BY JORDAN LEVIN
Posted on The Miami Herald, Fri, Jun. 21, 2002
One of the most beloved and influential artists in Latin music, Juan Luis Guerra -- who appears at the Miami Arena Sunday night -- is also one of the most independent, with a career that defies traditional commercial wisdom. The composer/singer, who brought the merengue of his beloved Dominican Republic to unprecedented levels of fame and sophistication with Bachata Rosa (1991), releases albums sporadically, is famously press shy, and tours rarely and briefly.
He is devoutly religious, and his witty, poetic songs often tackle social issues. El Niágara en bicicleta, the big hit off his last album, Ni es lo mismo, ni es igual (1988), compared the trials of going to a Third World hospital with crossing the famous Niagara Falls on a bicycle.
Guerra says he can't explain his success, and tries not to think about it in making his music. "I never thought about what I could do with my music; my work was just what I did," he says by phone from Santo Domingo. "I was searching for my own satisfaction, and the rest was just what came out. But you can't do things thinking about where it's going to end up. You just have to do what you have to do, and it works or it doesn't."
"Bachata Rosa was so successful, I didn't believe I could ever do anything like that again," he says. "So after that it seemed like really all I can do is create and believe in grace. Because I don't have the final decision, it's the public that makes the final decision."
Miami audiences will deliver their latest decision on Guerra on Sunday, when he gives his first public concert here in nine years at the Miami Arena. The show, which also features pop/ballad singer Ricardo Montaner, is the inaugural event of SBS Entertainment, a new concert production company created by Coconut Grove-based radio chain Spanish Broadcasting Systems.
"He sings about what the people want to hear, day to day problems," says John Sepulveda, the new enterprise's general manager, as he explained why they picked Guerra for their first set of concerts (Saturday night he plays New York's Madison Square Garden). "He's an idol to a lot of people. Most [artists] take a more commercial attitude. It's been [nine] years since he's been in Miami, and we needed a big act that would guarantee a sellout."
Guerra is slightly more ambivalent. He is known to suffer from stage fright, and although he says he's looking forward to performing, he also admits to some nerves. "I do believe that it'll be a really beautiful, wonderful night -- an important night," he says. "When I'm on stage and I see everything is OK, I like it. But I have to tell you that it's a very emotional moment, and I only think it's going to be OK once I'm up there."
Raised in Santo Domingo, the tall, gangly Guerra once aspired to be a jazz musician, and studied at Boston's Berklee College of Music. But instead he devoted himself to the music and themes of his island. The title track of Ojalá que llueva cafe (Let it rain coffee), the 1988 album by Guerra and his group 4.40 (the name refers to a standard measure of musical pitch) evoked the poverty and beauty of the Dominican countryside -- "merengue with a message" and with newly sophisticated harmonies and arrangements.
Bachata Rosa made the Dominican Republic's obscure country style of bachata an international hit with elaborately witty, sensual lyrics and catchy melodies. It sold four million copies worldwide and paved the way for the current popular wave of bachata artists like Monchy & Alexandra. On Fogaraté! (1994) he blended another obscure Dominican style, raucous perico ripiao, with African soukous.
Although love songs are a large part of his repertoire, social themes continue to inspire Guerra. The video for 1992's El costo de la vida (The cost of living), a sharp look at the troubles of poverty, was banned in parts of Latin America. It's a concern that is still rare among popular Latin musicians.
"It's part of our daily life in the Dominican Republic -- our newspaper gives me ideas,'' Guerra says. "When I heard Rubén Blades doing this with salsa, that opened the door for me to think I could do the same with merengue. But I think there's a lot more to be done on this line, and I don't know why others don't do it."
But he makes only a mild recommendation to the new generation of Dominican musicians, whether hardcore urban merengue or pop-bachata artists, who are more popular than ever. "I'm in no position to be a critic," he says. "But this is something I'd recommend to everyone -- don't disregard how you express yourself. We have to take care of our musical patrimony."
But Guerra seems determined to stay outside the commercial fray. He has remained with a small label, Karen, largely because they let him make his own recording schedule. Six years ago he bought a television station and two radio stations in the Dominican Republic, a successful business that enables him to spend more time with his wife and two children.
At the same time he converted to evangelism, which he says has given him greater certainty and personal independence. "What I have is a personal relationship with God, and I think he's come into my life to give me more willpower," he says.
In a way, his personal faith translates into his faith in his music. "Everything has its time," he says. "There's a time to come out ahead, there's a time to wait. Nothing is easy. You have to keep working and do the best you can."