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What does Jon Secada's latest album have to do with the types of cuisine in China? When the vocal powerhouse traveled to the People's Republic last year as co-writer of a song for the Beijing Olympics, he ate everything in sight -- unlike his traveling companions and fellow songwriters. "Emilio [Estefan] lost seven pounds there," he laughs, "he couldn't eat." For his part, Estefan reports that Secada ate everything in sight, including monkey brains. "You put rocks in front of me, I'll eat it. I won't think about it," Secada confesses. "There are 54 different Chinese cultures in China and each region has completely different cuisine. That fascinates me."
So what's that got to do with his new album? "My thing is I've always listened to different styles of music and figure out how I can use it. If you can maintain the integrity, it's a green light to try it. No holds barred."
On the aptly titled Amanecer (Awakening), his first Spanish-language album in seven years, Secada gobbles up genres from across Latin America. "What I love about Latin music here in this city is the fusion of a lot of flavors," Secada reveals. "I've always liked to include different elements. Combine this style with this style. Each year you learn about new artists who in their country might already be successful. That's a kind of dilemma as the Latin community, our community, keeps growing: The scope of who we are is becoming larger and larger. Thinking as one presents a challenge because we're getting so diverse. Hopefully with time we'll come more and more together."
Secada has been exposed to the diversity of Latin styles since he began working at Miami's Crescent Moon Studios, five years before the release of what is still his best-known work, his multimillion-selling self-titled 1992 debut with the twin monster hits "If You Go" and "Just Another Day." Although the singer has never again made the same mark on the public consciousness, he has continued to have his hand in writing, producing, and laying what are called dub vocals -- vocal tracks that have served as a guide for other singers from Shalim to Ricky Martin.
For Amanecer, Secada shared the technical duties with his colleagues at Crescent Moon. "I co-produced [the album] with Archie [Peña], Emilio [Estefan], and José Molina. The songs, the concept we wanted -- very acoustic, very organic, no sequences, very live -- came alive with these guys. Especially with [Peruvian singer-songwriter] Gian Marco. He gave me all the ballads and Archie Peña gave me the uptempo [songs]. Gian Marco just played me these songs on guitar. I fell in love with the song and also the emotion of the song. A lot of the feeling of that initial performance that he gave me stays in the songs."
Secada trotted out all the studio toys to get what he calls a "thick live sound."
"That's the magic of recording," he elaborates. "Today you can create an organic sound and it sounds big in a good sense. The technology is so crisp. It just sounds right in your face. You're doing something acoustic, not with synthesizers. Everything live -- the base of the record is percussive elements. You use [fewer] instruments, but they sound bigger. Not overly produced or overly arranged. We get a very clean mass of sound."
Given all his experience in the studio, how does Secada take a back seat on his own project? "It's always difficult to do things for me," he admits. "I'm so used to being independent. I self-produce myself a lot of the time. I like to have the objective opinion from someone else. Between Archie and Emilio, they pushed my vocal ability to create different colors for me."
Secada does turn out a wider range of emotion, introducing quiet moments to the powerful blasts for which he is best known. "The singing for me is beyond the actual voice," says Secada, who holds a master's in vocal jazz from the University of Miami. "It's a matter of personality and confidence. Those two things are the key factors of a really good performance. Sometimes it has to do with what you cannot do vocally. With the instrument that you have, can you transmit a feeling with personality and confidence?"
But perhaps the most singular achievement of Amanecer is the performance he gets out of long-time collaborator Gloria Estefan in a duet of the classic Dominican ballad "Por Amor" ("For Love"). Nodding sagely at the suggestion that Gloria's strength is not her technical skill, Secada simply says of the duet, "That's a good key for that song for her. We know instinctively how to match each other. Fifteen years later, we better know."
Amanecer is full of beautiful, and yes, beautifully produced songs with a taste of styles from across the hemisphere: a hint of vallenato, a dash of merengue, a dollop of bachata and South American waltz. In the end, no one is more pleased with the outcome than the artist himself. "This is a very grassroots album. We'd never done that before," Secada points out. "We did something with a lot of integrity: good songs, good pop songs."