. It tells you everything about the song. So, I took out all my “Despacito” notes and all my “Despacito” interviews that I had ever done. I put them all together in this cool chapter on “Despacito,” and I sent it to them and they loved it. They asked, ‘Can we do a whole book like this?” And I said yes!
Do you think that these 19 songs would have been hits in 2021, or does timing play a major role in each song’s success?
No, I don’t think all would have been hits in 2021. And I think timing does play a huge role. Definitely some things are ahead of their time, and some things are a little late, and that’s why they don’t hit. But all these songs, they have several things in common — one of them being that they are very different to what was playing at the time. None of them sound like anything [else] at that specific moment and I think that was key to their success.
After studying these 19 Latin songs, what would you say has been Latin music’s biggest ally?
Right now streaming is a humongous ally. It really cannot be overstated. Because of streaming, you have everyone around the world listening to Latin music — and you can see it as it’s happening, and that has been so powerful for us. Because if not, it would’ve been impossible to convince some people that this [music] was important. I think from a business perspective, streaming is a great ally.
And then just from a musical perspective — I know this will sound cliché, but Latin is a very musical culture, you can’t overstate that. There’s places you go to in Latin America where there’s music everywhere all the time.
Is it harder for artists to create memorable songs or to make a hit in the 21st century?
I don’t think it’s harder. I think it’s equally hard. The thing is now there’s so much music coming out all the time that you have to dig to find those hits. I think its different to have a song that’s a hit now, and it reaches No. 1 and has millions of streams — but it doesn’t mean that that song is a hit hit. In other words, it doesn’t mean that 10 years from now we’ll be singing it. And these 19 songs, 50 years have passed and we are still singing them. And I think that’s a big difference.
All these songs, not all of them were hits in their time, but I think they’ve all stood the test of time. A great example is Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina” — it was a hit, it just wasn’t a hit in the traditional way at the time. It wasn’t No. 1, it wasn’t being played all over radio. Then the remix started getting played — but it was not a No. 1 like “Rompe.” But the song I have there is “Gasolina,” not “Rompe.”
Which contemporary songs, that you didn’t include in your book, would you want to know the backstory of?
There are so many. I want to do “Tusa,” I think it’s a great song. I would like to do a Romeo Santos song — probably “Cancioncitas de Amor.” And another one I want to do is “Danza Kuduro.” I don’t know the story behind that song, and I would really like to know it — ‘coz it’s a Brazilian song, and I think that song is very cool. There’s a lot!
If I did a part two, I would also include Maluma in there with “Hawái.” In five years, we’ll see what new Latin songs have remained.
As a writer, journalist, musician, what do you take away from this collection of stories?
I take away many things. I take away that the artists that made these songs take their craft really seriously — even songs that appear to be frivolous and superficial, like “Macarena,” are songs that were done with these two guys that were born with a guitar, that’s all they do. Sometimes we think that just because it’s a hit and it’s an easy hit, that the artists behind them are flippant. I think that they’re anything but — that they’re super-committed and take these things very seriously. I think that’s one thing. The second thing is that they’ve all worked really hard.
And, the third thing, what is really beautiful about all these stories, is how open all of them were. Like, no one was saying, “Oh no you can’t be in my song because you’re not Latin, or because you’re Spanish, or because you sing English or Spanish, or because you do another kind of music.” That was never part of the conversation. They were just doing music with people that they wanted to do music with, and whoever made sense. And the mix of cultures and of genres and of languages in these songs is amazing to me. That I really take away, especially in a time when people are so intent on dividing everything or putting everything in a box.
When I spoke with Jorge [Hernández] from Los Tigres del Norte, and he started talking about Arturo Caminante — it’s not the first time he’s told the story, but it was the first time I heard it, and I thought, that’s extraordinary. Jorge spoke no English then — he was 18 years old, he had just arrived from Mexico — and he pairs up with some British guy from Liverpool that speaks no Spanish and he says, “Hey, I have a song that you guys should record.” Like, how does that even happen? It just blew my mind. Everyone was welcome to participate. I really hope that of all things, Latin music would be a point of bringing people together versus a place where people would be divided.