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Berklee boosts recruiting in Latin America

Russell Contreras

BOSTON — Mariachi music has been Adrian Longoria’s passion since he was a child. The Houston-born 21-year-old has performed for packed wedding receptions, private business parties and in dark corners of Mexican restaurants.

By all accounts, the violinist/guitarist, whose family is from Guanajuato, Mexico, could have just formed a steady and successful mariachi group in Texas. But Longoria said he longed to learn jazz, musical arrangements, and acoustic rhythms. So, with the encouragement of his sister, he applied to Berklee College of Music.

Attracting Latino students like Longoria has been part of Berklee’s plans to diversify its student body. But now the school has launched an even more aggressive effort to recruit more and be a dominant force in music education in Spanish-speaking countries.

Berklee staged a concert last week in Mexico City with students and alumni from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Uruguay and Puerto Rico. It was the first time the Boston college had staged such a concert outside of the United States. Performers included Latin Grammy nominee and Berklee alum Alexander Acha. The concert was scheduled to be broadcast on Televisa at least three times all over Latin America.

In addition to the concert, six Berklee students and alumni artists took part in a “Berklee Canta en Español singer/songwriter contest” at the Lunario National Auditorium in Mexico City. And earlier this year, the school announced it was opening a satellite campus in Valencia, Spain.

School officials say they want to further spread the Berklee name to the Spanish-speaking world and align the school with the Latin music industry abroad and at home. They say the expansion will also help better connect students and alumni with officials from the Latin music industry — a growing segment of the music business.

“With Latin American populations both outside and within the U.S. growing, it is important for colleges to be relevant in Spanish-speaking countries,” said Tom Riley, Berklee’s vice president of external affairs. “For the past eight years, we have visited Mexico to conduct auditions. As a result, we have a strong base of talented students, alumni, and industry contacts who could help make a concert and songwriter contest a reality.’’

To be sure, Berklee has long welcomed artists from Latin America, including merengue pioneer Juan Luis Guerra, wbo graduated from the school in 1983. But for years, the school, founded in 1945, attracted only a handful since it mainly was viewed as a place to study limited genres of music.

“There’s been a long standing perception that Berklee is just a famous jazz school,’’ said Damien Bracken, Berklee’s dean of admissions. “We’re so much more than that now.’’

Beginning in the early 1990s, Berklee started programs aimed at inner city youth. Latino faculty then launched the “Latin Music and Culture Celebrations’’ to host Latin performers like Claudia Acuna and Ruben Blades.

By the late 1990s, professors and students were giving workshops in Puerto Rico and Mexico, but also using the clinics to recruit more students, said Oscar Stagnaro, a Berklee Latin jazz professor.

In addition, 12 Berklee alumni have received 35 Latin Grammy Awards since the Latin Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences founded the awards in 2000.

All those efforts are combining to help transform perceptions of Berklee, Stagnaro said. “Today, if you ask any musician, in places like Venezuela, ‘Where do you want to study music if you can go to the U.S.,’’’ Stagnaro said, “they’ll say Berklee.’’

Stagnaro said Berklee’s expansion into Latin America is an effort to increase Latino enrollment even more.

Rafael Restrepo, 22, a classical percussionist from Colombia, said Latin American musicians seek out Berklee because the school offers courses in music writing, production and music business, but also makes Latinos feel at home.

According the school’s latest enrollment numbers, 11 percent of the 4,144 student body are U.S. Latinos. Around 3 percent are students from Latin America.

Jose Masso, host of ‘Con Salsa!,’ a 35-year-old Latin music show on Boston University’s public radio station, said he wasn’t surprised by Berklee’s latest plans.

“This is not a fly-by-night initiative for Hispanic Heritage Month,’’ Masso said. “What you are seeing here is the growth of a very strategic plan to reach out to Latinos in Latin America and the U.S.’’

Pianist and song writer Paola Decanini, 23, of Monterrey, Mexico, said she could have easily studied music in Mexico. But Decanini said she applied to Berklee to study music writing with “the best in the world.’’ Her main goal: write songs for the likes of Colombian pop star Shakira and Mexican crooner Luis Miguel.

“Before Berklee, this was all a dream,’’ Decanini said. “Now, I think it’s possible.’’

(Associated Press)