Zumba is an international fitness phenomenon, involving 15 million participants in 180 countries. And the backbone of that phenomenon is music. Zumba licenses and commissions music from artists all over the world, creating a revenue stream for many musicians who would otherwise struggle to find exposure or financial support.
In a special episode of our podcast, The Outline World Dispatch, Ian Coss reports from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, about how Zumba has launched the career of one such musician.
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Lena Andrade: The song for me has to catch me right off the bat.
Student 1: Obviously it’s the rhythm that is most important.
Student 2: Definitely the rhythms.
Student 3: A good guitar, a little bit of bass — it’s all about good rhythm.
Ian Coss (Host): Outside it’s close to 30 degrees, typical for March in Boston. Not so typical is the fan blowing at full power in the window. That’s there because inside, we’re doing Zumba.
Student 4: It’s gotta have a strong beat.
Student 5: Things that are upbeat.
Student 6: A really good beat.
Student 7: The music moves you.
Ian Coss: Those are a few of the students in the class. There are about fifteen of them who have come out at 10:30am on a Sunday to dance for one hour non-stop. The group looks like it could be rehearsing a routine for a music video, but this is not about performing at all. It’s about exercise. The word Zumba doesn’t mean anything, in any language. It’s not a dance move or a music genre. It’s a brand, created in the 1990s by a Colombian choreographer named Alberto Perez. And what Zumba sells is a dance fitness program. According to the company’s own numbers, some fifteen million people show up every week at 200,000 different classes just like this in 180 countries around the world. And driving it all is music.
Voices: Rhythms … the rhythms … a strong beat … rhythm … beat.
Lena Andrade: My playlist has to be exciting. That's what's going to keep my class excited, and keep me excited. My name's Lena Andrade. I am a licensed Zumba fitness instructor. So every month, we get a music CD. They're saying, “Hey, we’re already doing the legwork, we’re giving you the music, go play ‘em in class.”
Ian Coss: One of those songs that Lena heard on a Zumba mix CD was this one: “Dekole,” by an artist named J. Perry.
Lena Andrade: “Dekole,” to me when I first heard it… it was very upbeat and energetic. So when I was trying to come up with choreo for it, I brought in that beautiful dance piece, but then for a second: hey, let's make sure we're toning our calves, our thighs, our abs, we're working all of that as well.
Ian Coss: Most of the class seems to know this routine; they’re pumping their arms in unison without even looking at lena.
And this isn’t the only class out there dancing to “Dekole.” The CD that Lena heard it on went out to Zumba’s entire network of instructors. That means thousands, maybe millions of people around the world have pumped their arms in the air to this same song. For artists like J. Perry, this Zumba network has become incredibly valuable. But to understand just how valuable, you have to know where he comes from.
J. Perry: My name is Jonathan Perry, artist name J. Perry. I was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 1988, so I'm 28 years old.
Ian Coss: A couple things to know about Port-au-Prince. The city is built up the side of a hill. And on that hill, your elevation is a pretty good indicator of your social class: high elevation, high class. And the story of “Dekole” takes us all the way to the hilltop.
Something else — as you make your way up the hill, there’s music. It’s coming out of buses, out of sound systems stacked right on the sidewalk, from tiny speakers bolted onto motorcycle handles. Recorded music is everywhere in Haiti. The catch is, Haitian artists hardly make any money from it. The CDs selling on the street are all pirated copies that go for less than a dollar. The radio and television stations don’t pay anything to musicians either, and when I first meet J. Perry, this issue is exactly what is on his mind.
DJ (speaking Haitian Creole): Live avec nou nan studio, m’gen Mika avec Jay Perry ki la. Epi, bien sur…
We meet in one of Haiti’s most popular radio stations — in Petionville. This is a fairly affluent commercial district just up the hill from the city center. J. Perry is there, in a bright soccer jersey with his name, ‘J. Perry,’ printed on the back, and even though he’s really there to promote a new single that he collaborated on, the conversation soon turns to policy.
Speaker 1: Nan tax DJ ap paye, nan tax club yo ap paye yo persevoi dwa ladan. Men lajan la deja. Se distribye pou yo distribye’l.
Speaker 2: Exactement, club la la deja.
Ian Coss: In that quick exchange, you might have heard a few familiar words — like ‘tax,’ and ‘distribute.’ They’re discussing ways that the Haitian government could collect money from the radio and television stations that play music, and then pay that money out to the artists. Those payments are called royalties, and in the American music industry they are standard practice. But nothing like that exists in Haiti now.
J. Perry: A Haitian artist actually makes money in performing gigs and sponsors. That's all, because there are no royalties in Haiti.
Ian Coss: Here’s J. Perry again.
J. Perry: So, when I told my parents that I didn’t want to stay in school any more and I wanted to do music, my mom was like, “You want to do music, but that's it. Basically you on your own now.”
In the American music industry Royalties are standard practice. But nothing like that exists in Haiti now.
Ian Coss: So you needed to find a way to make money I guess?
J. Perry: Exactly, I wanted to also, cuz I sort of had to prove to them that I can do this. That I wouldn't be just a weight on their shoulders, and I was lucky to have that hit.
Ian Coss: The hit was “Dekole,” and it was really a departure for J. Perry. You see, he knew that his best chance of making money was to get his music to an international audience, so instead of singing in his native language — Haitian creole — he did his entire first album in English.
