Bottom of the Heap O Top of the World
In the super-hyped world of pop music, especially Latin pop music, Juan Luis Guerra is something of an anomaly. Yes, he's currently the biggest attraction in the Latin music world. But he got there with his integrity and artistry intact.
As a lyricist Guerra is a storyteller, a reporter with a good eye for detail and a poet's ear for evocative imagery. Some of his songs arise from the social woes of his native Dominican Republic, portraying with compassion the struggle for survival that constitutes life for most of his fellow Dominicans. But he is not a polemical Ruben Blades, nor a nueva trova crusader like Silvio Rodriguez or Pablo Milanes. "It is a very different approach - it is reality," Guerra offers. "I do not say, `Do this or that.' I am not blaming anyone. It is not that anyone is at fault, only that we have the problems, and we have to change them."
People, particularly Dominicans, take seriously what Guerra says, and not just what he sings about with his band, Grupo 4.40. In an interview during this past summer's triumphant tour of Spain, Guerra's statements that "our problems are the responsibility of Dominicans, no one else" and "if four of us can change the merengue, then thousands can change the country" were plastered across the front pages of all five daily papers in Santo Domingo.
The changing of merengue was one of Grupo 4.40's early victories. As one member of Guerra's close social circle in Santo Domingo explains, "Before it was very vulgar, distorted by bad musicians. Now everyone has had to make an effort to make better music. He's bringing merengue back to where it started: a beautiful, harmonious rhythm."
The music of Juan Luis Guerra may have begun with a restoration of merengue's roots, but it hardly ends there. Remaining entrenched in the traditions and music of the Dominican Republic, the Guerra sound also ventures into other Latin rhythms, such as bachata, palos, salsa, and son, while also encompassing jazz, gospel, rock, and various African styles. This musical potpourri, along with an abundance of sheer talent and obvious passion, allows Grupo 4.40 to stimulate your mind as easily as they fire your feet. It's pop music, there's no doubt of that, but with a musical intelligence and lyrical sophistication that lifts it well above the double-entendres, sappy romance/good times subject matter, and the simplistic rhythms of standard merengue. "We can say many things," Guerra notes, "while people don't stop shaking their bodies."
The rare ability to entwine the intellectual with the visceral, the thought with the action, makes Guerra a top contender to build that elusive musical bridge between the Americas. His crossover potential is not just a dream. In the Spanish-speaking world, his music draws fans like bees to the hive. Some Miami Latins feel familiar enough to nickname 4.40 "twenty till five." Now comes the challenge of translating that to all of el Norte. Grupo 4.40's first major U.S. tour began November 15 in Washington, D.C., and hits the Miami Arena on Sunday.
In the United States, heavily Latinized South Florida has had the inside track in discovering this distinct musical voice (4.40 has appeared here several times). The rest of the country, however, has only recently begun to take notice. Guerra and his group were the subject of an article in the November 4 issue of Newsweek, and have also received coverage in Rolling Stone, the New York Times, the Village Voice, and the Wall Street Journal. Enrique Fernandez, long-time Voice music columnist and current editor of Mas, a national Spanish-language magazine, has followed Guerra's ascent. "He's a natural," Fernandez says. "He became a star without any promotion. He has it now, but when he started, he had none whatsoever. There were no press releases, no photos, no agents trying to get interviews. People like Guerra come along once in a blue moon. It's the rarest phenomenon in pop music, where everything is so heavily promoted. He caught on through word of mouth."
The word has already spread far and wide, but Guerra and company have done little to quicken the pace of the bandwagon. His previously nonexistent hype machine is running now, but in low gear, and he is reluctant to grant interviews. With 4.40's first U.S. tour comes the obvious and inevitable question: Can the rhythmic richness, memorable melodies, and poetic lyrics of what is currently the most popular group in Latin America communicate to North American ears - in Spanish?
In a telephone interview from New York City, Guerra spoke about his background, his influences, and his expanding fame. His music, meanwhile, speaks loud and clear for those who are ready to listen.
Guerra was born into the middle class in the capital of Santo Domingo and began playing guitar at the age of ten. Although he studied philosophy for two years in college, he always wanted to be a musician. A woman from the same social circles in Santo Domingo remembers him as a tall and awkward adolescent with an Afro haircut who played guitar at school carnivals, but still hung out with the "hot-shot" rich kids whose parents were in the government. Guerra went on to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, well-known for turning out technically adept jazz musicians. "I wanted to be a guitar player," Guerra recalls. "I idolized Pat Metheny, I loved jazz. I was a jazz/rock musician."
After returning to the Dominican Republic, he says, he "tried to play jazz, but I didn't feel comfortable playing jazz there. Something was missing. I wanted to work with my roots." In 1984 he formed 4.40 (the name refers to standard concert pitch, A above middle C on the piano), and their first release was Soplando, a smooth jazz record Guerra describes as being "inspired by Duke Ellington, Charlie Mingus, Count Basie, by big-band music, and also by the Manhattan Transfer. It was really a mixture of pampiche - an old style of merengue - and big-band music."
Guerra's music is unusual in the Dominican Republic for reasons beyond its invigorating blend of styles. In a country where almost everyone is some shade of brown and could, if they wanted to, trace some descent from Africa, Guerra is particular in acknowledging the African heritage that many ignore. "I don't think we recognize our African roots," he explains. "So many sociologists have said this. But we have to work on this in all aspects. I think it is a lack of knowing where we come from. I don't think it's racism. It's a matter of education. I know I come from Africa and Spain."
