Minutes before showtime, the man in charge sits in a VIP reception area above the stage, sipping a Grey Goose on the rocks and wondering aloud if he can fill MCI Center. Juan Luis Guerra and Marco Antonio Solis, household names in much of Latin America, played the previous week to a near-sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden, but New York dwarfs the Washington area's Latino population.
Concert producer Ralph Mercado ponders if he should have booked for a Saturday night instead of last Sunday. Nah, he concludes, citing his competition: a World Cup-qualifying soccer match between Mexico and Guatemala.
Should he have opted for a smaller venue like the Patriot Center in Fairfax? Maybe, but that might deter Latinos from Maryland and the District.
His strategizing transcends cultures. This summer, performers on stages across the Washington region will take thousands of African, Asian and Latino immigrants on a journey home. But whether bachata or Bollywood lures the crowd, the experiences of the people who make the show go on largely parallel each other. Many got their start running parties and concerts out of basements, churches and high school cafeterias. Now they promote flashy multi-city tours with $100 tickets and corporate sponsorships, all for artists unknown to most Americans.
The link between entertainment and homeland has created a thriving business of niche concert production and promotion. Although the industry and its growth can't be quantified, promoters report paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for international talent -- and earning just as much themselves.
If the fans turn out.
And so in a business riddled with risk -- he is the first to put up money, last to collect -- Mercado gambled a bit more. Why not try to pack MCI Center on a weekend night and make a statement about the kind of entertainment Latinos want?
"I don't count Santana or Gloria Estefan," he said. "This is grass-roots stuff. It's very risky, but it could work in this venue."
When the three-minute countdown begins at the June 5 concert, Mercado pushes aside the doubt and heads backstage. The crowd cheers and roars the universal language of anticipation and adoration. He surveys not the 8,500 people gathered, but the 5,500 still-empty seats.
"It could be better," he concluded. "I love to see places filled."
No matter to the throngs at MCI Center. They see more room to dance. Before Guerra, from the Dominican Republic, has even sung a note, before he's even yelled "Buenas noches, Washington," they are on their feet. Up comes Mona Velasquez, who washes and folds laundry at a hotel for a living. As Guerra emerges, clad in a black suit and beret, Velasquez clutches her heart and her sister.
"Oh wow," said Velasquez, who lives in Columbia Heights but calls the Dominican Republic home. She and her sister began to dance, careful not to knock over the popcorn and soda at their feet.
Insert different steps and music, and the scene could have been one atthe Patriot Center weeks earlier when Pakistani singer Adnan Sami performed for a mostly South Asian crowd of 3,500. In an effort to widen the show's appeal and fill the 5,000-seat house, the concert also included Bollywood actress Amisha Patel, who did no singing of her own but plenty of lip-syncing, and fusion singer Raghav, who drew squeals from teens and tweens.
Backstage, promoter Vijay Taneja paced between the stars' makeshift dressing rooms and a VIP room where an Indian dinner buffet was being served. Nearby, a group of men staged an even more exclusive party, its entertainment the more mainstream likes of Jack Daniels and Johnnie Walker.
Outside, stretch limousines waited. Their names might twist the average American tongue, but these stars travel in style -- along with their managers, makeup artists, security guards, back-up dancers, families and anyone else they can't live without for two weeks or so.
By now, promoters know immigration policies. They must apply for performer visas months before scheduling a tour and make sure the dancers really dance, the singers really sing and all really intend to return home. In 2003, Daler Mehndi, one of India's most popular performers of an upbeat Punjabi folk music known as bhangra, and his brother were accused of accepting tens of thousands of dollars to facilitate passages out of India by allowing people to pose as part of their troupe. The charges were later dropped.
Besides tougher questions and more-thorough background checks at U.S. embassies, Taneja said he has not observed a reduction in visas granted. If anything, he finds himself sponsoring more, the talent tumbling out of his rented limos.
On a recent Friday night, as the generously proportioned Sami shook his limbs to make fans laugh and played keyboard with all parts of his body, the other acts waited their turn. A few steps behind Patel stood Somu Paryar, her personal assistant. In India, his job is to run Patel's errands, shield her from fans and open and close the door of her Mercedes. Backstage at the Patriot Center, Paryar held her hat, sequined sash and bottled water.
International stars generally earn far more for concerts on U.S. shores than in their home countries, despite appealing to a narrower demographic. And if stars penetrate the mainstream, their appearance fees soar.
Fairfax-based promoter Juan "Cato" Zegarra said he has been trying to lure reggaeton rapper Tego Calderon to the D.C. area, often considered a "tier B" market, below New York or Los Angeles. In the span of three months, his manager's quote went to $40,000 from $25,000 per show because of the growing popularity of reggaeton.
Reggaeton appeals to American-born Latinos because of its mix of hip hop, dancehall and Latin beats. Long before the census confirmed that Hispanic births outnumber immigration, concert promoters understood this demographic trend and cashed in.
For years, Taneja had a lock on the South Asian entertainment scene in Washington, running the concert business in addition to his mortgage lending company. He partners with promoters in other cities who often have better luck marketing concerts through ethnic media, music shops and grocery stores on their own turf. And sometimes, he serves as the local promoter himself.
Now a second generation of promoters admits it has borrowed heavily from his business model, but with stars who appeal to them.
Vinoda Basnayake is one of them. As a Catholic schoolboy and an undergraduate at Georgetown, the son of Sri Lankan immigrants who live in McLean noticed few parties around him catering to South Asian youth. So he started promoting weeknight parties he termed "sock hops for desis." (Desi is a slang term for South Asian, akin to homeboy or homegirl.) Then he noticed the popularity of South Asian artists in the diaspora, mostly from Canada and Britain, whose works were being forwarded around on the Internet among college youth.
Last month, Basnayake sold out an nationwide nightclub tour for British Indian rapper Jay Sean, who has not yet released an album in the United States but can be easily found on the iPods and deejays' play lists of desi America.
"This guy who has never had an album released in the U.S. played for 10,000 people," in stops that included New York, Washington, Atlanta and San Francisco, said Basnayake, who co-founded Blazin-Beats Entertainment.
In the fall, Basnayake plans to attend the University of Pennsylvania for a joint law and business degree. His journey from party promoter to power broker closely resembles Mercado's path.
In the 1960s, Mercado got his start by renting out a Brooklyn basement and holding "Waistline Parties" where girls would pay 2 cents per inch for entry. As promoter and innovator of the concept, Mercado, of course, did the measuring.
He laughs at those days, when branding everything a "Ralph Mercado party" was so important. Now he rejoices when America Online Inc., which co-sponsored the Guerra-Solis tour, and American Airlines want their names -- and dollars -- attached to Latino concerts.
"You get to the point where your ego starts to shrink," he says. "People don't want to know Ralph Mercado. I'm not singing."
Juan Luis Guerra on stage at MCI Center. Guerra, from the Dominican Republic, was greeted with a standing ovation before singing his first note at the concert.
Concert by Adnan Sami of Pakistan attracted a mostly South Asian audience.