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Draco Rosa: A Pop Survivor Returns From The Brink, With Friends

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Draco Rosa: A Pop Survivor Returns From The Brink, With Friends

Music News

Draco Rosa: A Pop Survivor Returns From The Brink, With Friends

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If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. And it's time now for music.


LYDEN: You remember Menudo, the hugely popular Puerto Rican boy band back in the 1980s.


MENUDO: (Singing) Every time I see you, you look so good. You got that magic, oh, like a girl should...

LYDEN: Menudo's lead singer on that track is Robi Rosa. He went on to write hit songs for band mate Ricky Martin when Martin went solo. Rosa's been mostly behind the scenes since then - composing, producing. Three years ago, he was diagnosed with cancer. So he decided to get together with some of his friends, who happen to be some of the biggest names in Latin music, and record an album. NPR's Mandalit del Barco has his story.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: After leaving Menudo, Robi Rosa became Draco Rosa. It's a little less boyish. It means dragon in Spanish. He now has a farm in Puerto Rico and a recording studio and performance space he built in West Hollywood.

DRACO ROSA: This way.

BARCO: Everything is very dark.

ROSA: Yeah. This place is on fire when we have what we call the Fairfax sessions. Avant-garde jazz here. It's fantastic. A few nights ago, we had a Cuban night.

BARCO: Nowadays, the 43-year-old has a cult following for his experimental alternative Latin rock, a far cry from the bubblegum songs he sang and danced to with Menudo.


MENUDO: (Singing) No sense in dreaming, my life has no meaning...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) If you're not...

MENUDO: (Singing)

BARCO: Rosa remembers one particularly insane concert tour in Brazil.

ROSA: We arrived on a private jet. The jet belonged to the Shah of Iran. The manager bought the jet, so it had Menudo on it, the logo. I looked out the window, and it was just fans. They had broken through. They were running. They had to shut down all these flights because all these kids, they were on the tarmac. It was nuts, you know?

Then I was like, wow, this is scary. And then people died in a couple of shows because there was a lack of security. And it's like, we're a part of this mess - the pop idolatry, the whole massive sort of appeal thing, I found myself, towards the end, I wanted out. And I think I kind of spiraled into sort of the void for many years.

BARCO: Rosa says the void included years of drugs and rehab. For a while, he lived in Brazil and New York where he performed with alternative rock bands. He traveled the world, even starred in the 1988 dance movie "Salsa" where he met his wife. Rosa became known as a vagabond poet, says Billboard magazine editor Judy Cantor-Navas.

JUDY CANTOR-NAVAS: They always say he's like the Latin Lenny Kravitz or the Latin Prince. You know, he does these very, very intimate songs. They're very atmospheric. They're often about life and death.

BARCO: And sometimes Rosa's songs were even commercial hits.


BARCO: In the late 1990s, Rosa helped launch Ricky Martin's crossover career by co-writing the songs "She Bangs," "Shake your Bon Bon." and "Livin' La Vida Loca."


RICKY MARTIN: (Singing) She's into superstitions, black cats and voodoo dolls. Well, I feel a premonition, that girl's gonna make me fall...

BARCO: Rosa reunited with Martin for Rosa's new album, which is called simply "Vida."


ROBI ROSA AND RICKY MARTIN: (Singing in foreign language)

ROSA: When it comes to Ricky, we go way back, right? Well, I was 14 or something, and he was 12 or something. And, you know, we stayed in touch. He was like, yeah, definitely, count me in. You know, and it was the perfect song.

BARCO: Ricky Martin said count me in, so did Shakira and Marc Anthony, Juanes, Ruben Blades and Juan Luis Guerra, among others. They all rallied to support their friend.

ROSA: I had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, just for those who don't know. So I was dealing with that and, you know, I was really excited about doing this record. So I thought, well, if it's my last and it should be it, at least I'm going to go out with a big bang with all the fellows and friends. And I thought, well, one last hurrah. Beautiful, you know?


DRACO ROSA AND JUANES: (Singing in foreign language)

BARCO: Colombian superstar Juanes says during recordings for the album, Rosa's cancer was in the back of everyone's mind.

JUANES: When I was in his studio, at that time, he was trying to cure himself with raw food. He was drinking this green juice. And we were talking about God, faith and about how his life was changing.

BARCO: In addition to alternative and experimental treatments, Rosa underwent chemotherapy. In the end, doctors in L.A. replaced the stem cells near his liver.

ROSA: After all that's said and done, December 31, 2012, I was declared cancer-free. I always had faith, beyond life itself, because I am a romantic.

RUBEN BLADES: You know, Robi, sometimes he talks like Yoda, you know, like a Buddhist. He's very spiritual. So I knew that he had that in him.

BARCO: Singer Ruben Blades says he never thought this would be Rosa's final album.

BLADES: Summoning the love he has for the music, I really think that the record was as important as the actual treatments that he received.


BARCO: In their duet "El Tiempo Va," Blades and Rosa sing about time going by so quickly, like an arrow, like water leaking through fingers, like an hourglass in your veins, drop by drop.


ROBI ROSA AND RUBEN BLADES: (Singing in foreign language)

BLADES: The sense of mortality, a mixture of nostalgia with hope, with resignation, with illumination, it was very, very close to his own realization of his own mortality. And, by the way, it made me also reflect on mine.

BARCO: Cancer-free and with a hit album, Rosa says he's gone from a brooding rocker to an optimist looking forward to many more years of music.

ROSA: I'm very thankful. I think it's amazing to be walking amongst the living. It's a celebration of life for me. And I'm reflecting on that, most definitely.

BARCO: A celebration of "Vida." Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.


BLADES: (Singing in foreign language)

LYDEN: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. We're back on the radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night.

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