His music provides social insight n other ways as well. Last year's best-selling album Bachata Rosa honors bachata, a raw, urban hillbilly music played with drums, guitar, and accordion. It got its name because it was country, lower-class, the soundtrack of funky little bars in slums like Villa Mella. People said "that's bachata," meaning "that's garbage." Like Argentine tango, Cuban son (which has essentially the same rhythm), and the blues, bachata is both sexy and cry-in-your-beer music. Thanks to Guerra (and to a few other artists such as Luis Diaz and Victor Victor), bachata is now considered hip. Guerra took something intrinsically Dominican that no one else would touch and called it a rose.
Though not as poor as neighboring Haiti, the Dominican Republic has more than its share of social and economic problems. In Santo Domingo, most people have electrical power (and thus running water) for only a few hours a day; public transportation, garbage collection, clean drinking water, street maintenance, and a decent wage are virtually nonexistent. Homeless children, called palomitas (little doves) live both on and literally underneath the Malecon, the seaside boulevard that is Santo Domingo's main tourist strip. The social stratification is such that a tiny percentage of very wealthy people can afford anything they want, while a narrow middle class has less and less, and a huge majority barely manages to survive.
Guerra's music may not be specifically designed to comfort the disenfranchised, but the appeal is there. Ironically enough, this expression of compassion also led to a commercial turning point for Grupo 4.40 in 1987. The album Ojala que llueva cafe
(May It Rain Coffee) weaves together an extravagant language of poetry and slang, ballads and exuberant dance numbers, all addressing particularly Dominican subjects. In the title song, surreal images of plenty - watercress and honey, mountains of rice and wheat, waterfalls of yuca and tea - rain down on the D.R.'s impoverished campesinos. "For Ojala," Guerra explains, "I went to Santiago [de los Caballeros] and found the phrase in the campo. It was something a campesino had said. There are too many farmers in my country who died not knowing they are poets. He was desperate and wrote this, wanting that it may rain coffee, bread, all the things he needed. I took this phrase and made the whole truth from it."
The alternative to awaiting deliverance is to go and seek it, and Guerra understands this, too. "Visa para un sueno" ("Visa for a Dream") describes the frustrations - getting up before dawn, long lines, bribes - of trying to get a visa to the U.S. Other songs on Ojala bolster the theme - in the gospel-tinged "La Gallera," a character loses everything on cock-fight wagers; "Razones" ("Reasons") notes the problems in the street and offers love as an antidote.
Love and romance, in fact, have become predominant themes in Guerra's music. "Women are a very important part of my writing," he says. "I think women are one of the beautiful things in the world. So it is easy to choose beautiful things to work on." Guerra's way with strange, poetic imagery and word play saves these songs from melting into syrup. "Bubbles of Love" - the big ballad from Bachata Rosa - can be enjoyed as a sly compilation of erotic double-entendres, but it's also a hauntingly beautiful ballad rich with the sort of word craft that sets Guerra apart. Though the lyrics do not translate well to English, essentially Guerra describes his lover as a fish bowl, and he wants to be the fish, pressing his nose against her, making bubbles of love, complete immersion. "I did the tune really thinking that I was a fish in a tank," the songwriter says. "Not in a sexual way, not in that secondary way that so many have said. Of course, mojado en ti (drenched in you) is a sensual phrase. But the way I wrote it was ingenuous. When you write a song, you do not own it, so people are going to think what
After Bachata Rosa sold more than four million copies, it was pretty clear what people were thinking and what they wanted: more Juan Luis Guerra. Hence the current tour, a big-time affair. Pepsi (for whom Guerra appears in a national TV commercial) is the official sponsor. The tour promoter, Cardenas-Fernandez & Associates, has helped present such extravaganzas as Manuel, Chayanne, and Kaoma. Grupo 4.40 will be playing in arenas, convention centers, coliseums -the major venues in Europe, South America, and especially in the United States, where in addition to Miami, the band will stop in Washington, D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, four cities in Texas, New Jersey, and Orlando. According to Tito Lopez, manager of 4.40's Karen Publishing label in Puerto Rico, the idea is to "open the door with the Latin public in the U.S., in the hopes that the Anglo audience will follow."
Back in the formative mid-Eighties, Grupo 4.40 (which besides singer/composer/producer/arranger Guerra also includes three other singers, twelve musicians, and six Afro-jazz dancers) went through a similar transition. Bienvenido Rodriguez, who was to become Guerra's executive producer, told him then that his music was very good - ut not very commercial. Going commercial in the Dominican Republic meant going merengue, and 4.40 did that, albeit with a different approach. Their music was more folk, more jazzy, and was listened to by a smaller, more educated audience. They were strictly local, a cult band. They didn't appeal to the Dominican masses or the turistas. They didn't get to play the big hotel discos. Although they began receiving radio play with the albums Mudanza y Accereo (1985) and Mientras Mas Lo Pienso...Tu (1986), they weren't terrifically popular until 1987.
Undoubtedly Guerra's wide variety of musical influences has helped propel him and his group to star status. He says the Beatles are his favorite right now, along with acts as varied as Sting, Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, gospel singers Take 6, Mory Kante, sundry South African vocal groups, Salif Keita, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Ruben Blades, Los Van Van, and Tabou Combo. "I am always trying to mix all types of music with Dominican folklore," Guerra adds. "Puerto Rican salsa groups, Bob Marley, Cuban son, rock, jazz, South African influences."
Guerra has been quoted as saying, "I want to be the John Lennon of the Caribbean," and he seems to be trying to reach that level of pop universality. John Lennon, of course, sang in the language understood by the world's largest music market. Will Guerra adopt English? "No, I'm not going to sing in English," the Dominican star says. "I'm going to try in Spanish first. It's the way I know, the way I feel. There is something magic in music that you can't explain. I listened to the Beatles and loved them, though I couldn't understand the words. I think the audience can get the rhythm and the harmony even if they can't get anything else, even if they can't understand the lyrics. We want them to understand, because lyrics are very important to us. But they can still get something. They can still dance.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.