This Way Out

Next week in my spaceship/I will leave this world/I can't find peace here ... I want to be a citizen of the world. Juan Antonio Ferreyra sang those words on the title track of his 1991 album Salida de Emergencia. Eleven years later JAF -- as the Argentine blues man is known -- finally made his emergency exit, ditching a career that brought him five gold records and one platinum in exchange for a work permit and the chance to start over in the United States. He's lost the dark mane of his rock and roll glory days, but the bald 44-year-old plays guitar and sings the blues as powerfully as he ever has. Now, perhaps, with more reason.

Unlike most of his Argentinean colleagues who pass through Miami picking up dollars on promotional tours, JAF decided to stay in the city and struggle as a local act, taking any stage that will have him. Sometimes he finds himself in front of compatriots who recognize the man and his hits. Otherwise he wins over crowds unfamiliar with him by switching to English covers of bands he heard while growing up in a humble neighborhood in Buenos Aires: Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. On a good night he can please everyone with his faithful Spanish adaptation of Eric Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight."

Back in the early Nineties, when Argentina's economic future looked promising, JAF was the number one voice in national rock. In 1985 he was the lead vocalist for Argentinean heavy-metal pioneers Riff in that band's strongest lineup. Going solo, JAF released six studio albums and a Greatest Hits project with BMG. His solo efforts sold roughly 300,000 copies each, a huge number for his homeland, but he didn't believe his own hype. "At a certain point I was on top of every chart in Argentina and that could have led me astray," he points out. "But I know that you have to take it easy, to not believe one word that is said or written, and get onstage with only one thought: that is, to give something to the people listening."

By 1997 JAF's success encouraged him to record his first and last independent production, Number 7. And he lost his biggest bet. After investing more than $150,000 in the disc, JAF started paying installments on what he calls "the devilish debts" that have followed him here. "I come from a humble family and I can manage to live with basic things," he grieves. "I spent or invested the money when I had it, or bought a house for my mother, but I was never involved in the kind of debts I have now."

Determined to rectify the situation, JAF went on the road. He claims in the past five years to have boarded more than 200 planes and driven more than 300,000 miles to play some 1500 shows in 20 Argentinean provinces. "I've worked my ass off, and it's not even enough. The numbers are still in the red," he says. "I don't like to sit with nothing to do but wait for a phone call. The problem is I couldn't get enough money or tranquility for my family even by going to the extreme of working 24-7."

So what do you do when 24 hours a day are not enough? "I didn't want to go crazy over this situation, so I decided to leave the country looking for a place to work," says the singer, who is still $60,000 in debt. He thought about going to Spain or to Mexico, but he ended up in Miami -- the right place, he feels, for his family. The good thing about the United States, according to JAF, is that you can work if you want to. That, sadly, is no longer true in Argentina, a country whose only export these days seems to be expats eager to sing along to the Argentinean blues.

"That's good for a start," concedes JAF. But he knows homesick compatriots alone will not make him a success here.

So JAF continues to gig nonstop.

Why not seek out a producer stateside, then build up a buzz with a new project before booking so many live shows? Because his family can't wait, JAF answers. His wife and kids, five-year-old Gonzalo and seven-year-old Virginia, arrived last month to live with Daddy in a friend's house in Aventura, and they need things now. This is no time to act like a rock star or cry over lost hair.

"I wake up really early in the morning and every time I kiss my kids, I know exactly who I am and where to go," he says. "They depend on me and I can't afford the luxury of not being ready to work, every night if necessary."

And how has he adjusted to starting over at fame's ground zero? To paraphrase Eminem, JAF needs no shrink. "As a guitarist, singer, and songwriter, I believe in the power of blues and rock as simple music that helps to communicate feelings to everybody in society," he says. In addition to the covers familiar to U.S. audiences, the singer introduces original material by running through songs from his own seven-album history back to back. "I know that art is something you have to keep on doing whether it hits the right people or not," JAF points out. "I'm prepared for whatever comes."

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Javier Andrade