Guerra, Juan Luis

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Juan Luis Guerra

Singer, songwriter

Juan Luis Guerra became one of the top-selling artists in Latin American music by revitalizing the traditional merengue sound and popularizing the so-called slum music, bachata, of his native Dominican Republic. A major celebrity on the island nation, Guerra swept the Latin Grammys in 2007 by taking home five awards for his latest record, La Llave de Mi Corazón. A few months later, he also won the Grammy Award for Best Tropical Latin Album. Guerra "has no equivalent in English-speaking pop, though there are parallels to songwriters like Paul Simon, Sting and Smokey Robinson," noted Jon Pareles in the New York Times, who explained that in the manner of both Simon and Sting, "Guerra has forged hybrid rhythms, melding merengue and other beats from the Dominican Republic with styles from across the Caribbean, guitar lines from Africa and touches of jazz and rock."

Guerra was born in 1957 to a middle class family in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. His father had been a professional basketball player and his mother, Olga, was an attorney. The family, which included two brothers, lived in Gascue, the old residential quarter of Santo Domingo, which is also the oldest continually inhabited European settlement in the Western Hemisphere. Guerra and his brothers spent their spare time playing street basketball, but he also loved music and became an ardent fan of the Beatles. Later, his songs would sometimes include themes of social justice or political opinion, which he said was influenced by "the surreal world I grew up seeing in Santo Domingo, during the time of the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo and the political troubles after that," Guerra explained to Billboard writer Timothy White. "It was a time of the very rich next to the very poor, and a lot of extremes—the kind of world you read about in books by Gabriel Garcia Marquez."

Studied at Boston's Berklee College

Guerra studied philosophy and literature for a time at the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo, but then took up the study of music at the National Conservatory of the Dominican Republic. Around 1979, he moved to Boston to study composition and arranging at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. "I wanted to be a guitar player," he told Jordan Levin in the Miami New Times. "I idolized Pat Metheny, I loved jazz. I was a jazz/rock musician." One evening, however, he went to a party and was playing jazz guitar, "and nobody was paying the slightest attention to me. It was really depressing," he recalled in an interview with Mark Holston for the journal Americas. Then he spotted an instrument in the corner, the guiro, or "scraper," which is a hollow gourd played with a stick to keep the rhythm of a merengue song. "I picked it up and suddenly, everyone was listening."

Back in the Dominican Republic, Guerra gathered some local musicians and released his debut LP, Soplando, in 1984. The backing band eventually coalesced as the 440, called Cuatro Cuarenta in Spanish. The number is taken from the standard tuning pitch for concert play. "At first we tried to be like a Latin Manhattan Transfer," Guerra told White. "But we kept growing, learning, mixing instead of imitating, and adding our Dominican roots." Guerra and his co-writers began to borrow from merengue, the exuberant style of dance music that had come into being as the national sound of the Dominican Republic by the time Guerra was born. On the next two records, Mudanza y Acarreo and Mientras más lo Piensotú, Guerra also began to work slower rhythms into the music from bolero, a Caribbean style of music borrowed from a more traditional Spanish form.

Guerra was a devout Roman Catholic who, as he became more successful, grew increasingly pained by the deep inequities in Dominican society. He began to infuse his lyrics with social commentary, which came into full effect on his 1990 LP Ojalá que Llueva Café (May It Rain Coffee). Its title track was inspired by a visit he made to Santiago de los Caballeros, the Dominican Republic's second largest city, and by discussions he had there with campesinos, the subsistence farmers who eked out a living near the city limits. "It was something a campesino had said," he told Levin. "There are too many farmers in my country who died not knowing they are poets. He was desperate and wrote this, wanting that it may rain coffee, bread, all the things he needed."

Garnered International Following

The song "Ojalá que Llueva Café" was a number one hit for Guerra and the 440 in several Latin American countries, and it did well in North America, too, especially in cities like Boston and New York, which had large Dominican immigrant communities. At the New York City venue the Paramount in late 1991, Guerra played three sold-out shows to crowds who brought Dominican flags with them. The record also developed a strong following in Spain. Guerra's next work was eagerly awaited by this growing legion of fans, and went on to become an even bigger hit.

Bachata Rosa eventually sold more than five million copies after its 1991 release, an astronomical figure for a Dominican musician. Its songs drew upon another native style of music, called bachata. For years, bachata had been considered the music of the rural and urban slums in the Dominican Republic, the songs of the servants and their romantic woes, and a sound in marked contrast to the joyous, danceable merengue. "The bachata is typically performed with maracas, bongos and a guitar," noted Holston. "In the past, the music has been largely performed and recorded under less than ideal circumstances, and was virtually shunned by the country's elite. In Guerra's capable hands, the humble bachata is no longer the exclusive domain of maids and the rural poor."

