When Juan Esteban Aristizabal woke up on July 12, he was not a rock star. By the time he went to bed that Tuesday night, he was. "It's completely absurd," says the 27-year-old called Juanes as a television camera caresses his face, a newspaper reporter scribbles notes and a photographer tests the light in the next room. The media has trooped into his manager's office on Brickell Key for the past three days, eager to get acquainted with the little-known singer-songwriter whose debut solo album scored seven nominations for the second annual Latin Grammys.
"After thirteen years of fighting against the current, I never imagined this could happen," he continues, dazed.
Juanes has been playing rock and roll for most of his life, but he is not accustomed to fanfare. When he sits down to begin an interview, he asks if he may hold his guitar. "It's not to play," he explains, snuggling the instrument into his lap, "just to have it here." The guitar has been Juanes's friend since his older brothers taught him to play popular Colombian songs when he was seven years old in his native Medellín. Seven years later, the guitarist formed a heavy-metal band with a group of friends drawn to one another by their love for Metallica. "My wall was covered with posters of James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett," he laughs. "I rejected folklore."
His band, Ekhymosis, named after the first stage of a bruise, got banged up at shows around Medellín that drew furious crowds and encouraged the band to produce a two-track recording in 1992. By the time Ekhymosis signed with Colombian record label Codiscos a year later, however, metal had lost some of its luster for Juanes.
"I felt the absence of popular music from my own culture," he recalls. "I felt like I was betraying all of my principles and that I wasn't honest with myself." In 1998 the ex-headbanger sold his computer, scooter and stereo to buy a plane ticket to the United States. He touched down briefly in Miami and New York City before settling into a cheap motel in Los Angeles, picking up gigs with short-handed bands at the Whisky and other Sunset Boulevard clubs while the clock on his tourist visa ticked down. "Every day, I would touch the wad of money in my pocket," he laughs, "and every day, it was smaller."
One morning, while walking along Wilshire Boulevard, Juanes mulled over a telephone conversation he had had with his mother a few days earlier about land mines in the Colombian countryside. He thought about his compatriots who had been blown away by a single misstep. He thought about his own journey: Symbolic land mines lay all around him. Slowly he began humming the melody for what would become the chorus of "Fijate Bien" ("Pay Close Attention"). Rushing back to the motel, he spent the next half-hour improvising the verses for the rest of the song into a four-track recorder: "They've taken away your daily bread/They've run you off your land."
Juanes's cash had almost disappeared when a demo including "Fijate Bien" made its way to producer Gustavo Santaolalla at his L.A.-based label, Surco. The onetime Argentine rockero has earned a reputation for enabling the most innovative Latin acts, with credits as diverse as Café Tacuba, Julieta Venegas, Molotov, Puya, Bersuit Vergarabat and Orishas. Familiar with Ekhymosis for some time, Santaolalla had been carrying the idea of working with Juanes in the back of his mind.
"I was looking for something like what Juanes does," says Santaolalla over the phone. "I was looking for an artist who has the quality and alternative elements [that I cultivate], but also a pop sensibility, the elements that give the music a wider appeal."
Now signed to Surco's parent company, Universal, Juanes found himself in the studio with the man he calls his idol from October 1999 through April 2000. "Loco," Santaolalla would tell him, "I want to bring out what you have in your soul and put it on tape." The artist eagerly complied.
"A key word for me is 'identity,'" says Juanes. He shows this identity using accordion loops on "Fijate Bien" that play across an electric guitar solo. "I don't play vallenato," says Juanes, stopping to search for the term he learned at Surco. "It's the connotation of vallenato."
For their part, the vallenato musicians recruited for the project, accordionist Chelito de Castro and bajo sexto player Luis Angel Pastor, fretted: "We don't play rock." Juanes reassured them. "It's not rock," he said. "It's Latin American rock."
Michael Greene, who recently visited Colombia in his role as head of the Latin Grammys, appreciates the identity expressed in Juanes's work. "Knowing what's going on in Colombia and reading his lyrics, I think he's a very exceptional artist," says Greene. Santaolalla agrees. "In our countries, music is a way for young people to deal with the situations that they face every day," he explains. "That gives it credibility, content, voltage and power. Music is generated out of the need for expression, not out of the desire to be a rock star."
With a Latin Grammys performance in September and a television crew from Extra! beckoning at the door, Juanes may not have to choose between the two.
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