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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The hottest act on the Latin charts right now is a Dominican-American singer named Romeo Santos.

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ROMEO SANTOS: (Singing) (Sung in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: His band, Aventura, has sold four million records in the United States and sold out Madison Square Garden in New York several times. He may not be a household name among non-Hispanics yet, but NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports that Romeo Santos is determined to change that.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Romeo Santos' debut solo album aims squarely at crossing over into the English-language market. To do it, he's using bachata, a melancholy Dominican music style, heavy on guitars and full of dramatic lyrics about heartbreak, betrayal and sadness.

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SANTOS: (Singing) (Sung in foreign language)

GARSD: What makes Santos an unlikely star is that as recently as the 1980s, bachata was shunned by many as a rural, working-class style of music, says Pedro Biaggi, one of the top DJs of Washington, D.C.'s El Zol.

PEDRO BIAGGI: I began in radio in 1987. The concept of bachata, the genre of bachata did not exist then. It was salsa, meringue and cumbia but there was no bachata. Eventually, it's a movement of music that exploded. It's just really very, very powerful. I think it's like close to 50 percent of our format, of our music.

GARSD: Romeo Santos explains how he first discovered the genre.

SANTOS: My father is Dominican so I already knew what bachata was. But one day my father brings a cassette and he's showing me this, he goes, oh, look at this guy, you know, his name is Antony Santos, like you. I was, oh, and then I started hearing the songs, the music, and I'm like, wow, this sounds great. So I went and I purchased his other albums and I just fell in love with his style, with his music.

GARSD: Santos is talking about his namesake, another Dominican bachata legend, Antony Santos. He was responsible for popularizing the use of electric guitars in the genre.

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ANTONY SANTOS: (Singing) (Sung in foreign language)

GARSD: The young Santos got together with his cousin Henry and a few friends, and they started Aventura. They were the perfect combination - romantic enough for the ladies, but with enough bravado for the guys. They sang with a solid bachata base, but a good layer of R&B. And it didn't hurt that they had boy- next-door good looks. They sounded different and people went crazy.

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AVENTURA: (Singing) (Sung in foreign language)

GARSD: Although based in New York, Aventura sings mostly in Spanish.

SANTOS: I owe that to my mother. My mother at a young age put me in bilingual, so my strength is really more in Spanish. Even though I live and I was born and raised in the States, you know, in the Bronx, in Spanish I get my point across. And when I'm writing music, when I'm doing music, it's easier for me and I know exactly how to express myself.

GARSD: Aventura blew up. But for every Supremes, there's a Diana Ross. After 17 years together, Santos announced he was going to be working on a solo project and a very public melodrama in Spanish-language media ensued. Santos claimed he'd carried the burden of the workload in Aventura; his band members accused him of letting fame get to his head.

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GARSD: Santos' debut solo album, "Formula," is an attempt to cross over without losing core bachata fans. It features several English-language songs and collaborations with artists like Lil Wayne and Usher.

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SANTOS: (Singing) (Sung in foreign language)

USHER: (Singing) Try to keep my balance but I still fall. But I don't know how I fall so hard right into your arms, girl.

GARSD: But Santos says he and his producer have long discussions about whether or not to collaborate with non-Hispanic artists.

SANTOS: At the time I was working with Rico Love on my album, I tell him I would like to something with Usher, and my fear is that I don't want him to think that this is corny or what the hell is that, you know, like bachata. But it would just be so unique and unexpected, and in my opinion, revolutionary. You know, like that's what I felt. My goal is for them to cross over into my world.

GARSD: If you don't catch Santos on the radio, you may see him on TV soon. He just signed on to ABC for a sitcom pilot about a Dominican family living in Washington Heights, New York. And while he'll still have to prove he's an actor as well as a singer, Santos says the project reminds him a lot of Aventura.

SANTOS: When we started Aventura, the reason why we became so successful besides, you know, doing good music, it was also the fact that it was unique, it was different and it never been done before. So this is what I compare this to, you know, like when I see like movies and Dominican characters, they're not really Dominicans. You know, I know what Dominicans sound like. I know their accent, I know their words, and they never get it. You know, and now we have the opportunity to do it, and do it right.

GARSD: And if his musical career so far is any indication, Santos may well get it right again. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News.

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SANTOS: (Singing) (Sung in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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