The New Face of Global Pop
An office park might be the last place you’d expect to stumble into a multi-million-dollar pop-music extravaganza. But, unbeknownst to the golfers on the course or the students at the Keiser College outpost sharing this anonymous patch of real estate in West Palm Beach, there’s a whole lot of rock spectacle going on just out of sight.
Ocean Studios is a huge, nondescript building that, from outward appearances at least, fits in with the blandly modern utilitarian landscape. Even once you’re inside, the maze of hallways seems to unfold into room after room of impersonal offices, only a couple of which are buzzing with activity. But the activity – sorting passports, making en masse travel reservations, bilingual discussions about lighting rigs, T-shirt designs and media arrangements – help give you some idea of what’s going on.
Turn a corner and open a couple of doors and, if you didn’t know what was going on before, you soon will. Ocean’s soundstage is its raison d’être, a place for international superstars with big productions and bigger budgets to rehearse before hitting the road. On this day, the cavernous space is taken up completely with four truckloads of stage, lights, soundboards, video screens and other equipment. Some of the biggest names in the tour business are here: sound engineer Rob “Cubby” Colby, production manager David Simpson, lighting designer Tom Kenny and production designer Ray Winkler, who together have worked on tours for the likes of U2, the Rolling Stones, Prince and David Bowie. This is the next-to-last day of rehearsals, and the 135,000 pounds of equipment set up in the soundstage is working like the superstar apparatus it is.
The superstar at the focal point of all this activity is Juan Esteban Aristizabal, known to millions of music fans around the world as Juanes. And though all this activity is appropriate for a Grammy-winning artist like Juanes, who has sold millions of records around the world (his previous album, Un Dia Normal, has sold more than 900,000 copies in the United States since its 2003 release), it’s the artist himself who seems most surprised by it all.
“I feel like I’m in a dream,” says Juanes. “Every day I come here and I see the crew and the lights and sound …. I feel like it’s not real.”
The thing is, it’s not real. Yes, there’s all this world-class music-biz machinery chugging along all around Juanes in preparation for a massive world tour, but not once does the singer make the mistake of thinking a few bright lights and some video effects will take the place of the honest songwriting he’s built his career on. Then again, he’s not one to turn down the opportunity to put on a full-blown lights-and-sound extravaganza.
“When we were planning to do this show, the most important thing was the songs themselves,” he says. “I don’t care about all the flashy things, but if we can find some things that help the songs to grow up more, that’s fine.
“When I started playing music, when I was like 10 years old, I had an acoustic guitar and would play the folk music from Colombia with my brother and with my father. I never thought then that I’d be doing what I’m doing now. I just did it because I loved the music.”
Growing up outside Medellín, Colombia, Juanes’ love of his country’s folk music soon gave way to a head-on collision with adolescent rebellion and discontent at its then-deteriorating social conditions, brought on by violent political upheaval (his cousin was killed in a kidnapping by rebels) and the country’s long struggle with the drug trade. This collision led Juanes to join a heavy metal band, Ekhymosis, which garnered modest acclaim throughout the metal-hungry region.
“The last time Metallica played Colombia,” says Juanes, “200,000 people were there. All the metal guys were crying. When I was 16 or 17 years old, I was very … what’s the word? Radical? I listened to a lot of metal music, like Metallica and all that. But I realized I was missing my essence, so I stopped trying to be James Hetfield and started to be myself.”
Around 1999, Juanes decided to be a little more true to his essence. Armed with a clutch of songs he’d written, he headed for Los Angeles to, as he says, “explore some opportunities.” Although this period in Los Angeles found him playing bass for a few shows with Colombian metal band Agony (“It was good fun”), heavy metal was not on the agenda anymore.
Juanes connected with high-powered Latin music manager Fernan Martinez (who, for better or worse, turned Enrique Iglesias into a household name in the States) and producer Gustavo Santaolalla (whose work with the likes of Molotov and Cafe Tacuba has helped defined modern rock en español as a wildly adventurous enterprise, rather than just rock in a language that’s not English) and plotted a creative course that split the difference between Martinez’ famous pop clients and Santaolalla’s offbeat endeavors.
Thoughtful lyrics, pop hooks and rock-guitar chops combined with Juanes’ magazine-cover good looks and creative integrity to make his 2000 debut album, Fijate Bien, a hit throughout Latin America. The driving, rock-flecked pop belied the rather dark lyrical content, which dealt with political turmoil and violence. However, Fijate Bien‘s follow-up, 2003’s Un Dia Normal – with the monster Spanish-radio hit “A Dios le Pido” – was the album that put Juanes on the global music map. More personal (and more forthrightly pop) than Fijate, the album showcased Juanes’ versatile songwriting abilities.
His latest album, this year’s Mi Sangre, finds him moving in yet another direction, blending the darker, more political statements of Fijate with the more intimate feel of Un Dia Normal. Sonically, the album does rely more on midtempo pop numbers than on straightforward rock, but Juanes insists that this is less a compromise with his growing audience, or a result of pressure from “the business,” than it is a reflection of where the 33-year-old songwriter is at this point in his musical evolution.
