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With a versatile vocal range, rippling guitar solos, and hints of Colombia's folkloric music, Juanes combines the shimmering epic underpinnings of U2 and the hard-driving metal of Metallica with more traditional Colombian sounds.
It is an approach that not only has made Juanes the biggest star in his native Colombia, but also has helped him achieve a bit of crossover success. Un Dia Normal, his second solo album, sold more than 900,000 copies in the United States and two million worldwide.
Despite these overtures to the English-language market, don't look for him to abandon his native tongue anytime soon. "I dream in Spanish. I think in Spanish. I was born into Spanish," Juanes says.
Born Juan Esteban Aristizabal, Juanes decided more than six years ago to leave Colombia. Overcome with anger and skepticism, he was hoping to stumble across a sliver of peace and clarity.
"Man, everything in my life was just so dark," Juanes says of that time. "It was like being locked in a room by yourself and not being able to find your way out. After a while, you just start losing whatever hope you had that there might be a solution to the problem."
Colombia's violent political unrest the car bombings, the kidnappings, uncertainty about living another day weighed upon Juanes. In short order, his cousin was killed by rebels, a close friend was gunned down in a club, and his father succumbed to cancer. He fled to Los Angeles.
Since 1999 the 33-year-old singer/songwriter has sold more than 3.5 million records worldwide, secured twelve Latin Grammys, and become one of Latin rock's true crossover idols despite the fact he has never sung in English.
"The honest-to-God's truth is that I didn't set out to be famous and end up being pulled in 100 different directions," says the admittedly shy star via phone. "I still wake up and think all of this as a big dream. This wasn't what I was looking for."
The long-haired, peace-yearning rocker has risen to fame and fortune with politically motivated lyrics. Despite the subject matter, Juanes's music is among the most accessible in the Southern Hemisphere.
Long before becoming a sex symbol and a top-selling touring act, Juanes was another trapped vagabond nursing an obsession with the guitar and a passion for traditional Latin sounds such as boleros, tangos, and cumbias. But like most teenage boys growing up in the Eighties, Juanes discovered heavy metal, and his musical horizon expanded. He began concentrating less on replicating the indigenous music of Colombia and more on mimicking metal's shredding guitar solos.
After landing in Los Angeles, Juanes released 2000's Fijate Bien. The deep and introspective album was received with open arms by critics and fans for its hard-hitting lyrics and brooding style. It would go on to earn him seven Grammy nominations and three subsequent wins.
Unlike Fijate Bien, which was littered with dark lyrical content addressing the instability in Colombia, his second album, Un Dia Normal, was filled with a palatable sense of newfound optimism. This change in tone can be attributed in part to a healthy marriage to Colombian model Karen Martinez and the addition of two daughters to his family. "I have direction, a profound understanding of family," Juanes comments.
Un Dia Normal, which rang up six Latin Grammys, quickly became the number one Latin album of the year in sales and airplay while remaining in the Latin Top 10 for close to two years, according to Billboard. It also included a peace anthem in A Dios Le Pido, in which he begs for the wars in Colombia to cease, that went on to be tabbed 2003's best rock song by Billboard.
"It came at a time when I was starting to see things come together in life and I was filled with optimism," says Juanes. "A lot of good things were happening."
Mi Sangre explores the same themes as other Juanes albums social harmony and inner peace. In the heartbreaking "SunOS," Juanes sings about the bloodshed in Colombia's guerrilla war as he imagines a day when the many kidnapped victims will be freed and returned to their homes. He also shows a flirtatious and daring side in "Damelo," where he sets his sights on a possible lover.
"Colombia is a country that to this day still suffers tremendously," Juanes says. "And we can't sit behind a wall and ignore it. The truth must be told. And you know what? I see many reasons to continue to hope that my country will one day be afforded the peace it deserves."