SAY WORD! | JUAN LUIS GUERRA DROPS A DIME
By Led Black
Juan Luis Guerra occupies and maintains a singular niche in the Dominican musical universe. For the last 22 years Juan Luis Guerra has been an exceptional and able ambassador of Dominican identity, culture and music to the world at large. More than just a Merenguero or a Bachatero, Juan Luis Guerra is an accomplished musician and composer who has redefined and re-conceptualized Dominican popular music. His latest work, Llave De Mi Corazon, is his tenth album and promises to garner the Dominican virtuoso even more fans, accolades and acclaim. As always, the fusion of his beloved Dominican music with other genres is the key to the success and overall musicality of his prodigious output. The lead single, which is the title track, is in his own words a mixture of “merengue, Bachata y son” but also contains elements of Hip-Hop, Blues and pop. There is also an English version of the song on the album entitled Medicine for my soul. Not to mention that the video for the stellar song features the stunning and captivating actress Zoe Saldaña as the leading lady.
A natural musician with eclectic tastes, Juan Luis graduated from the Music Conservatory of Santo Domingo and went on to study musical arrangement and composition at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. It was during his college days at a party on campus that he realized the potency of the music of his native Dominican Republic. After running through a guitar solo that no one in the room seem to care too much for, he grabbed a Güira that was on the wall as decoration and proceeded to get everyone’s attention with his adept playing of a Dominican percussive instrument that looks something like a weird shaped cheese grater. Upon his return to the island, he formed 4-40 and dropped their debut album Soplando (1984), which was too cerebral and avant-garde for the masses at the time and was not a commercial success but is now considered a collector’s item.
For their next two albums, Mudanza y Acarreo (1985) and Mientras más lo pienso…tú (1987), Juan Luis Guerra retooled the texture and trajectory of their music into a more mainstream Merengue sound that achieved the group notoriety and a following in the Dominican Republic and in the Dominican Diaspora but it wasn’t until they released the masterful LP Ojalá que llueva café (1989) under the new name of Juan Luis Guerra and 4-40 that the band becomes an international sensation. The song Ojalá que llueva café is based on a phrase popular among Dominican campesinos (farmers) that speaks of their profound respect for Mother Nature and even their dependence and inter-connectedness with her. This classic work also contains the searing and poignant song, Visa para un sueño, which is the universal story of a person leaving their country to find a better life elsewhere because the constant friction, dysfunction and lack of opportunity in their country makes it next to impossible to live there.
Their next album, Bachata Rosa (1990), solidifies their standing and transforms them into a truly global phenomenon selling 5 million records worldwide, and that is just the official numbers, if you could somehow include bootlegs statistics I would be willing to bet that the true numbers are much, much higher. This is the album that everyone had at least 2 copies of; this is the LP that would make your drunken uncle or your father completely lose it at family parties and start bellowing Burbujas de Amor entranced and utterly oblivious to the world. There is also a Portuguese version of the album released for the Brazilian market under the title Romance Rosa. This masterpiece also confirmed and anointed Juan Luis Guerra as a magnificent and brilliant songwriter, which in the end, is one of the bedrocks of his eminence. He continues to be a factor on the world stage dropping gems every few years, winning awards and touring the globe performing with such greats as Mana, Sting and even the Rolling Stones among many others.
Dominicans in particular and Latinos in general should make it a point to purchase this album on the first week of its release as a token of our appreciation for the decades of glorious music that this man and his band have produced as well as to demonstrate the strength of our numbers. The album can be copped online at Amazon or Best Buy but I will be going to an actual Best Buy store on my lunch hour to obtain it there because they sell most albums for $9.99 on their release week. For some strange reason, iTunes only carries the single but not the album, which makes absolutely no sense and deprives me of being able to pre-order the album and have it downloaded to my MacBook automatically at the stroke of midnight on March 20th. Juan Luis Guerra is one of the greatest musicians and voices of our time. Artistry of that caliber, irrespective of genre or category, should be appreciated, consumed and digested, as it offers sustenance to the mind, body and soul.