Nu Deco Ensemble’s Sam Hyken Joined Bad Bunny Onstage at the Latin Grammys

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Thursday night, the Latin Grammy Awards celebrated two decades of recognizing Latin music’s top talent. The 20th-annual award ceremony included performances by Sech, Ozuna, and Rosalía, among many others, and paid tribute to Latin music titans such as Celia Cruz, Juan Gabriel, and recently departed crooner José José.

Rosalía owned the night by taking home three golden gramophones, including the top award for Album of the Year, and Puerto Rico’s Bad Bunny did a victory lap to celebrate a breakthrough year that included his critically acclaimed debut LP, X 100pre. During the ceremony, the Latin trap artist performed twice and won the award for Best Urban Music Album.

Con todo respeto, el reggaeton es parte de la cultura Latina,” the rapper said during an extensively censored speech he made between sips of a mystery drink in a white cup. His comments alluded to a controversy that has dogged the Latin Grammys for years: the accusation that the Latin Recording Academy has a difficult time recognizing urban Latin music.

Its larger sibling, the Recording Academy, has faced similar accusations from hip-hop artists who claim the Grammys don’t see urban music styles in the same light as they do jazz or soaring balladry. With the ongoing debate clearly on Bad Bunny’s mind Thursday night, the rapper gave the academy a musical element they’re suckers for: strings. His performance was preceded by a four-song classical overture of his songs “Estamos Bien,” “Solo de Mí,” “Ni Bien Ni Mal,” and “Caro,” and he sang “Callaíta” backed by a 35-piece orchestra.

Watching an impeccably dressed orchestral ensemble accent the line “El perreo es su profesión” was a highlight of the evening, which, as it turns out, wouldn’t have happened without a Miami connection.

The suite’s composer, Sam Hyken, is the founder and composer for Miami’s Nu Deco Ensemble and a New World Symphony alum. He’s no stranger to giving popular contemporary music the classical treatment. Over the course of five seasons, Nu Deco Ensemble has come to be known for its classical reimaginings of contemporary music from the likes of Outkast, Radiohead, Daft Punk, Queen, and Kraftwerk. Still, when Hyken spoke to New Times Wednesday night from rehearsals in Las Vegas, he said this collaboration explored new musical territory.

Bad Bunny at the Latin Grammys.

Bad Bunny at the Latin Grammys.

Photo by Kevin Winter / Getty Images for LARAS

“I haven’t really dived that much into reggaeton music, but I was very impressed with the variety of the different songs [on Bad Bunny’s album],” Hyken says. “They’re very beautiful… It’s very cinematic. It’s almost crooner-esque.”

Hyken says he took inspiration from the samples Bad Bunny uses in his music to craft what he dubbed the “Bad Bunny Overture.” On “Estamos Bien,” for example, Hyken recreated the song’s choral intro using woodwinds and running string parts. “I was really surprised when I started working on it how well his music translated to orchestra,” Hyken says.

The collaboration came about at the suggestion of locally based Latin Grammys producer José Tillán, whose wife Melanie Masterson manages local acts Electric Kif and Aaron Lebos Reality. Musicians from both projects are part of Nu Deco Ensemble.

Once Hyken agreed to craft his Bad Bunny overture, he had less than a month to prep for the performance. He had about a week to put together the orchestra, which he says was “modeled after Nu Deco.” One musician who played in the ensemble’s recent season five debut with guest performer Wyclef Jean is based in Vegas part-time and helped Hyken get the group together. “It was a very big undertaking,” Hyken says.

The effort paid off Thursday night, when Hyken and his ensemble took center stage with San Benito dressed head-to-toe in white — with Hyken sporting some Bad Bunny-style miniature shades for good measure. After the performance, Bad Bunny could be seen giving Hyken a heartfelt embrace as host Ricky Martin signed off for the night.

Hyken says he felt the rapper’s gratitude during rehearsals too. “He was very happy. It was very interesting because they really knew in terms of what I was giving them — musical arrangements — they really knew what they wanted… I made a lot of changes. You know, I really wanted to make sure that his musical vision was expressed to the orchestra.”

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