By Jacob Katel
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"I don't like to rush it when I'm cooking," says the 49-year-old Jaime Roos, a hugely influential Uruguayan musician who hasn't released an album of originals since 1996. His most recent album, Contraseña(Password), is a collection of covers of Uruguayan classics by Alfredo Zitarrosa, Eduardo Mateo (Roos's aesthetic role model), Leo Maslíah, Jorge Galemire, Jorge Drexler, and others. Only three of the songs were written or co-written by Roos.
In comparison to new Uruguayan names like Drexler (the most important solo artist since Roos) and popular rock bands like La Vela Puerca, it may seem as if Roos is beginning to slow down after a long and successful career. But relax: The covers album is just a stopgap release during a well-deserved break. After paying tribute to his influences, Roos is warming up for a new chapter in his own career. "I'm always looking forward, I'm still in the struggle," says Roos in a phone conversation from Montevideo. "I always write songs that I'll record one day, but I'll record them when they have to be recorded."
The singer, songwriter, and composer can make everyone wait. His blend of candombe (an Afro-Uruguayan beat that's arguably the fiercest rhythm you'll ever hear), murga (a Uruguayan vocal and percussive Carnival style with roots in Spain), Piazzolla-esque tango, Beatles-esque pop, rock, jazzy solos, and Latin American folk has turned him into one of the most popular artists in Uruguay and Argentina for the last three decades.
But things weren't always easy for him. To begin with, he left Uruguay in 1975 during the military dictatorship's decade-long rule when "the thing" to do was "to stay and resist" them. For the next several years, he floated around Europe, surviving by making salads on ships and playing on subways, nightclubs (anything from salsa, rock, and jazz to cumbia and Andean music), and as a session musician. After an adventurous four-month hitchhiking trip from Mexico to Uruguay, he released his debut, Candombe del 31(1977).
Roos's time spent away from Uruguay didn't negatively impact his career, but it did keep him from achieving massive success. He had good compositions, but he didn't perform them in his native country until 1980, when he played a show marred by bad sound and a censorious government that kept him from performing some of his most popular songs, including "Los Olimpicos," a murga song about exiles.
On top of that, Roos didn't seem to care for the canto popularmovement, a trend he once described as "a bag of great and horrible things." "After I released my first album, they questioned the fact that I didn't stay, but I never cared," says Roos. "My answers have always been albums." When he presented Aquelloin 1980 (his third album, chosen by Uruguayan critics as best album of the year), he would sarcastically announce, "I'm a rocker," when the press tried to forcibly lump him into the folk-oriented and nationalistic canto popular.
He wasn't completely lying. From an early age, Roos has been a proud Beatlemaniac. Their influence affects his music in three ways: simple but imaginative song structures; a poetic balance among the mundane, the unpredictable, and the sublime; and long, hypnotic, trancelike choruses à la "Hey Jude."
After five increasingly popular and critically acclaimed albums (now recorded in Uruguay, where he has lived since 1984), Roos finally achieved widespread commercial success. In 1985 Brindis por Pierrot (A Toast for Pierrot, pierrot being the symbol of a Carnival bohemian character) became the best-selling album in Uruguayan history and earned more than 75 gold and platinum records (gold certifications representing 3000 copies sold), an unprecedented figure for a country with a population of little more than three million. It is a masterpiece of murga that turned Roos into his country's number one popular artist.
The title song, sung by guest vocalist Washington "Canario" ("The Canary") Luna -- then considered one of the best murga singers in Uruguay -- is a heart-wrenching farewell song to Carnival. His life is like a soccer stadium: "They throw you in the field/Without asking you whether you want to play or not/In case this wasn't enough, you're the goalkeeper/You spend your whole life covering holes/And if by accident you become good at it/They take a dive/And the referee calls 'penalty'!" "It's a song about strength, despite its tremendous skepticism," says Roos. "My career is before and after Brindis. It brought my previous semi-hits to the attention of a massive public."
Brindis por Pierrot would also change the course of a good portion of Argentine rock. "I turned to murga and candombe when I heard Brindis por Pierrot," says Juan Subirá, keyboardist for Argentina's platinum act Bersuit Vergarabat and co-author of "Negra Murguera" and other Bersuit hits inspired by Roos's murga-canción(murga-song) style. "It blew me away. I had no idea of who he was. I immediately went to Uruguay and soaked myself in Roos, murga and candombe."
Even Rubén Blades used Roos's candombe ballad "Amándote" on his Grammy-winning La Rosa de los Vientos. "What a beautiful song," Blades remembers saying when he heard "Amándote" for the first time. "Wow! What a great song. How can I get a hold of this guy? I want to use it in my next record." Blades wasn't bluffing: He included "Amándote" as the last track on that 1996 album, even though it was a collection of songs by other Panamanian composers.