Juanes Changes Course On English-Language Songs

Colombian superstar Juanes has been dominating music charts in the Spanish-speaking world for years. Now, the award-winning musician has decided to crossover to English-language music. Guest host Viviana Hurtado sits down with Juanes about his music and his social activism.

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VIVIANA HURTADO, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Viviana Hurtado. Michel Martin is away. Do you know who Juanes is? He's a Colombian music superstar who's been around since 2000. He's dominated the charts in the Spanish-speaking world with songs like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "LO QUE ME GUSTA A MI")

HURTADO: That was "Lo Que Me Gusta A Mi," or "What I Like." He's won 17 Latin Grammys, one Grammy, and has a growing fan base spanning the entire world and social media. But Juanes is also known for his humanitarian work, like eradicating landmines in his native Colombia and raising AIDS awareness.

We wanted to know more about his international appeal as an artist/advocate and hear some music too, so he joins us now. Welcome to the program, Juanes.

JUANES: Hello. How are you doing?

HURTADO: I'm glad to have you here. Can you share with us your playlist growing up and how that has influenced and made this really unique Juanes sound so successful?

JUANES: Well, I started in the music when I was a child back, you know, when I was, like, probably five or six years old, and I started to play guitar and to sing because of my family, my brothers and sisters and my parents. They were always singing folk music, so my first years in music was, you know, listening to all this kind of music, like sambas and chacareras and of course vallenatos and tangos and boleros.

Yeah. And then when I get to, like, 14 years old maybe, I get crazy with rock music, like Slayer, Creator or even Metallica, which is my favorite band for all times. And, actually, I had a metal band for a long time and then I just feel that I was missing something, so I decide to go back to my roots, my essence.

And that's what I do now. I try to mix both, the folk side of music and then the rock side and more contemporary sounds.

HURTADO: And so a lot of people love you for your music, but to your established fan base, certainly, you're known almost as much for your advocacy on social issues, like eradicating landmines in your home country of Colombia. You have a foundation, Mi Sangre, which translates into My Blood. You've also worked on advancing peace resolutions in conflict zones and certainly raising awareness about AIDS.

You don't have to do this with your celebrity and your money, so why do you do it?

JUANES: Well, I do it because it matters for me. It matters to me. You know, I just feel that now is a time of open consciousness about reality, about what we are doing here in this life and this world and why are we here. And that we are not alone. We need to help each other. What I think is just - I'm not comfortable with the way the world is going now.

HURTADO: I'd like us to talk a little bit more about your music. One of your songs, "Odio Por Amor," which translates into "Love Instead of Hate," "Replace Hate with Love." For me I see it as an anthem for advocacy work for those who work on social issues. I was wondering if you can share with us the inspiration behind this song.

JUANES: Yeah. I remember when I was writing this song. I was in Spain, actually. After the concert I was in my room writing and around those days were the beginning of the war in Iraq, I guess, and I was so frustrated. You know, I was, like, tired of always watching the same thing on the news, the same problems, the same thing, the same people killing each other. I just don't understand, you know, why we need to live that. So this song is an inspiration from that moment.

HURTADO: Can you play a little bit of "Odio Por Amor"?

JUANES: Yes, of course. Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "ODIO POR AMOR")

JUANES: (Singing in Spanish) It's time to change. (Singing in Spanish) It's time to change. (Singing in Spanish) It's time to change.

HURTADO: That was awesome. That was awesome.

JUANES: Thank you so much.

HURTADO: Can you translate what you sang?

JUANES: Well, I'm saying that in this life, in these days, we live very fast and we forget that we are human, that we have feelings, that there is no way to be fighting with your brother, with your sister. You know, this is time to reflexionar.

HURTADO: Reflect.

JUANES: To reflect about the way we are living, and it's time to change.

HURTADO: And you throw in a little bit of English.

JUANES: Yes.

HURTADO: Because you say it's time to change.

JUANES: Yeah. Just, just that little line. You know, always when I write my music, I take my guitar and I improvise always with a melody, you know, lyrics in Spanish. But sometimes I use some words in English. I don't know why. Maybe because I listen to a lot of music in English. So when I did the demo, when I record the demo, there was always - (Singing) it's time to change and na, na, na, na, na, na.

HURTADO: We've seen the ups and downs of life evolve, documented in your music. Does the next chapter involve Juanes crossing over and singing in English?

JUANES: Maybe yes. I've been thinking about it, and now I feel more comfortable speaking English and...

HURTADO: Because not that long ago, you said no, you didn't want to betray your fan base in Spanish.

JUANES: Yeah. Yeah. But I, you know, I, for me, to sing in Spanish is the most important thing. But I am also conscious about the, the fact that the world is changing and the way we communicate is changing, as well. I really love Anglo music and the language, as well. Like my kids, they - born here, Miami. So I just - a little bit more familiar with the language. Now it's like more honest for me to do it.

