Joe’s Jukebox: Decoding “Despacito”

One of my favorite forms of storytelling is the “oral history,” where quotes from the people involved in those histories are cut & pasted together into a kind of narrative collage. And I recently read & enjoyed an excellent oral history called Decoding “Despacito,” which recounts the stories behind many of the famous Latin music songs from the past 50 years, as told by the musicians, songwriters, producers, and executives who brought those songs to the world. 

It starts with the story behind one of my personal favorite Christmas songs, “Feliz Navidad,” in which I learned that Jose Feliciano almost didn’t record it because he felt it was too simple. Along the way, there are also chapters on songs like Miami Sound Machine’s “Conga,” Selena’s “Amor Prohibido,” Santana’s “Smooth,” Shakira’s “Whenever, Wherever”… and of course, as it says in the book’s title, you can read about what went into the creation of “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber, and how it became one of the biggest hit songs in any genre or any language in the history of recorded music.

Yet not only did I learn a whole lot about songs I’d already heard many times before, I also learned about a number of songs and artists I was totally unfamiliar with. Like “Contrabando y traicion,” a 1974 song by Los Tigres del Norte, considered one of the most influential “narcocorridos,” or drug ballads, in the history of Mexican music. Or Elvis Crespo’s “Suavemente,” which paved the way for the crossover of Latin music to the U.S. pop charts in the late 1990s.

The author of Decoding “Despacito” is Leila Cobo, who is not only an accomplished author of several other books about Latin music, she is also the Vice President and Latin industry lead at Billboard, along with heading Billboard’s Latin Music Conference. In addition to writing very informative introductions to each chapter, she conducted many of the interviews for the book, and edited them all together, so you know that Decoding “Despacito” has been constructed by one of the top experts in Latin music today.

If you’d like to check out more titles about the artists in this book, we also have Julio Iglesias: The Unsung Story by Daphne Lockyer. And we’ve got Music to My Years: A Mixtape Memoir of Growing Up and Standing Up by Cristela Alonzo, in which she tells her story of growing up as a first-generation Mexican American, including chapters inspired by songs from Ricky Martin and Selena. 

Speaking of Selena, we have a few biographies about her for the young readers out there: there’s Selena: Queen of Tejano Music, and from the popular “Who Was” series we have Who Was Selena?. We even have a bilingual board book called The Life of Selena or La Vida de Selena. We also have a couple of wonderfully illustrated picture book biographies of Carlos Santana: When Angels Sing: The Story of Rock Legend Carlos Santana, and Carlos Santana: Sound of the Heart, Song of the World.

If you’re in the mood for other great oral histories about music, we got you covered there, too. A recent addition to our print collection is Nothin’ But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the ‘80s Hard Rock Explosion. There’s also Woodstock: The Oral History and On the Record: Music Journalists on Their Lives, Craft, and Careers. Finally we have Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six. Unlike all these other books, this one’s actually a novel in the form of an oral history about a fictional Fleetwood Mac-esque rock band. Plus, there’s an excellent audiobook version of this one narrated by a cast that includes Jennifer Beals, Pablo Schreiber, and Judy Greer.

And of course, you can check out music by all the artists featured in Decoding “Despacito” either on Hoopla, or from select libraries in the BCCLS consortium, thanks to your Livingston Library card.

That’s all for this edition of Joe’s Jukebox, but til next time, remember: Don’t you worry if you can’t dance; just let the music move your feet…

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