"I think people honestly, genuinely love my salsa music; that's the end of the discussion right there," says Luis Enrique, wearing the kind of enlightened smile you might see on a salmon who's decided to stop swimming upstream. Hugging his guitar, the "prince of salsa" leans back in a booth at Touch, where he's come to greet the press and talk about his new album, Transparente.
Enrique wears his guitar like a badge of honor, a reminder that he considers himself, foremost, a songwriter and musician. No argument here. The Nicaraguan native has long been appreciated by fellow Miami musicians and local jam-session aficionados as a talented percussionist and singer/songwriter whose own stylistic preferences lean more toward alternative pop or trova than the romantic salsa that made him a Latin music star. After a string of Latin chart hits, Grammy nominations, and other music awards, Enrique attempted to break out of the blow-dried box and earn his props beyond the tropical category. But his two late-Nineties pop albums, Genesis and Timbalaye, did not fare well. On the other hand, 2000's Evolucion, his return to romantic salsa and ballads, while not a critical favorite, garnered another Grammy nomination.
"I pay attention to a lot of stuff that's been written to me on my Website and from my fan club," Enrique reveals. "Everyone was saying, 'Give us more of the danceable stuff.' So I said, 'Let's do it.'"
Although designer Hugo Boss is listed in the album credits and Transparente has brought Enrique back to the Spanish TV variety-show circuit with a crew of dancing mamis, the singer views the album as a victory of substance over style. He describes his current hard-edged salsa as "a combination of my own sound and the powerful sound that is out there on the street." Enrique began working on the album in his home studio and recorded in Miami and New York. He enlisted Sergio George, known for his gritty, urban, Latin dance productions and hip-hop and reggae fusions, to produce as well as co-write some of the songs.
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"[Sergio's] a combination of New York, el barrio, rhythm and blues, hip-hop ... a combination of salsa and Cuban music; he really likes Cuban music as much as I do," Enrique notes. "We could relate to each other in many ways. I think he brought that New York energy to the tracks. Sergio has a unique style of combining different sounds within his arrangements.
"Salsa has turned out to be world music more than anything else," he continues. "Salsa is not just for us; it's music that's all over the world now. I'm trying to bring those layers of global sound to this music and make sure they're not contradicting the Afro-Cuban rhythms."
Transparente features the fierce piano vamps, funky riffs, and driving percussion familiar to both George's productions (think DLG) and Cuban timba. Relentlessly energetic, the album is short on nuance, although romantic interludes are supplied by ballad versions of two of the dance tracks, "Será" and "Amanecer."
Enrique dedicated the album to his baby son Luca and named it in honor of the transparent love between father and child. In the process of becoming a parent, he also seems to have struck a balance between the two sides of himself: earnest artist and Latin star.
"Basically, I'm focusing on writing great songs, romantic songs with nice lyrics," Enrique says, strumming his guitar. "But I also want to make sure that the rhythm is there, that the energy and the power is there. If you want to just listen to it that's cool, but let's make sure it will make you dance."
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