Gutter Glitter

Pop stars are only discovered on TV shows, not in real life, right? Don't tell that to Puerto Rican band Circo. "This is totally pop-star imagery," laughs charismatic singer Jose Luis Abreu, better known as Fofe. Sitting with his bandmates -- drummer David Perez, keyboardist Edgardo "Egui" Santiago, bassist Nicolas Cordero, and guitarist Orlando Mendez -- at a Miami Beach hotel two weeks ago, Fofe is preparing for Circo's long-awaited Miami debut at Billboardlive and promoting the indie album distributed by Miami distributor DLN, No Todo Lo Que Es Pop Es Bueno (Not All That Is Pop Is Good).

Fofe is aware of the irony that a band that has gone out of its way to be alternative should end up with two Latin Grammy nominations and TV exposure on mainstream music video channels across the Americas. "What happened in the last year has been more pop-oriented than our own philosophy," he admits.

The singer says he nevertheless feels safe from the further irony of actually winning at the awards celebration on September 18. But if this indie band with only one album and just over a year playing together seems a Latin Grammy long shot, the frenzy at Circo's Wednesday night show doesn't let on. Cameras from MTV, HTV, Mun2, and myriad newspapers and magazines crowd the stage while heavy-hitting honchos from the major labels elbow each other in the VIP. For any of the bands that weekly struggle to get heard in Miami, this is sort of a Latin Grammy Award in advance.

Circo's dark pop-rock probably deserves to beat out the competition in the best new artist category (Colombian Cabas, Peruvian Gian Marco, Cuban-American Jorge Moreno, Mexican-Argentinean Latin soul duet Sin Bandera). The best rock album by a duo or group category seems less certain: Mexican group Kinky's self-titled debut and Jessico from Argentinean band Babasonicos have edgier and more danceable tracks than any other name on the list, including the debut El Que Busca Encuentra (He Who Seeks Finds) by Mexican newcomers Elefante and the successful Unplugged album released by Chilean stalwarts La Ley. But let the Recording Academy decide. Whatever happens, the Latin Grammys will only help to spread the word about Circo.

But if the impossible should happen, Fofe promises to accept the little gramophone wearing a T-shirt that reads "Britney Spears -- 2002 Mexican Tour." A Madonna-style gesture of support for the pop princess? No, grins Fofe, more like a reminder of one of the few shows where Britney got seriously booed, a dark cloud of Mexico City smog sullying her ultra-pink sky.

If Britney is too much of a looker, Fofe is an unlikely-looking pop star. Ninety-five percent bald except for some fuzz on the back of his neck, he is no pretty boy. He is not even an engaging geek in the thin and angular way of, say, Bauhaus's Peter Murphy. Yet his quirky looks come with a sweet voice that can easily double as a female backup chorus when Circo's music gets as epic as the Edge's guitar in the Eighties. Sometimes Circo swaps the Puerto-Rican-Depeche-meets-U2 mode (which could also be called the Soda-Stereo-meets-La-Ley mode) for more up-to-date beats. Most Circo songs begin with a dark retro intro, then develop into a pop-tinged salsa, a rocker number, or a lounge trip.

Most notably for the indie band's success is a flirtation with the unbeatable formula of pop bolero. If Mexican crooner Luis Miguel had included Circo's pop-rock version of Armando Manzanero's classic bolero "Historia de Un Amor," he might have sold even more copies of his blockbuster album Romance 2. For Circo, the cover broke into the video channels.

But then Fofe is no stranger to the music video. Before forming Circo, he fronted El Manjar de Los Dioses (God's Delicacy), a band that stayed together six years from 1994 to the end of the millennium, and released two albums, a self-titled debut and a followup called Alucinando (To Hallucinate), both recorded in Miami studios. Today the three Circo members that come from Manjar -- singer Fofe, keyboardist Egui, and drummer Perez -- talk about the end sadly, especially when they remember the breakup came five days before the group was supposed to record the third opus.

"I'll blame the breakup of the band on life, nothing else," says Fofe, who will later explain that fatherhood hit hard in the band's list of priorities. The other three El Manjar members -- its founder, bassist Carlos Diaz, plus guitarists Reyis and Rey Nieves -- also had some "creative differences" and decided to stay in Puerto Rico, willing to use the band's name if needed.

Having the urge to get into a recording studio after the stalled third album, singer, keyboardist, and drummer got together, added two members, and revved up a racecar that has not stopped until now, a year and a half later. The language was the main difference, creative or not, between the two bands. Circo members agree that the previous sound changed from a more folk approach to guitar rock into the sound they have today, darker and pop.

"We have evolved to a more universal sound; El Manjar had more of our folk roots, and that was probably better translated into Caribbean audiences," explains Fofe, immediately adding a fact the band proves when playing live: "With our brand-new experiments of pop formula and repetitive chorus, Circo's music could appeal to a wider audience and make us understandable."

The fans have been so understanding that Circo has already slipped a live album in the bins as well as a DVD documenting a big show in Puerto Rico, last July. In August the band participated for the second year in the Latin Alternative Music Conference in New York, and now they're already planning a return to the studio, to record -- this time for real -- a third album.

Then, if only for one minute, they can think of something else besides the Latin Grammys.

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Javier Andrade