Don't say anything about the sophomore curse to Colombian singer-songwriter Juanes. Don't even mention the followup jinx to Panamanian power trio Rabanes. Each act put out disc numero dos this month, and from the sound of the new material, neither one would have any idea what you were talking about. Doesn't it always get better the second time around? The one-two follow-through punch of Juanes's Un Día Normal (A Normal Day) and Rabanes' Money Pa' Qué (Who Needs Money?) is a winning blow for the fledgling Latin alternative scene in the United States, a movement less in need of crossover flashes than of solid successes that can build momentum over time.
Shortly after dominating last year's Latin Grammys with three awards, Juanes downloaded demos for the more than 40 new tunes he'd written and produced on his laptop in hotel rooms all over the Spanish-speaking world while on the road pushing his 2000 solo album, Fijate Bien (Pay Close Attention). "Before, I wrote songs easily but not so frequently," says Juanes, referring to his past as frontman for the Colombian metal band Ehkymosis. "Now it's a much more personal responsibility. Like writing the book of my life."
Respected alt-Latin producer Gustavo Santaolalla made his contribution to that book when he signed Juanes to his signature label Surco, owned by major powerhouse Universal, as a pop project: a quality rocker with mass appeal (See "Metal Morfosis," New Times, July 26, 2001). But Santaolalla never pressured Juanes to go commercial. On the contrary, says the affable artist, "When I worked with Gustavo the first time he told me that he's not interested in creating artists but in creating concepts."
The concept behind Un Día Normal derives directly from Colombian folklore. "I don't come from mass media," says Juanes of his musical inspiration. "I come from the people, from popular or folkloric music. It's like I came back to my roots." Fijate Bien used a rock idiom accented with Colombian folk flourishes to meditate on life in a dangerous world. Un Día gives rock treatment to salsa from the coast, bambuco from the plains, and guasca, the country music of Juanes's native Medellin. Rather than remark on danger, Juanes is now searching for simple pleasures. "The horror saturates you," he reveals, thick eyebrows knitting over dark brown eyes. "I got tired of so much sadness. There are still social themes, but the outlook is more optimistic." He illustrates by singing a phrase from the title track: "Today is a normal day/But I'm going to make it intense." Clear and direct, his voice hesitates on the internal rhyme between yo/I and intenso/intense as though stating a resolution. It's no wonder that the first single from the album, "A Dios Le Pido" (I Ask God), is a prayer. "It's a spiritual action," Juanes says earnestly, "a song to life."
Rabanes frontman Emilio Regueira is as much a joker as Juanes is sincere, but Money Pa' Qué is no less an effort to wrest pleasure from tragedy. The party band Emilio Estefan was never looking for, Rabanes infiltrated el padrino's Sony-owned boutique label Crescent Moon Records by enlisting compatriot and then-Estefan-employee Roberto Blades to produce the band's first U.S. release freelance ("Chombo Ghetto," New Times, August 23, 2001). Even though everyone at Crescent Moon, from Emilio to the rank-and-file, routinely refers to Regueira as "totally loco," after a Latin Grammy nomination last year spurred six-figure sales, Rabanes' next outing rated the full Estefan production and promotion treatment.
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Reportedly written on airplanes and barstools, the first round of recording for Money Pa' Qué took place in the Panama City studio Insomnia, where rock and folklore groups record side by side, leading Rabanes to recruit two players for their own project. "The other disc was more one formula," Regueira points out. "This one has more roots." Where Los Rabanes was a self-funded, start-and-stop project on a shoestring budget, Money Pa' Qué, ironically enough, is a full-studio press and further proof of producer Sebastian Krys's genius. The Argentine-American raised in Miami was responsible for the big sound on Carlos Vives's latest rock-folk fusion; here he has a field day threading together Rabanes' freighter-full of Panama Canal influences while throwing in any number of his own: ten seconds of drum and bass here, a few bars of Haitian compas there, big fat Miami 808 bass kickin' it to the Estefan stable's trademark conga brass while the guitars roar pure heavy metal, a ragtime-dancehall tribute to three days Regueira spent drunk in New Orleans. "Sebastian captured the freshness of the group without losing any of our sensibility," says the frontman. Never, in all the madness, does the power trio of singer/guitarist Regueira, bass player Christian Torres, and drummer Javier Saavedra disappear.
If Juanes looks to God and the love of a good woman for salvation, the jokers in Rabanes find sanctity and sanctuary in a woman's big backside. "The problem we saw everywhere in Latin America was that there's no money," says Regueira of the tour's late-night inebriation in dive bars from Mexico to Argentina that inspired the album. "You can't have love nowadays without money," he observes. True to the chombo (black Panamanian) ethic the band follows, the only cure Rabanes found for economic woes is to have a good time. The singer points proudly to the CD cover art that flaunts the Latin pop convention of presenting artists as eye candy, instead portraying the devilishly handsome Regueira and his bandmates as down-and-out drunks with shit-eating grins.
"We don't profess any politics," says Regueira. "There's no solution. I think that [belief] belonged to another epoch. We're in a time of corruption and violence, of terrorism. It would be difficult to fix things. We have to go as far as the music will take us."
Backed by boutique labels with major muscle, both Juanes and Rabanes have the power to take their music further than the many Latin alternative bands that have toiled in obscurity before them. As long as they stay connected to the sounds and struggles of the continent that reared them, their success will make it possible for those who come after to take the music further still.