Undercover Brother

Javier Garcia is on a stealth mission to conquer Latin pop

There's a lot riding on singer-songwriter Javier Garcia. Super-producer Gustavo Santaolalla, who has worked with Café Tacuba and Molotov, produced the 30-year-old's highly anticipated sophomore album, 13, and released it on his Surco imprint last month. 13 is also being distributed through major label powerhouse Universal Latino, which hopes to capitalize on Garcia's exotic Cuban-Irish heritage and make him the next big thing in Latin alternative pop.

But Garcia gets more excited talking about ethnomusicology and his appreciation of old-school salseros than about his potential for reaching the big time.

That's healthy. There are a lot more fusion-style artists to compete against than seven years ago, when Garcia recorded his self-titled debut for Fonavisa Records. Still 13 is musically solid, and the arrangements on each track reflect a creative yet retro Latino who has spent years turning kitsch into cool.

Salsa, ska, reggae, flamenco -- Javier Garcia filters it all
Jonathan Postal
Salsa, ska, reggae, flamenco -- Javier Garcia filters it all

"I remember discovering Cuban music way before the Buena Vista [Social Club] phenomenon, but I was really happy to see that people were getting into it," said Garcia. In 1998, while the American music industry was rediscovering Afro-Cuban beats on classics such as "Chan Chan," Garcia was already working on how to modernize nostalgia. "Why not put a little bit of this and a little bit of that and spice it up like a James Bond flick that's filmed in the Sahara and then goes to Alaska. That makes it so much more interesting," Garcia thought at the time. When you listen to 13, you get the feeling that this reserved man, with his black-rimmed glasses and polo shirts, has transformed himself into a heroic secret agent on a mission to save his audience from monotony. His songs are like movie scenes full of adrenaline rush, romance, poolside conga lines, and groovy lounge parties.

Garcia grew up in Spain, where his elderly Cuban father passed the time painting pictures to Cuban boleros and his Irish mother led the eight-member family on sing-alongs during road trips to Andalusia, the homeland of flamenco. Eventually Garcia developed his own sophisticated mixture of salsa, reggae, ska, calypso, and even flamenco. That's probably why his sound is more playful and pop-oriented than most of Miami's jam bands, who are heavily influenced by hip-hop.

"I come from a different background even though we all have unavoidably that kind of Miami filter on things from growing up here. I spent half my life here, but I come from Europe so I have a different perspective," Garcia said.

Garcia, whose voice and music is often compared to that of fellow Spaniard pop-rocker Jarabe de Palo, added, "That's what's cool about Spain. You can mix [flamenco] up with rock, but sometimes it can get a little dark, so I go toward the Caribbean to give it a little more uplifting flavor."

Other than his bilingualism, Garcia doesn't express much of the Anglo side of his heritage, though his mother's decision to ship him off to boarding school in Ireland at age thirteen inadvertently led to his becoming a musician. "My brother gave me his [Spanish] guitar as a kind of consolation prize for going to boarding school. I don't know if it was a fair trade," he recalled.

Back then Garcia was a rocker and a rebel, "Not a bad boy but a troublemaker," he explained. That was enough for the school's priests to ask Garcia not to return, so at age fifteen he gladly exchanged clouds for sunshine when his father, who had since moved to Miami, invited him to finish high school here.

"When I came here I listened to Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and then kind of veered into more world music, Dead Can Dance, Gothic, and more experimental stuff. Then I finally started getting into old Cuban music and I found it so incredibly rich. I was never a big fan of salsa music until I discovered older salsa from the Sixties -- Fania and all that stuff.... My dad's influences [spanned] from bolero to Celia Cruz and Beny More, so I attributed that sound to Miami," he said.

By his early twenties, Garcia was experimenting with congas and other world instruments. With a little encouragement from producer Tony Moreno, the father of Garcia's classmate and Latin Grammy winner Jorge Moreno, he assembled a demo. In 1997 his self-titled debut went gold in Argentina and Puerto Rico.

It has taken seven years for him to craft a followup, owing to switching from Fonovisa to Surco, as well as his own creative process. "Everything has a time," said Garcia. But the wait seems to have been worth it. In addition to Santaolalla's participation, 13 features guest musicians such as renowned trumpet player Arturo Sandoval and Paul McCartney's drummer, Abe Laboriel, Jr.

13has a sparkling modern sound, thanks to the light hip-hop bits sprinkled onto salsa songs such as "Me Gustaría," and hard-driving numbers such as the Santeria-inspired "Llegó; Changó" and the funky "Sol." But its strength lies in the small details -- the way Garcia picks a steel guitar with happy-go-lucky abandon on "La Rumba" and uses a metal slide guitar to create whiny, Richie Valens-style chords on "Algo Especial." The musical arrangements fulfill his ultimate mission of creating a mental motion picture. "The album's like a soundtrack," Garcia concluded.

 
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