Reverse Crossover: India, Princess of Salsa 2000

Even if her voice didn’t combine the earnestness of Carole King, the skill and depth of Aretha Franklin, the breadth of Linda Ronstadt, the power of Janis Joplin, the energy of Celia Cruz, and the strength of La Lupe—even if it wasn’t the world’s most magnificent pop voice since Fafa De Belem of Brazil—India would still have one of the greatest New York City musical stories.

Born in Puerto Rico, raised in the South Bronx, she quit opera training when she was 10. And what did the future Princess of Salsa think of salsa as a kid? As she tells Marla Friedler in a wonderful interview on

“I always loved Latin music, but half of the time I was fighting with my parents about it. I wanted them to give English pop hits a chance, too. They would always play salsa, and I’d be like, ‘But, Mom, we want to hear disco. Let us listen to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” ‘ ”

And so she made her way into the world of club music in the mid ’80s, recording “Dancing in the Fire” for Jellybean Records when she was 18 and marrying Little Louie Vega. And then, in the middle of her string of dance hits, Ralph Mercado of RMM Records takes her out for dinner and . . . “He told me that he felt that females in salsa were going nowhere. It was dead. There was nobody after Celia Cruz. Everybody wanted to sound like her. There was no new activity. He was upset about it. He spoke with a lot of seriousness. ‘You can spend your life making English music or come to Latin music and get noticed.’ ”

In other words: She breaks in via dance hits (specifically freestyle) and then is recruited by the Berry Gordy of salsa to cross over and become the heiress to Celia Cruz. She records a series of salsa CDs, culminating in Sola, which I consider the most satisfying pop CD of the last year. And I don’t even understand Spanish.

But what exactly is crossover? If there’s basically one big, main global culture, like an expressway, and performers outside that culture are on side streets and service roads, and crossing over just means smoothing yourself down and turning onto the expressway, then Ricky Martin and Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez crossed over and India didn’t. She was on one of the entrance ramps to the expressway—the exact same milieu and exact same people that Madonna used to springboard herself to stardom—when she got off. Maybe she just exited. Except, when I was looking for her old dance hits at Rock & Soul on Seventh Avenue, and asked the clerk (by nights a DJ) if he still had anything by India, he said, with no prompting, “Oh yeah, the singer that crossed over to Latin.”

So then, what if it isn’t an expressway, but more like a grid of streets in Manhattan? And you’re walking down the street on your own side, but you’re hearing other music from the other side, from someone walking by or from a passing car. And you cross the street to hear the music coming out of a store, or turn the corner and go down the block and come back to your side again, or maybe come back at all. Or you’re walking past Tower Records and so many people are waiting to see Ricky Martin that they fill up the whole street and, in a sense, cross over to you. Or in the case of me and India: I’m walking down the street, let’s say on the street of Old Beach Boys on one side and Chicago Blues on the other, and over on the next avenue, I hear India’s voice, and it grabs me by the ears and pulls me across. If that’s the model, then India’s a crossover artist, because she crossed me over.

Like any non-Hispanic who’s always lived in a city like New York and on occasion had Hispanic coworkers kind enough to take me shopping, I know salsa music but in my own peculiar way. My collection is strong on Willie Colón, German Rosario, Mon Rivera: no doubt an odd assortment. Still, I know a clavé when I hear it, even if I can’t dance to it. And I can hear India both singing inside a tradition and bringing something new to it. To quote, one last time, from the interview:

“I always loved Aretha Franklin. I loved her. She killed me. She still kills me. And then I used to always listen to this [other] singer and think, ‘My God, this singer’s got a lot of soul.’ It was a rock’n’roll singer by the name of Janis Joplin. I thought she was black. One day I was looking at TV and I saw this white woman carrying herself that way, with all this soul and all this raunchiness. I saw her and I said, ‘Wow, she’s just representing. Look at all those girls. Look at how the girls look at her. She’s got so many followers. Wow.’ ”

But if Janis and Aretha are the English-language parallels for India’s music, what are the parallels in Anglo music for her career? Al Green crossing over to gospel? Woody Guthrie going back to folk? The Osmond Brothers crossing over to country? Eric Clapton unplugged? Paul McCartney’s return to rockabilly?

What if there is no parallel? What if, indeed, there is something unique about India and unique about her good luck in being teamed up with producer Isidro Infante—salsa’s Willie Dixon? And what if there’s something unique about the Latin Music Tradition, and it’s not just flowing into the Long Island Expressway of Pop Music With English Lyrics? What if there’s something unique about the Spanish language sung over the clavé? Does it go all the way back to the Moors?

All I know is that the two times I’ve seen India in concert rank in my lifetime top 20. Both were democratic, relaxed, function-at-the-junction, proud-to-be-a-NewYorker affairs. The first was the Nuyorican Soul show three years ago at the Hammerstein Ballroom, where India was just one of many, from Jazzy Jeff to Eddie Palmieri. The second was last summer in Central Park, where the heat was the only thing that held her performance back from being the concert of the century. Neither time did I feel I had stumbled onto an interesting side road. Both times I felt as though I was on Main Street (if Manhattan can have a Main Street) and happy to be there.