By Jacob Katel
By Karli Evans
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When a teenage girl in the remote Chilean town of Antofagasta heard Ricardo Montaner for the first time, she could hardly believe the voice on the radio came from so far away. The lyrics about love that could "submerge her in altitudes" and discover within her "a heart naked to the open air" stirred in her such a tender desire, such simple sentiment, that the Venezuelan singer seemed to be almost lost in the spectacle of fame. Just before Valentine's Day fifteen years later, on the eve of the release of Montaner's latest CD, Sueño Repetido (Recurring Dream) the Antofagasta girl, now a waitress working at the Alexander Hotel where Montaner is staying on Miami Beach, tells me that in all her working years, she has never encountered such an easygoing artist. He has never failed to greet her when he passes by the dining room. In turn she has never approached him to ask for an autograph. Observing him from a respectful distance, she describes for me a man absolutely in love with his wife and who finds ecstasy gazing at the ocean. She assures me he will not lie in the interview: "Whatever he says, that's the way it is," she insists. "Even though there are so many good voices, his lyrics aren't just made up; they're true like he is, and he sings them from the heart. Artists have golden years," observes the waitress of Montaner's long career, "but his don't end."
Ricardo Montaner is a consummate romantic balladeer. His soft strains and made-for-telenovela lyrics pitch a passion that makes no pretense to originality. On the contrary, his work suggests, love is the least original thing in the world. The eroticism that charges the ballad depends on the contrast between calm steady verses and the sensual outburst of the chorus. Lush orchestrations accompany passionate vocals to suggest sexuality that comes close to the sacred and reveals love as a miracle. "It's what allows us to call ourselves humans after all," affirms Montaner. In his musical melodramas, everyone's story -- from a small-town girl to a Miami Beach waitress -- can become a song. As he explains in an interview at the Alexander, even the most common life has "its ratio of happiness, fear, and pain, all at once."
Although now one of Latin America's most recognized balladeers, Montaner knows well what it feels like to live in anonymity. Known by his humble birth name, Hector Eduardo Reglero, he began his career at the age of seventeen as the drummer in a rock band. When the group's singer fell ill, the man who would be Montaner discovered the power of a voice that would one day reach the masses. But for the next thirteen years, he continued to write poems that he did not yet know he could turn into song. He performed without shame or glory in festivals, taverns, and fairs as he traveled around the oil-rich city of Maracaibo in a car that used to break down on every road.
At the age of 30, Montaner made his way to Caracas, an inhospitable city for a young man from the country. He lived in a boarding house and worked odd jobs on the weekends, freeing himself Monday through Thursday to knock on the doors of record labels and producers. Just when he was about to return to Maracaibo empty-handed, success exploded. Julio Saenz, the late A&R rep for the major record label WEA in Venezuela, heard one of Montaner's compositions and signed him, convinced of his formidable talent. Saenz was not disappointed. Montaner's first single, "Yo Que Te Amé" ("I, the One Who Loved You"), took over the radio not just in Venezuela but across South America. Montaner remains so grateful to the label rep that he has dedicated his latest release to Saenz's memory.
As a songwriter who has crafted the soft-focus fantasies of thousands of women, Montaner can't help describing his own marriage in idyllic terms. He attributes his survival throughout all those years of anonymity to "stubbornness and nothing else," but claims he is sustained through the grueling pace of success by his wife, Marlene. In addition to mothering his three youngest children, Marlene is the artistic producer of his videos. According to her husband, only the love of his life could capture his image as poetically as Marlene did in the video that shows him running down an empty highway with the choir of the London Metropolitan Orchestra, which accompanied him on that previous release, following him.
The London Metropolitan Orchestra does not repeat its appearance on Sueño Repetido, an absence that contributes to an overall leveling of sentiment. A master of solemn eroticism, Montaner sets the sentimental bar higher for himself with each production. Backed by pianist and musical producer Bebo Silvetti, Sueño Repetido does not reach the same emotional highs that Montaner's work with the symphony did. Like all faithful lovers, his most ardent fans will likely forgive him.