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In his native Argentina, singer-songwriter Fito Páez is looked upon as a kind of living legend. As one of the main forbearers of his country's electrifying rock en español movement, Páez is celebrated for creating highly eloquent and melodic albums, often focusing on the harsh sociopolitical realities of South American life. Throughout the Spanish-speaking world, a Fito Páez concert is treated as a major event, easily drawing thousands of loyal fans to ample concert halls. Yet in the United States, he remains a largely unknown figure. That's something he would like to change.
"I really do think that the U.S. sometimes misses out on a lot of the cool culture coming from Latin America," the 45-year-old Páez says at a recent press conference at the Arsht Center. Looking youthful, he sports his trademark dark-rimmed eyeglasses with a tweed jacket and white vintage sneakers. "I grew up listening to Argentinean music, but I was aware of what was happening musically in the United States."
As a way to introduce him here, Norte, his record company, is releasing a greatest-hits compilation, titled Grandes Éxitos. The 15 songs, chosen by Páez, span the bulk of his solo career and feature decidedly Beatlesque hits such as "La Rueda Mágica" and "Mariposa Tecknicolor."
Furthermore, Páez is set to perform in Miami this Friday in the Knight Concert Hall at the Arsht Center. In contrast to past concerts, this outing catches the rocker performing his music in an intimate setup. "It's going to be just me, playing the songs on the piano. I'll be playing musical numbers from my past, as well as the present, and hopefully there will be a couple of surprise guests that will show up to help me out," he says. "It's a different way to present my music. The songs won't be adorned with any other instruments, and that's great because it offers me the liberty to change the set list at any moment."
Coming of age on the Eighties Buenos Aires music scene, Páez has always made music marked by a rich mixture of social commentary and cool Sixties rock-infused melodies. He has collaborated closely with the godfather of Argentine rock, the legendary Charly García, and in 1992 released the top-selling album in his nation's history, the brilliant El Amor Después del Amor (Love After Love).
Last year, Páez's record El Mundo Cabe en una Canción (The World Is a Song) won a Latin Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Album. The prolific musician has even ventured into filmmaking — writing and directing four full-length features. They include the critically acclaimed 2001 drama Vidas Privadas (Private Lives), a vividly surreal take on the moral lives of an Argentine family, starring Gael García Bernal.
As to be expected, Páez lives a highly creative, hectic, and public life. Still, amid the recording, performing, and filmmaking, the singer-songwriter dedicates his free time to charity work, especially for his homeland.
"That's a very personal subject for me. The people at UNICEF are a great organization. I personally donated half a million dollars to them. I had a lot of money at the time and felt that I should share in my good fortune," he says. "Back home in Argentina, there's a lot of need. We need libraries and schools. I don't like to get too much into that subject, but I like to help when I can."
And thanks largely to the success of his best-selling album, El Amor Después del Amor, Páez has attained a level of artistic freedom that is rare in Latin music circles. He often records for his own label, Circo Beat, and collaborates with singers such as Alberto Spinetta, the aforementioned Charly García, and Os Mutantes' Brazilian chanteuse Rita Lee, with whom Páez recorded the track "Ojos Rojos."
Still, even with all of his travels and accomplishments, Páez has a special attraction to Miami, a city with a large and vibrant Argentine population. "Miami is a place that lacks any real history," says Páez, "but I really find that to be very interesting. It's also starting to become a real city. Thirty years ago, it used to be a retirement place for elderly people, and now it's a real cultural hybrid with Argentines and other Latinos influencing the city's culture at a rapid pace."
Which means that unlike other cities in the States, Miami offers Páez an expectant audience. "Years ago, I didn't play any concerts in Miami," he says. "And now giving a concert here feels almost like being back home in Argentina."