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Not content to be stuck in success

Alejandro Sanz has moved from safe Latin pop tunes to a surprisingly provocative album that reflects his flamenco roots.

October 19, 2003|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

Sanz knew he could never compete with peers reared on flamenco, so he decided to keep flamenco as a base while pursuing a career in pop. To this day, he believes he made a contribution to the genre by naturally asserting his flamenco identity in mainstream music circles, where the genre is sometimes disparaged or ignored.

Sanz made his first record for the Hispavox label under the stage name Alejandro Magno. It was a techno-flamenco fusion that he labels insignificant with a dismissive wave. Those were lean years in the 1980s when he worked strip joints, playing short sets between acts.

His first big break came while he was studying business administration and working at a small recording studio in Madrid. Sanz wrote some songs for another artist, but he persuaded producer Miguel Angel Arenas to shop the demo to record companies on his behalf. That led to his first album on Warner, 1991's "Viviendo Deprisa" (Living in a Hurry). Produced by Arenas, the album sold a million copies in Spain alone, and set Sanz on a path to international stardom.

The novice was signed by Inigo Zabala, who then headed the label in Madrid. He still plays his demos for the Spanish executive, who now heads Warner's Latin American operations from headquarters in Miami, where Sanz also has a home.

Sanz says the label suggested asking Quincy Jones, the fabled U.S. producer and arranger, to produce the new album. But the artist declined, turning instead to a relatively unknown Cuban American trumpet player, Lulu Perez, to co-produce.

"In the studio, there's a lot of doubt about what should be done at various points in the process," says Sanz, who plays the tres, a Cuban guitar, for the first time on the album. "An artist sometimes can't decide which way to go. But when you have a big-name, professional producer, they don't wait around for you to resolve your doubts. They just forge ahead despite them. I wanted to participate in the production, to control the final result."

In the cover photo, a tattoo is clearly visible on his upper left arm -- the image of the bull's head taken from "Guernica," Picasso's antiwar masterpiece. It's a symbol of his opposition to the war in Iraq and his conviction that, after Sept. 11, artists have an obligation to address social concerns. He even sprinkles a couple of profanities in his lyrics, undermining that patina of respectability that smothers much of Latin pop.

"In the end, there's a lot of us who stopped thinking for ourselves long ago," Sanz says. "We've all gotten comfortable and we've let politicians do the thinking for us, and decide for us and do everything for us. We're allowing them to wipe out our individuality.... So this record is an appeal to different ways of seeing the world. It's saying, 'I want to hear your voice too. I want to hear the people's voices.' "

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