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Latin rock star Juanes at a joyful new stage

Recently rocked by creative uncertainty, Juanes hits the Hollywood Bowl this weekend with a revived connection to his music and life.

August 16, 2012|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • Colombian pop star Juanes will perform at the Hollywood Bowl.
Colombian pop star Juanes will perform at the Hollywood Bowl. (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

He's got a fashion-model wife and three cute, bouncy kids. He's renting a mansion in the Hollywood Hills. And his current album hit No. 1 on the Latin pop charts earlier this year.

This is what a midlife crisis looks like when you are Juanes.

The Colombian rock star, who turned 40 this month, smiles when a reporter asks about the much-publicized rough patch he endured recently. Today, Juanes says, things are going much better, and not only because he's in Los Angeles this weekend playing back-to-back concerts Friday and Saturday at the Hollywood Bowl.

But just a few months ago, Juanes' life had ceased resembling one of those glossy People en Español photo spreads. For the first time since his career took off in the late 1990s, making him perhaps the most popular artist in Spanish-language pop, with more than 15 million albums sold worldwide, Juanes had hit a creative wall. He was burned out with touring and recording, and his young children were always crying, "When is papi coming home?"

"I was bored, I wasn't feeling good about things," acknowledges the artist, who was born Juan Esteban Aristizábal Vásquez in the city of Medellín in the Colombian Andes. "It was a crisis. I felt lost. So in this moment of transition I thought, 'What do I do now?'"

The answer arrived unexpectedly in the form of an invitation from José Tillán, the general manager of Tr3s, MTV'sSpanish-language channel, who proposed that Juanes record an "Unplugged" session that would yield a CD and a DVD. Juanes and his rock band would receive backing from carefully arranged horn and string sections during recordings at the state-of-the-art New World Symphony Center in Miami Beach.

There was an additional lure. The disc's co-producers would be two esteemed Latin music elder statesmen: Juan Luis Guerra, the Dominican Republican pop idol and multiple Grammy Award winner, and Joaquín Sabina, a Spanish poet-singer-songwriter of almost mythic renown.

Juanes says he grew up listening to the music of Guerra, a singer, composer and producer who earned a degree in jazz composition from the Berklee College of Music in Boston and is known for his ability to blend tropical styles such as bolero, merengue and bachata with jazz and classical elements. He and Guerra first met about eight years ago at a benefit concert to assist land mine victims, and had been trying to work together for some time, but the opportunity didn't arise until the "Unplugged" recording.

"It was very important to have a person like Juan Luis, who is a type of musician at the very highest level," says Juanes, speaking in Spanish. "But he's also a very special person, very spiritual, experimental, very worldly."

In other words, he was just the guy you'd want by your side at a time of personal uncertainty and professional anxiety, Juanes says.

The result of their collaboration, "Juanes: MTV Unplugged," is a 14-track live album of acoustic versions of familiar hits such as "La Camisa Negra" (The Black Shirt) as well as three new songs, including "La Señal" (The Signal), which topped Billboard's Latin song charts and those of Colombia, Venezuela and Mexico. The arrangements run the gamut from a full-on choral arrangement for the anthem-like "Odio Por Amor" (Hate for Love), to the minimalist cello and piano that backs Juanes' earnest voice on the love song "Todo en Mi Vida Eres Tu" (Everything in My Life Is You).

Initially, Juanes says, he was hesitant to agree to such a stripped-down sound on the latter track, with no percussion or even a guitar behind him. But Guerra, ever serene, persuaded him otherwise.

"He said to me, 'Juanes, no, no, no. Your voice, the cello and the piano.' And he insisted this to me. And this was beautiful for me, because it put me in a comfort zone, and took me into a realm that was more jazzier, a different dimension."

Speaking by phone from the Dominican Republic, Guerra says "the idea I always had was that people would want to hear another side of Juanes' music."

"He has realized a new ambition for what his music can be, of the many things that his music can take in," Guerra says. "He's growing as a musician, he's playing better than ever. It's a new stage for him. I believe the best is yet to come for Juanes."

At the Bowl this weekend, Juanes will be performing some symphonic versions of his hits, arranged by David Campbell and played by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra conducted by Thomas Wilkins. Also on stage will be members of Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA), which the Los Angeles Philharmonic set up under the guidance of Gustavo Dudamel, the Phil's dynamic young music director and principal conductor. YOLA is modeled after El Sistema, the internationally acclaimed Venezuelan national music education program aimed at economically disadvantaged youth, in which Dudamel apprenticed.

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