HURTADO: So some of your advocacy has political overtones. Your concert in Havana in 2009 to mark the United Nations International Day of Peace, as you remember, drew some anger from within the Cuban-American community. In fact, you were denounced by some fans, and you even received threatening messages to you and to your family. Why did you want to play that event in Cuba? And if you look back, would you do things differently?

JUANES: Well, when we decided to go to Cuba to perform, we did it because we just wanted to build a bridge, you know, between Cuba and the rest of the community. And we just wanted to prove that music and art need to be over all ideology or way to think life, and we just wanted to go in there and play just because of love. And it was hard. It was really hard, because immediately, when you do those kind of events, people immediately start to (Spanish spoken).

HURTADO: They start to put you in a box.

JUANES: To put you in a box. Yeah. You are part of this team or you are part of that team, you know? And we were just trying to be in the middle, just wanted to go there and perform. And I have no regrets about that show. You know, I guess music has a power - it's a powerful weapon of peace, and we need to use art to get close and just to destroy all these stupid barriers we have.

HURTADO: How do you stick up for your beliefs or help others without alienating some of your fans?

JUANES: Well, it's hard. You know, there's a very thin line between social work and political things. Sometimes you just cross that line, and immediately, you lost.

HURTADO: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Viviana Hurtado. I'm speaking with international rock star and humanitarian, Juanes. We're talking about his life, his music and his work on social issues.

Your international breakout hit is "A Dios Le Pido," which translates into kind of a prayer...

JUANES: Yes.

HURTADO: ...what you're asking from God. This is where I hear that unique Juanes sound that's kind of a mix - some rock, some rock en espanol, some funk, some of that Colombian folk music...

JUANES: Uh-uh.

HURTADO: ...that you and I, you know, were raised with...

JUANES: Yes. Yes.

HURTADO: ...some Cumbia. Can you play some of it?

JUANES: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A DIOS LE PIDO")

JUANES: (Singing in Spanish)

HURTADO: Excuse me while I sit back in my seat after dancing.

(LAUGHTER)

JUANES: Thank you.

HURTADO: Can you tell us what those lyrics, a dios le pido - what did you sing to us?

JUANES: Since I was a little kid, I always meditate, or I used to pray every morning, every night. I just asked to God to protect my family and my country, the people I love, you know, simple things, but very, very, very deep at the same time. And it's like a song that I wrote thinking the beauty of life.

HURTADO: I don't think a lot of people, Juanes, know that you're this religious and this spiritual.

JUANES: Well, it's not religious. Actually, I respect religion in general. I respect a lot, but I don't follow any religion. You know, I just follow my personal connection with God. For me, God is inside my heart, and is inside everyone's heart.

HURTADO: I'd love to hear a little more of your music, if you'll share with us. And I'd like to ask if you can play "Nada Valgo Sin Tu Amor," which means "I Am Nothing Without Your Love."

JUANES: Yes. Definitely, yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NADA VALGO SIN TU AMOR")

JUANES: (Singing in Spanish)

HURTADO: So although I'd like to think that you're singing to me and that this song is about me, it's not. Can you...

JUANES: I'm singing to you right now.

HURTADO: Well, you're singing to me right now.

JUANES: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

HURTADO: But in reality, when you were writing this song, does it speak to your relationship with your wife?

JUANES: Yes. In general, you know, when I write my songs, always, I talk about my personal, you know, experience in, you know, with my family, with my kids, with my friends and also with social issues, you know.

HURTADO: Because the lyrics you were just singing about is - I'm nothing without your love.

JUANES: Yes. Yes. But more than that, it's just, you know, the fact the - I mean, I honestly think that - I mean, we don't need to pay too much attention to time. We just need to live, present, and we just need to build things positive with our relationships. And it's just about love. That's the only mission we have to learn in this trip right here in this planet.

HURTADO: Your tour is now headed overseas. To see sold-out concerts in Latin America, it doesn't surprise me. But when you look out at a jam-packed audience in Germany or in Lithuania, how does it feel to know - speaking about language - that you're transcending languages and cultures?

JUANES: Well, that's, it's a magical feeling. You know, I just feel blessed and I feel very thankful with music and all the fans, because the fact that they go to our shows and they respect that we sing in Spanish and they are, I mean, they are just paying attention to the melodies and the arrangement and the music itself, this is a beautiful gift, you know. So it's just the magic of music.

HURTADO: Juanes is an award-winning musician. He's currently on tour throughout the world, and he joined us in our studios in Washington, D.C.

Thank you so much for coming.

JUANES: My pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA CAMISA NEGRA")

HURTADO: You're hearing the hit single "La Camisa Negra" by Colombian singer-songwriter Juanes.

And that's our program for today.

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