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."

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Jordan Levin