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Harmony: Songwriter uses music to help bridge cultures

of the Journal Sentinel staff

When Ricky Martin, Carlos Santana and other Latin-music stars launch hot new albums that light up the pop-music heavens, Karl Cameron "KC" Porter often is the man at mission control.

When a new Spanish-language album featuring the best of Ricky Martin soared to the top of the Latin charts earlier this year, 10 of its 17 tracks were pieces that Porter had produced and/or co-written.

When mainstream artists like Brian McKnight, Janet Jackson, Bon Jovi, Boyz II Men and Chaka Khan want to record in Spanish, they turn to Porter, who has two Grammys and more than 50 albums to his credit.

The Anglo son of Baha'i missionary parents who moved from Los Angeles to Guatemala, this producer/songwriter knows more than a little about the universal language of music and what it takes to navigate between cultures.

"It's hard to make pop music that can say something without being preachy, so it's a real fine line," said Porter, who added his keyboard and percussion playing to the mix of musicians performing this week in the U.S. Cellular Arena for the Baha'i faith's first national conference in 15 years.

"But working with someone like Santana, it's like the perfect opportunity for me to be able to do something that people won't look at as religious, because he's not necessarily a 'religious' man, he's a very spiritually profound person. His focus and concern is very similar to mine in that he wants to bring people of the world together."

The Baha'i message that this is the age in which the people of the world will unite in a world civilization resonates with Porter, who sees music as playing a special role in bridging cultures.

"It think we've really just scratched the surface," Porter said. "What we did with Ricky Martin I feel gave an example of what you can do when you take a Spanish rumba and mix it with salsa music and you add a little Brazilian samba and you throw it all together. It just somehow fits in.

"You know, it's just being open to that, being open to all these rhythms of the world. I'm trying to reach out into the Middle East and reach out into Africa and all around the world and trying to bring not only world artists together, but also trying to find the indigenous colors and sounds of the planet and trying to let that voice be heard, too."

Porter was more direct in "Primavera," a piece he co-wrote for Santana's hit "Supernatural" album. On it, Porter's voice tenderly sings lyrics in Spanish that include the words (translated from Spanish), "The black earth becomes green, and the mountains and the desert a beautiful garden."

On one level it speaks of the physical renewal that comes each spring, he said. On another level, it speaks of the maturation of humanity after a long and turbulent adolescence, a "religious blossoming" that has been ushered in by the prophetic revelations of Baha'u'llah, the founder of the Baha'i faith.

The lyrics parallel a part of the Baha'i book, "The Promulgation Of Universal Peace," which reads, "The withered trees are quickened with animation, the black soil becomes verdant with new growth, fresh and fragrant flowers bloom, the world of dust is refreshed, renewed life forces surge through the veins of every animate being, and a new springtime carpets the meadows, plains, mountains and valleys with wondrous forms of life."

More recently, Porter, through his Insignia Records company, has produced and is marketing an album by Colombian singer/guitarist Leonor Dely that blends a wide range of Latin and African rhythms with short quotations from "The Hidden Words of Baha'u'llah."

Although his parents still live in Guatemala, Porter now lives outside Los Angeles. Fluent in Spanish, he feels extremely comfortable in Latin culture, but that was not always so.

Porter, 39, was steeped in Americana until the age of 7. His mother, a script girl for the "I Love Lucy" television show, acted a lot like Lucy at home. His father, a trumpet player and composer, helped compose and orchestrate the music for the "Lassie" television series.

Then, his parents, who converted from Methodism, moved permanently to Guatemala City to share their Baha'i faith.

"Guatemala City was, of course a culture shock," Porter said. "I grew up in this very much, kind of like 'Leave it to Beaver' lifestyle, which today I can see as something definitely of the past. Because now, no longer is one city a melting pot; the whole world is really becoming a melting pot."

©Copyright 2001, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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