J. Perry: All the songs were basically done. We actually even sent it to print. I was coming back from the studio; it was 2 or 3 in the morning. And when I got home I wasn't tired, so I'm like, let me just try to work on a beat.
I loved that beat so much, I’m like, “this should be the one to write in Creole.” And that's when I came up with the hook: ‘ole ole ole oh.’ And then the word — Dekole — came to mind. When something is stuck, you say that it's ‘kole,’ and to unstuck that thing is to ‘dekole.’
Ian Coss: So, how did you first hear of Zumba? How did it come to your attention and what did you think of it?
J. Perry: I remember my sister was doing Zumba in the house. It was maybe 2010, and I think she had a DVD. There she is watching it, and doing Zumba. You know, brothers and sisters tease each other, so I'm like, “Do you really think you're going to lose weight?” And she said, “Yes, this definitely works.” So that's when I started even having Zumba in my head, but at the time I didn't even understand and see that it was an amazing platform.
Ian Coss: But with the success of “Dekole” in Haiti, J. Perry got connected with a new manager named Joe Mignon.
J. Perry: And Joe and his wife are very close to the Zumba owners. And they had the owners of Zumba listen to “Dekole” and they loved it. Already that showed that music doesn’t necessarily have to be in English, or in Spanish. The language doesn’t really matter, because people were actually dancing and doing choreographies on my Creole songs around the world. So even Haitian artists — I think it opened their eyes a little bit more; there's no barriers. It just has to be good. It has to be great.
And then when I actually started working with Zumba, now I had all my friends teasing me about it, telling me that I'm doing Zumba now. I'm telling them, “No, I don't do Zumba; I just do music for Zumba.” And in Haiti, when they started realizing what Zumba was doing for me, they stopped teasing me, and now it was like, “Ohhh, Zumba!”
Ian Coss: So what exactly was Zumba doing for J. Perry? Obviously there was the exposure, but money was changing hands as well. For more details on the business end, I would need to head farther up the hill.
Ian Coss: Carl-Fredrick Behrmann works in the auto import industry. He is also the founder of Baoli Records, which releases J. Perry’s music. His home and studio are perched on the hilltop above Port-au-Prince — the winding road literally ends at the gate. When I arrive there, a recording session is underway.
Ian Coss: Carl-Fred leans over a state of the art mixing console to adjust some levels. His black hair is slicked back and his upper body fills out a pastel yellow polo. Still unhappy with the sound, he tries patching the drum signal through a rack of audio units stacked off to one side. That seems to help. It’s an impressive collection of equipment, but I’m especially impressed to find it here, given what I know about how hard it is to actually make money from selling music in Haiti.
Ian Coss: So J. Perry probably doesn't make money on royalties in Haiti right? So where is the label bringing in money from? What are the main markets?
Carl-Fredrick Behrmann: He's a global artist. When we look at reports from his sales and streams you're talking about from Australia to Ireland to Brazil to anywhere in the world, they're generating income on monthly basis. Now at the same time, J. Perry has good licensing deals with companies like Zumba. You take — Zumba just had cruise in January, it was the first Zumba cruise. The commercial that was playing nationwide in the states on TV, on radio — the theme song of the commercial was a J. Perry song.
Ian Coss: The ad opens with a shot of a cruise ship, followed by this line: “When the anchor’s away, the music will play.”
Carl-Fredrick Behrmann: So that was generating a lot of airplay funds from the states, from Europe, from Africa, because Zumba is worldwide. So he definitely got good returns from that. The label got good returns from that. And right now he's had at least six or seven songs within the Zumba infrastructure.
It is such a powerful organization. People tend to minimize it, think of Zumba as just a simple workout company. It’s a lot more than that; it’s a cult. If you go on YouTube and type: “Dekole choreography,” you literally will find 10-15 thousand different choreographies from different people. And they get their views, even if it's one thousand, from that thousand we get paid from Zumba, so it's a whole chain effect.
Ian Coss: Carl-Fred told me that they have actually turned down recording contracts from major labels, specifically because the deals would have interfered with the Zumba relationship. That’s how valuable Zumba is. And in a way, Zumba is already doing some of the work of a record label — they don’t just license existing songs; they also work with artists like J. Perry to create new music and market it.
J. Perry: For example, “Bouje.” It was just an idea, a hook. And they're like, “Hey we like this one. Make sure he finishes that one. Tell him to finish that right now in a hurry, because we need it!” So “Bouje” is Zumba's baby.
Ian Coss: The video for “Bouje” is even shot at a Zumba convention in Orlando, with a whole group of instructors doing Zumba choreography in the middle of a fountain. Like he said: The song is Zumba’s baby.
Ian Coss: This kind of close partnership with artists is not unusual for Zumba. They've worked with Pitbull, Shakira, Wyclef Jean. Just this past March, Reggaeton star Daddy Yankee released his new single along with official Zumba choreography. Last fall, Zumba teamed up with Timbaland to produce custom beats for a new training program. I could go on. I mean, music has always been used for fitness, but no fitness company has built its brand around music and musicians in the way Zumba has.
J. Perry: Every time I go to the office and meet with them, they're like, “J., what's up? Send us more music!” So I could be just making music for Zumba and be successful. That's how good of a platform and how good Zumba is. I could just basically stay home, and be a Zumba artist and be in the Zumba world forever, making music for Zumba, and I'd be fine.
Ian Coss: Totally fine, set for life — how many musicians can say that? The fact remains that selling music is a tough business — both in Haiti and the U.S. — but in the fitness business, there is still value in a good, strong beat.