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El Rockero in His Labyrinth

Juanes ditches heavy metal and embraces the music of his native Colombia

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, while a television camera caresses his face, a newspaper reporter scribbles notes, and a photographer tests the light in the next room. The media have trooped into his manager's office on Brickell Key, Florida, for the past three days, eager to get acquainted with the little-known singer-songwriter whose debut album scored seven nominations for the second annual Latin Grammys. "After 13 years of fighting against the current, I never imagined this could happen," he continues, dazed.

Juanes has been playing rock and roll 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 in 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."

Ekhymosis, named after the first stage of a bruise, got banged up at shows around Medellín, shows that drew furious crowds and encouraged the band to produce a two-track recording in 1992. A year later, however, when Ekhymosis signed with the Colombian label Codiscos, metal had lost a little 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."

Juanes is about expression, not wanting to be a rock star.
Juanes is about expression, not wanting to be a rock star.

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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, where he picked up gigs at the Whisky and other Sunset Boulevard clubs with shorthanded bands, 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 mused 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 verses into a four-track recorder: "They've taken away your daily bread / They've run you off your land."

Juanes's wad of cash had almost disappeared when a demo, including "Fijate Bien," made its way to producer Gustavo Santaolalla at his Los Angeles-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 [I cultivate], but also has 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, from October 1999 through April 2000, with the man he calls his idol. "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 by 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 the uninitiated, vallenato is the accordion/bongo/string -based folk music of the Colombian coast.

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; 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 and 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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