By Rebecca Bulnes
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By Chuck Strouse
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After Bachata Rosa sold more than four million copies, it was pretty clear what people were thinking and what they wanted: more Juan Luis Guerra. Hence the current tour, a big-time affair. Pepsi (for whom Guerra appears in a national TV commercial) is the official sponsor. The tour promoter, Cardenas-Fernandez & Associates, has helped present such extravaganzas as Manuel, Chayanne, and Kaoma. Grupo 4.40 will be playing in arenas, convention centers, coliseums -the major venues in Europe, South America, and especially in the United States, where in addition to Miami, the band will stop in Washington, D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, four cities in Texas, New Jersey, and Orlando. According to Tito Lopez, manager of 4.40's Karen Publishing label in Puerto Rico, the idea is to "open the door with the Latin public in the U.S., in the hopes that the Anglo audience will follow."
Back in the formative mid-Eighties, Grupo 4.40 (which besides singer/composer/producer/arranger Guerra also includes three other singers, twelve musicians, and six Afro-jazz dancers) went through a similar transition. Bienvenido Rodriguez, who was to become Guerra's executive producer, told him then that his music was very good - ut not very commercial. Going commercial in the Dominican Republic meant going merengue, and 4.40 did that, albeit with a different approach. Their music was more folk, more jazzy, and was listened to by a smaller, more educated audience. They were strictly local, a cult band. They didn't appeal to the Dominican masses or the turistas. They didn't get to play the big hotel discos. Although they began receiving radio play with the albums Mudanza y Accereo (1985) and Mientras Mas Lo Pienso...Tu (1986), they weren't terrifically popular until 1987.
Undoubtedly Guerra's wide variety of musical influences has helped propel him and his group to star status. He says the Beatles are his favorite right now, along with acts as varied as Sting, Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, gospel singers Take 6, Mory Kante, sundry South African vocal groups, Salif Keita, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Ruben Blades, Los Van Van, and Tabou Combo. "I am always trying to mix all types of music with Dominican folklore," Guerra adds. "Puerto Rican salsa groups, Bob Marley, Cuban son, rock, jazz, South African influences."
Guerra has been quoted as saying, "I want to be the John Lennon of the Caribbean," and he seems to be trying to reach that level of pop universality. John Lennon, of course, sang in the language understood by the world's largest music market. Will Guerra adopt English? "No, I'm not going to sing in English," the Dominican star says. "I'm going to try in Spanish first. It's the way I know, the way I feel. There is something magic in music that you can't explain. I listened to the Beatles and loved them, though I couldn't understand the words. I think the audience can get the rhythm and the harmony even if they can't get anything else, even if they can't understand the lyrics. We want them to understand, because lyrics are very important to us. But they can still get something. They can still dance.