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CULTURE MIX

Nowadays, Juanes loves L.A.

The Colombian star returns to the city that launched his career, shooting a video for a powerful new album.

August 18, 2007|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

Living in Los Angeles is like having front-row seats to a global showcase of Latin music. Sooner or later, all the major and many minor artists from the Spanish-speaking world will pass through here, to create their music or perform it.

This week, for example, the City of Angels hosted two significant singer-songwriters from the Caribbean. One is Juanes, the Colombian superstar who is arguably the single most important figure of the past decade in Latin pop music. The other is Alexis Puentes, a relatively unknown Cuban artist now based in Canada who is quietly developing a solo career as AlexCuba.

Though their styles and their careers are far apart, crossing paths with them here was enough to restore a fan's faith in Latin music, which has been in the doldrums along with the rest of the pop music business.

Juanes returned to the city where he got his start to shoot a video for his upcoming new studio album, a major international release due this fall from Universal. He spent Thursday afternoon at Stage 20 of the Ben Kitay Studios in Hollywood, doing several takes of a scene that had him hopping onto the hood of a black car and playing an electric guitar solo for the beautiful woman stuck the whole time in the driver's seat.

"Look to the side," commanded the director, watching the singer's image on a monitor. "Look down. Look into the car. Now smile. And cut!"

Juanes obediently complied. It was impossible to tell how the dissected pieces of this process would add up to a visual illustration of the catchy love song "Me Enamora," intended as the first single. It's the most radio-friendly selection from his extraordinary new album, "La Vida es Un Ratico," a title that borrowed a piece of advice offered by the singer's mother at a trying personal moment and which essentially means "Life Is Short."

How true. It was eight years ago when this charismatic mega-star was just another scrawny, anonymous wannabe who had come to Los Angeles from Colombia to peddle some songs he had written and recorded. The former metalhead had a new sound he was experimenting with, a fusion of edgy rock with the festive folkloric music of his native country. And he had a lot to say, pouring his fears, obsessions, despairs and passions, both personal and political, into a demo tape that would become his first solo album, "FĂ­jate Bien" (which translates roughly into "Watch Your Step").

That record, with its anguish over the random violence caused by land mines in his homeland, earned him instant fame with a stunning seven Latin Grammy nominations in 2001.

Juanes (short for Juan Esteban) had spent months belaboring his music in L.A., schlepping around the city all day on buses when he didn't have a place to stay. His big break came when his music caught the attention of Oscar-winning producer Gustavo Santaolalla, who himself had moved from Buenos Aires to Echo Park. The famed music maker would soon become Juanes' partner on the road to stardom.

That L.A. connection between these two Latin Americans would help transform conventional Latin music, replacing the tuxedo-wearing crooner who once dominated the industry with the guitar-slinging singer-songwriter weaned on rock and wearing jeans. Juanes would go on to sell more than 5 million albums worldwide, becoming the male counterpart to his Colombian compatriot Shakira, but without the English crossover.

"In the beginning, this city made me pay dearly for my success," said Juanes, who today seems unspoiled by his celebrity. "But later, L.A. paid it all back. The connection I have with the fans here is very close, and very special."

For the past year, Juanes has been holed up in his mountain retreat high above the city of Medellin, working in solitude at his home studio late into the night. In February, he was back at Santaolalla's Echo Park studio, La Casa, with a new batch of songs, this time on a hard drive. It would be the music for his new album, his fourth overall and his first since 2004's smash "Mi Sangre" (My Blood).

When the tedious filming of his new video wrapped, reporters briefly quizzed the singer on his breakup and reconciliation with his wife, who had accompanied him on this trip. All relationships go through tough times, said the father of two young daughters. That's just human.

But the in-depth answer to those questions about his private turmoil can be found in several of the 13 songs from the upcoming release, which Juanes allowed me to preview. His assistants set up his personal Apple laptop on a coffee table in a back room, open to a file with the new tunes. Somebody handed me a set of headphones and closed the door.

At first impression (though final judgment awaits a full review), the album marks a significant leap forward for Juanes, both as a vocalist and a songwriter. Musically, he has perfected his distinctive fusion and reconnected with the purpose and power that gave his debut album such a startling impact.

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