“I never want to do a record that is similar to my other records, because for me, when I go to buy an album by a band I like and it sounds like the others, I am disappointed. I try and keep the essence, but I have to try and look for new things and try new things.
“From the time I started playing music to being here talking to you now … that has been 18 years. In that time, I have learned many things, and now I am taking care of my life and my music and nobody can really change my feelings. I think the most pressure that I feel is my own, to make better music.”
Though Juanes may not admit to feeling a lot of industry pressure, the stakes are considerably higher for Mi Sangre than they were before. The world tour he’s rehearsing for in West Palm Beach is sponsored in Latin America by Pepsi and in the United States by Anheuser-Busch. The next day, he – and the principals from his tour staff – will entertain questions from a group of students from Miami’s Design and Architecture High School as part of an event sponsored by the Grammy Foundation, and perform a final run-through of the rehearsal that night for a group of radio station prizewinners and the media. And though Juanes is utterly comfortable going through the processes that the “business” side requires of him, it’s clear that he’s most comfortable on stage.
The rehearsals – by this point straight performances of the entire set with minor tweaks – find him and his longtime band as invigorated in the empty soundstage as they would be in front of the massive crowds they will soon face. Even when the only audience in front of them is Juanes’ wife, Karen, and their 15-month-old daughter, Luna, the performances are electric.
Although the set leans somewhat heavily on the midtempo songs that get the most airplay, numbers like “Mala Gente,” with its triple-guitar attack, and “Que Pasa,” which is accompanied by some startling images of political violence, are equally effective. It’s thoroughly mainstream rock & roll, with little of the angsty pose so often struck by U.S. rockers. And hey, this is probably the only big-money tour on the road right now that features both a sappy paean to a newborn (complete with video footage of her ultrasound) and a grinding Moog solo. It is, to say the least, a diverse set.
“Music, for me, comes from my heart and my soul,” says Juanes. “I never think too much about my music and I never really know what I’m doing. I think there is a very strong side of rock that I really love and I think I will stay with that for the rest of my life. But I want to bring more things from Colombia to my music.
“Most people in America and in Europe, when they think about Latin music, they think it’s all the same and that this guy or the other guy are all the same. But Latin music is very rich and very different. In the different cultures in Latin America, musicians are trying to bring their roots into these different types of music and that’s very cool. For years, in Latin America, we were afraid to do certain things, afraid of being proud about being Latinos, but I think now it’s different. I want to keep singing in Spanish, because I feel that it is very close to my essence. I want to take my music to as many people as possible, but I want it to be natural. I’m not going to sell my soul.”
A few weeks later, on Feb. 23, Juanes is kicking off the U.S. leg of his world tour with a sold-out show at the Performing Arts Center in Tampa. Since rehearsals ended, he’s been to Spain, Chile and Peru with a scaled-down show, but this is the first night that the full production gets a workout in front of a paying audience. Although there are a few minor glitches – miscued video, the absence from the mix of a couple of guitarist Juan Pablo Villamizar’s more fiery solos – the audience doesn’t notice. Many of the fans are either waving or wearing the Colombian flag and almost everyone in the audience sings all the words to the songs. It’s a superstar reception, and Juanes is clearly invigorated by the audience.
Midway through the show, though, an interesting thing happens: The same audience that had been singing and dancing joyously sits down as Juanes begins singing “Rosario Tijeras,” a retelling of Jorge Franco’s disturbing novel of Medellín’s mid-’80s dangers. The song – a powerful midtempo epic – seems to have sucked the energy out of the room, but Juanes is unfazed and is pouring just as much energy into it as he did more hopeful (and upbeat) numbers like show-opener “Sueños.” With a mumbled segue and a series of violent images synced to a martial beat, the emotional level remains intense – and the audience subdued – as the band moves into “Que Pasa,” a similarly dark and politically honest number. It’s clear that the crowd would much rather be singing along to a tear-jerking ballad like “Tu Guardian” (and seeing the ultrasound on the screen) or dancing to “A Dios le Pido,” but both of those things will come later. For now, Juanes seems less concerned with pleasing the crowd than with pouring everything he’s got into these message-charged numbers.
At that moment, it becomes clear why he is a pop star of a decidedly different order: He has a tremendous respect for his audience. So much respect, in fact, that he doesn’t feel the need to condescend to them or to avoid unpleasant topics. He knows that he has the ability to craft an incandescent bit of pop perfection, but he also knows that it would be dishonest to build his entire career upon such things. And though at times during our interview his repeated references to his “essence” and “staying true” may have sounded – to my jaded ears, at least – a little like calculated ploys to position himself as a “real” artist among prefab stars, the conviction in his eyes told a different story. Watching him on stage, it’s clear that such statements do actually get quite close to the truth. It’s not often that a musician can maintain his integrity while reaping the benefits of stardom, but Juanes has managed to do just that.
First appeared April 3, 2005 in Orlando Weekly.