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Hispanic Heritage

La India


Singer and Songwriter

"Women see me as a figure they can respect. They know I've been through a lot. I'm not going to let no man put me under."

Transforming herself from the house singer, India, to the salsa diva, "La India," this Nuyorican singer from the Bronx created a tremendously successful career for herself at a very young age. She first joined the hot urban trend of house music and hip hop and then helped a new generation blaze a trail into the music usually associated with their parents: salsa. As the popularity of salsa returned, La India's star rose, but she did not stop there. Her singing career continues to evolve and mature, always striking a balance between cultural traditions and music's cutting edge.

Born Linda Belle Caballero in 1970 in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, India moved as a baby to the tough "La Candela" or "the candle" section of New York City's Bronx. Her cigar-smoking grandmother was a strong influence who taught her to be independent and free. It was a lesson the young girl would take to heart. In grade school, India met Louie Vega, forming a friendship that lasted through high school, and the two became involved in the urban "street" music scene. Vega produced large parties with house music, which India would advertise. The friendship subsequently evolved into a business partnership and, later, marriage.

Attains Early Success

Caballero's fine-featured beauty earned her the nickname "India" as a child, and a modeling career by the time she was 15 years old. But music was her main interest. Her career began as a house singer under the tutelage of Jellybean Benitez, who had little respect for the salsa India grew to love. By age 14, she was singing backup for the Latin hip hop group TKA, scoring many top ten dance hits, such as "I Can't Get No Sleep," which hit number one on the dance charts. At age 19, she married Louie Vega, who was by then a disc jockey and record producer and was known as "Little" Louie Vega. When she signed a contract with Warner Brothers in the 1980s, she seemed poised to follow in the footsteps of singers like Madonna, who translated the vibrant rhythms of the street into a highly commercial form of pop dance music. After one 1990 album of English-language dance music, Breaking Night, however, India decided to expand her horizons — and return to her own cultural roots. "I felt pressure to follow in Madonna's footsteps, and I didn't want to base my career on sex," she said in an interview with the New York Times. "So I began to change how I saw myself."

Rediscovers Salsa

The famous keyboardist and salsa band leader Eddie Palmieri was looking for a female singer, and when he strolled into Vega's studio one day India's vocalizations impressed him. Her work with Palmieri reminded listeners of Celia Cruz, an Afro-Cuban singer with a robust style, considered by many to be the queen of salsa. Although it took some time before India felt as comfortable in Spanish as she did in English, in 1992 Palmieri produced India's salsa album Llegó La India on Soho Sounds. It quickly received praise as one of the year's best salsa albums. Most critics responded favorably to the hard-edged, full-voiced style of the transformed "La India".

La India was creatively inspired by trading in the synthesizers of dance music for the horns and percussion of salsa. Yet her exploration of the rich variety of musical cultures had only begun. In 1994, La India and Vega released Yemaya y Ochun, an album of dance tunes that paid homage to the Santeria chants that underlie much of Afro-Caribbean music. That same year, La India released Dicen Que Soy, a very popular album that remained in the Billboard Top Ten Latin Chart for months. The album's title song proclaimed a strong, independent attitude as the singer listed things that people said about her, concluding firmly, "I don't care."

A Strong Female Voice

Singing in Spanish and English, La India presents herself as a true "Nuyorican," part of an urban generation of hip, bilingual, bicultural Hispanic Americans. Her music pays tribute to the cultural inheritance of traditional Latin genres like salsa, even as it participates in the contemporary urban dance trends that generate much commercial pop music. Her audience includes a large proportion of women, alienated by much of salsa's traditional "macho ladykiller" attitude. La India's songs take strong positions in typically female situations; when singing about taking control of her life and relationships, loving who she is, not depending on men, and demanding to be treated with respect, she gives voice to a particularly Hispanic American feminist awareness. "Women see me as a figure they can respect," she said in a Chicago Tribune interview. "They know I've been through a lot. I'm not going to let no man put me under." The titles of La India's songs — "Qué Ganas Que No Verte Nunca Más," or "What A Joy Not To Have To See You Anymore," for example — confirm this sentiment.

La India's self-assertive personal style has also contributed to her success as the voice of a new generation. Known for her striking appearance, set off with sexy clothes and manicured nails, she also manages to undermine her own diva image by smoking cigars as she sings, a gesture quickly borrowed by Madonna, among others. This is more than a pose: as a composer and arranger of her own songs who works closely with her producers, La India keeps control of her creative process as well as her image.

Heads in New Directions

Always eager to learn more and experiment with different forms, La India varies her musical style as well as the people with whom she works. In 1996, she collaborated with legendary mambo bandleader Tito Puente and the swing institution, the Count Basie Orchestra, to produce Jazzin' for RMM Records, an English language version of swing classics such as "Love for Sale" and "Crazy He Calls Me" with a Latin twist. Accompanied by a traditional swing orchestra, La India's strong, clear voice provides an intriguing contrast to the often softer, passive style of the traditional chanteuse, while Puente's syncopation gives the tunes a Latin flair. In addition, La India's fourth album, India: Mega Mix, was released to the public.

In 1996, La India and Vega divorced, but remained on friendly terms, continuing to work together. Sobre el Fuego, her 1997 release from RMM Records, has been widely praised as a sign that La India is maturing as a singer and songwriter. She continues to exploit the stunningly wide range of her voice. On the album, she sings a duet with salsa queen Celia Cruz, a gesture which many take as a sign that if Cruz is the reigning queen of salsa, La India is her princess and heir to the crown. In the duet, the older singer offers advice to the younger about staying true to oneself. It is advice that La India seems to have followed. "There's so many things I want to do," she told the Los Angeles Times. "I don't want to do them to be different or just for a challenge, but because my heart and soul tell them to."

SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY

Llegó La India. Soho Sounds, 1992.
Yemaya y Ochun. Soho Latino, 1994.
Dicen Que Soy. Soho Latino, 1994.
India: Mega Mix. UNI/RMM Records, 1996
Sobre El Fuego. RMM, 1997.

FURTHER READING

Periodicals
Obejas, Achy. "La India: She Adds a Feminist Fillip to Salsa's Macho Beat." Chicago Tribune, October 31, 1997, Tempo, p. 1.
Oumano, Elena. "She's S-S-S-Smokin!" Los Angeles Times, August 14, 1994, Calendar, p.3.
Pareles, Jon. "Pop Review: Seasoning the Kiss-Off with Salsa and Soul."The New York Times, December 31, 1997, section E, p. 10.
Torres, Richard. "Sonidos Latinos: La India Finds Her True Salsa Muse." Newsday, October 19, 1997, p. D35.
WatroUS, Peter. "Flocking to Salsa, No Longer Hispanic Fogy Music."New York Times, June 6, 1994, p. C11.

Source:Notable Hispanic American Women, Gale, 1998; Biography Resource Center, Gale, 1999.

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