Colombian Singer Juanes Is a Savvy Businessman

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Juanes addresses the crowd at a press conference for his new album, La Vida ... Es Un Ratico. Getty Images hide caption

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Juanes, the Colombian singer and songwriter, was one of the early proponents of what was called Latin Alternative, mixing rock with Colombian melodies and rhythms. Today, he is a Latin pop star who has sold more than 9 million records worldwide.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

He has sold more than nine million albums around the world and won a dozen Latin Grammys. Juanes is one of the most popular Latin American musicians performing today. He's poised to become a marketing voice for Sprint in the U.S. despite the fact that he sings only in Spanish. His songs frequently deal with the violence and death that plague his native Colombia, the result of civil war and drug wars.

NPR's Mandalit del Barco has this profile.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Juanes has a hectic schedule these days, promoting his new album, "La Vida... Es Un Ratico," "Life is a Brief Moment." The Colombian singer/songwriter has been touring the globe, answering questions about his music, his politics and his personal life. As he stops briefly to talk to NPR, I catch him a bit off-guard with a typical Colombian greeting.

(Speaking in Spanish)

Mr. JUAN ESTEBAN "JUANES" ARISTIZABAL VASQUEZ (Colombian Singer/Songwriter): (Speaking in Spanish)

DEL BARCO: Despite being an international superstar, Juanes is easygoing and charming. When our interview begins, he readily agrees to switch to English.

JUANES: Okay. Don't worry. No problem.

DEL BARCO: But unlike other crossover Latin American artists - think Ricky Martin and Shakira - Juanes has not crossed over to English in his music.

(Soundbite of music)

JUANES: (Singing in Spanish)

DEL BARCO: Juan Esteban Aristizabal Vasquez was born and grew up in Medellin, Colombia where the violent drug lord Pablo Escobar ruled for much of the 1980s.

JUANES: You know, violence, I think, knocks on everyone's door.

DEL BARCO: His cousin was kidnapped and killed, and a friend was gunned down in a nightclub. Today, Juanes prefers to remember a more innocent time. He was just seven when he learned to play the guitar and sing the Colombian folk music he still incorporates into his pop songs.

(Soundbite of music)

JUANES: (Singing in Spanish)

And then when I get 13 or 14 years old, I get crazy with rock music like, like deeply crazy. And one of my favorite bands at that moment was, for example, like - bands like Metallica or Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd and Santana, you know? And then I start to play metal, actually, when I was - at the age of 15.

(Soundbite of music)

JUANES: (Singing in Spanish)

DEL BARCO: Juanes spent 10 years with a band called Ekhymosis, more arena rock than metal. In the late 1990s, he decided to go solo and headed to Los Angeles. Here, he met up with another rockero, Gustavo Santaolalla.

JUANES: I always say to Gustavo, you know, you saved my life, man. Thank you so much, because I was completely lost. I sent my demos to different record companies and Gustavo, he was the one that really understood what I was doing because he's also between rock and folk. He's an amazing musician.

DEL BARCO: Gustavo Santaolalla is one of the most successful producers of Latin alternative, working with such groups as Cafe Tacuba and Molotov. He also composed the Oscar-winning soundtracks to "Brokeback Mountain" and "Babel." Santaolalla returns Juanes' compliment from his recording studio in L.A.

Mr. GUSTAVO SANTAOLALLA (Record Producer): He's an incredible songwriter. He's an extraordinary guitar player. He has a wonderful voice, you know? He's a fairly good-looking guy, I would say. And on top of everything, he's an incredibly nice person.

DEL BARCO: Santaolalla has produced all four of Juanes' solo albums, beginning with "Fijate Bien," "Watch your Step."

(Soundbite of song "Fijate Bien")

JUANES: (Singing in Spanish)

DEL BARCO: With "Fijate Bien," Juanes began addressing a subject he's sung about ever since: the death and mutilation caused by landmines set by Colombian guerillas and drug lords to guard their coca fields. For his new album, Juanes wrote "Minas Piedras."

(Soundbite of song "Minas Piedras")

JUANES: (Singing in Spanish)

DEL BARCO: The title translates as rock mines. The chorus goes, there are roads among roads where the stones are mines that break the bones of the land that complains, disabling hope.

JUANES: I wrote this song after I visit to a really small town called Cocorna. I had the opportunity to talk for, like, three or four hours with 35 survivors of landmines.

(Soundbite of song "Minas Piedras")

JUANES: (Singing in Spanish)

DEL BARCO: Juanes has his own foundation, Mi Sangre, for landmine victims. And the 35-year-old singer is one of the celebrity voices for the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. Next month, for the second time, he'll sing at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.

Leila Cobo, executive director of Latin music for Billboard magazine, says the messages in Juanes' music translate.

Ms. LEILA COBO (Executive Director for Latin Content/Programming, Billboard Magazine): I quite honestly think that people that don't speak Spanish are not understanding what he says. What I do think is that they hear a soulfulness in his delivery. And I do think that that connects in any language.

DEL BARCO: Juanes has sung one song in English, on a "Duets" album by Tony Bennett.

(Soundbite of song "Shadow of your Smile")

Mr. TONY BENNETT (Musician): (Singing) The shadow of your smile...

Mr. VASQUEZ: Tony asked me. He said, hey, man, you have to sing just two or three lines in English and then I will sing in Espanol two or three lines. And I said, well, okay, let's try it.

(Soundbite of song "Shadow of your Smile")

JUANES: (Singing) Teardrop kissed your lips and so did I...

And that was, like, my first chance to sing in English.

DEL BARCO: Juanes says instead of feeling pressure by his record company to switch over to English, just the opposite is happening.

JUANES: Like, sometimes when I have an idea and I say, okay, let's - it will be great, maybe, if I sing in English, a couple of songs. Now, the record company and everybody's like, no way, you have to sing in Spanish. And that's, you know, really good for me.

DEL BARCO: Juanes says travelling through Europe, Asia and the U.S., he sees it is possible to connect with audiences who don't speak Spanish. And that, he says, is a real crossover.

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