Bottom of the Heap O Top of the World

Just how popular is Juan Luis Guerra? If you have to ask, you haven't been listening.

After returning to the Dominican Republic, he says, he "tried to play jazz, but I didn't feel comfortable playing jazz there. Something was missing. I wanted to work with my roots." In 1984 he formed 4.40 (the name refers to standard concert pitch, A above middle C on the piano), and their first release was Soplando, a smooth jazz record Guerra describes as being "inspired by Duke Ellington, Charlie Mingus, Count Basie, by big-band music, and also by the Manhattan Transfer. It was really a mixture of pampiche - an old style of merengue - and big-band music."

Guerra's music is unusual in the Dominican Republic for reasons beyond its invigorating blend of styles. In a country where almost everyone is some shade of brown and could, if they wanted to, trace some descent from Africa, Guerra is particular in acknowledging the African heritage that many ignore. "I don't think we recognize our African roots," he explains. "So many sociologists have said this. But we have to work on this in all aspects. I think it is a lack of knowing where we come from. I don't think it's racism. It's a matter of education. I know I come from Africa and Spain."

His music provides social insight n other ways as well. Last year's best-selling album Bachata Rosa honors bachata, a raw, urban hillbilly music played with drums, guitar, and accordion. It got its name because it was country, lower-class, the soundtrack of funky little bars in slums like Villa Mella. People said "that's bachata," meaning "that's garbage." Like Argentine tango, Cuban son (which has essentially the same rhythm), and the blues, bachata is both sexy and cry-in-your-beer music. Thanks to Guerra (and to a few other artists such as Luis Diaz and Victor Victor), bachata is now considered hip. Guerra took something intrinsically Dominican that no one else would touch and called it a rose.

Though not as poor as neighboring Haiti, the Dominican Republic has more than its share of social and economic problems. In Santo Domingo, most people have electrical power (and thus running water) for only a few hours a day; public transportation, garbage collection, clean drinking water, street maintenance, and a decent wage are virtually nonexistent. Homeless children, called palomitas (little doves) live both on and literally underneath the Malecon, the seaside boulevard that is Santo Domingo's main tourist strip. The social stratification is such that a tiny percentage of very wealthy people can afford anything they want, while a narrow middle class has less and less, and a huge majority barely manages to survive.

Guerra's music may not be specifically designed to comfort the disenfranchised, but the appeal is there. Ironically enough, this expression of compassion also led to a commercial turning point for Grupo 4.40 in 1987. The album Ojala que llueva cafe

(May It Rain Coffee) weaves together an extravagant language of poetry and slang, ballads and exuberant dance numbers, all addressing particularly Dominican subjects. In the title song, surreal images of plenty - watercress and honey, mountains of rice and wheat, waterfalls of yuca and tea - rain down on the D.R.'s impoverished campesinos. "For Ojala," Guerra explains, "I went to Santiago [de los Caballeros] and found the phrase in the campo. It was something a campesino had said. There are too many farmers in my country who died not knowing they are poets. He was desperate and wrote this, wanting that it may rain coffee, bread, all the things he needed. I took this phrase and made the whole truth from it."

The alternative to awaiting deliverance is to go and seek it, and Guerra understands this, too. "Visa para un sueno" ("Visa for a Dream") describes the frustrations - getting up before dawn, long lines, bribes - of trying to get a visa to the U.S. Other songs on Ojala bolster the theme - in the gospel-tinged "La Gallera," a character loses everything on cock-fight wagers; "Razones" ("Reasons") notes the problems in the street and offers love as an antidote.

Part Two
Love and romance, in fact, have become predominant themes in Guerra's music. "Women are a very important part of my writing," he says. "I think women are one of the beautiful things in the world. So it is easy to choose beautiful things to work on." Guerra's way with strange, poetic imagery and word play saves these songs from melting into syrup. "Bubbles of Love" - the big ballad from Bachata Rosa - can be enjoyed as a sly compilation of erotic double-entendres, but it's also a hauntingly beautiful ballad rich with the sort of word craft that sets Guerra apart. Though the lyrics do not translate well to English, essentially Guerra describes his lover as a fish bowl, and he wants to be the fish, pressing his nose against her, making bubbles of love, complete immersion. "I did the tune really thinking that I was a fish in a tank," the songwriter says. "Not in a sexual way, not in that secondary way that so many have said. Of course, mojado en ti (drenched in you) is a sensual phrase. But the way I wrote it was ingenuous. When you write a song, you do not own it, so people are going to think what

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