Guerra's songs took on deeper meaning with the release of Areito in 1992. Its title is taken from the language of the original indigenous inhabitants of the Dominican Republic, the Taino Indians. "Areito" translates roughly as "song and dance," and this was the term used for the regular bacchanalian celebrations held in Taino communities before the population fell into serious decline. Areito 's lead single was "El costo de la vida" (The Cost of Life), and it, too, was a hit for Guerra, although its video, which included images of political strife and violence in the Latin American world, was banned by authorities in several countries. Commenting on the controversy surrounding the video, Guerra told John Lannert in Billboard, "I believe that everyone who watches television and reads newspapers sees worse images," he said. "What happens is that it's shocking when an artist takes those elements and puts them into a song." The album's title track won Guerra and the 440 their first regular Grammy Award for Best Tropical Latin song of 1991.

Scored Hit on Latin Christian Charts

Three years later, Guerra's newly released Fogaraté featured a marked absence of political messages, though like much of his work it was filled with the double entendres that are a hallmark of the Dominican Republic's vernacular speech. His next effort, Ni es lo Mismo ni es Igual (It's Not the Same Nor Is It Equal), won three Latin Grammy Awards during the inaugural year of the Latin Recording Academy industry honors in 2000. His next work was Para Tí (For You), released in 2004. This time Guerra branched out into an entirely different musical style—Christian contemporary, albeit with a strong Latin flavor. One track, "Las Avisas," was drawn from biblical verses and became a crossover hit on the Spanish-language Christian charts. Guerra and the 440 again toured extensively, and this time the sold-out shows in New York City were held at Madison Square Garden.

For the Record …

Born Juan Luis Guerra Seijas on June 7, 1957, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; son of Gilberto (a professional basketball player) and Olga (an attorney) Guerra; married Nora Vega; children: Jean-Gabriel, Paulina. Education: Studied philosophy and literature at Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo; attended Conservatorio Nacional de Música; studied composition and arranging at Berklee College of Music after 1979.

Began performing and recording in the Dominican Republic, early 1980s; formed backing band the 440 (Cuatro Cuarenta); released first album, Soplando, on the EMA label in 1984.

Awards: Latin Grammy Award, Best Merengue Performance for Ni Es Lo Mismo Ni Es Igual, and Best Tropical Song for "El Niagara en Bicicleta," both 2000; Latin Grammy Award, Best Tropical Song, for "Las Avisas," and Best Christian Album (Spanish Language), for Para Tí, both 2005; Latin Grammy Award for album of the year, record of the year, song of the year, best merengue album of the year, best tropical song of the year, all for La Llave De Mi Corazón, 2007; National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, Grammy Award, Best Tropical Latin Album, for La Llave De Mi Corazón, 2008

Addresses: Record company—EMI Music U.S. Latin, 404 Washington Ave., Ste. 700, Miami Beach, FL 33139.

It would be Guerra's 2007 album, La Llave De Mi Corazón (The Key to My Heart), that would sweep the Latin Grammys and win him another worldwide Grammy Award. The title track, about a caller to a radio show for the lovelorn, spent four weeks at the number one spot on the Latin singles chart, and at the Eighth Annual Latin Grammy Awards later in 2007, Guerra racked up five nominations, the most of any artist that year. He won in all five categories for La Llave De Mi Corazón and its title track, including album of the year, song of the year, and best merengue album of the year. A few months later, at the regular Grammy Awards, La Llave de Mi Corazón won for best tropical Latin album.

Guerra's "Cuatro Cuarenta" family has grown to include a full contingent of backup singers and dancers in addition to a dozen musicians. Despite the international acclaim Guerra has achieved, he vowed long ago that he would never become a bilingual performer. "I'm not going to sing in English," he told Levin. "It's the way I know, the way I feel. There is something magic in music that you can't explain. I listened to the Beatles and loved them, though I couldn't understand the words. I think the audience can get the rhythm and the harmony even if they can't get anything else, even if they can't understand the lyrics."

Selected discography

Soplando, EMA, 1984.

Mudanza y Acarreo, Karen, 1985.

Mientras más lo Piensotú, Karen, 1987.

Ojalá que Llueva Café, Karen, 1990.

Bachata Rosa, Karen, 1991.

Areito, Karen, 1992.

Fogaraté, Karen, 1995.

Ni es lo Mismo ni es Igual, Karen, 1998.

Para Tí, Vene Music/Universal Music Latino, 2004.

La Llave De Mi Corazón, EMI Televisa Music, 2007.


Americas (English Edition), September-October 1991, p. 90.

Billboard, December 26, 1992, p. 14; July 9, 1994, p. 3; October 20, 2007, p. 42.

Miami New Times, November 27, 1991.

New York Times, May 30, 2005; November 9, 2007.

—Carol Brennan