Juan Luis Guerra: Tropical Music Superstar

By blending elements of contemporary pop and jazz with the folkloric music of his native Dominican Republic, Juan Luis Guerra '82 created a sound that became a musical sensation.

The tropical March wind blowing off the ocean in Santo Domingo feels much like a late summer breeze in Boston. Temperatures of 80 degrees Fahrenheit and above are typical year-round for the coastal capital of the Dominican Republic, and the air is always heavy with humidity. This is where Christopher Columbus landed in 1492, the site of the first contact between the people of the old and new worlds. Five hundred-plus years later, the specter of centuries of political and economic struggle still haunts the island. Many Dominicans have to really hustle to earn their daily bread. Entrepreneurial vendors are everywhere hawking fruit, vegetables, soft drinks, paintings, clothing, and everything else from sidewalk displays, bicycle baskets, or the beds of pickup trucks. 

It seems that two things are close to the hearts of a majority of Dominicans: baseball and merengue music. The former fuels the dreams of kids playing in sandlots, hoping to become the next Sammy Sosa or Pedro Martinez. Merengue offers a different form of release for a culture that loves to dance. Merengue tìpico was formerly the music of the peasantry in the Cibao valley region and was played on stringed instruments. Later, tambora, güira, accordion, and sometimes marimba joined the band. The form was adapted for the ballroom and became a national dance played by merengue orquestras during the reign of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo (1930-1961). In the decades following Trujillo's demise, merengue remained a symbol of Dominican national identity. But when Juan Luis Guerra breathed new energy into the form in 1984, merengue connected in a big way with young and old audiences both inside and outside the Dominican Republic. 

Drawing on influences ranging from the Beatles, American rock, folk, r&b, jazz, and traditional Dominican music, Guerra features his rich tenor voice and agile guitar work with sophisticated backing vocals for a new take on merengue. Guerra's merengues are characterized by breakneck tempos, lightening-fast horn lines and jabs, and highly polished productions. While Guerra's music is great for dancing, those listening closely to the words will be rewarded for the effort with his poetic imagery and thoughtful commentary on a range of contemporary subjects.

Two years after he graduated from Berklee with a diploma in jazz composition, Guerra saw his music become immensely popular in his native land as well as in many other Spanish-speaking countries. In addition to his merengue repertoire, Guerra has explored salsa grooves and Afro-pop stylings and has elevated the status of bachata, another Dominican form. Bachata was another rustic musical style related to the bolero that often featured ribald lyrics until Guerra recast it as a perfectly acceptable romantic ballad. A few years after his albums began to go gold and platinum, Guerra netted his first Grammy award in 1991 for his Bachata Rosa CD, which was named best tropical Latin album. He received three other statues at the 2000 Latin Grammy Awards for his album Ni es Lo Mismo Ni Es Igual (It's Not the Same). On April 28, 2005, Guerra received Billboard magazine's Spirit of Hope Award for the charitable outreach work of his Juan Luis Guerra Foundation, which quietly provides assistance for disadvantaged Dominican families with medical needs. Additionally, Guerra has received local and national awards including El Soberano, seat of honor de los premios Casandra, an honorary professorship at the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo, and was declared Prominent Son of his native city. 

The lanky songwriter (Guerra is 6'5") is a larger-than-life figure to Dominicans and die-hard fans in almost every other country with a concentration of Spanish speakers. His 10 studio albums and two best-of compilations have sold extremely well worldwide, and his tours take him to legions of fans throughout North and South America and Europe. His latest album, Para Ti (For You), is his first to feature lyrics focusing on his conversion to Christianity and includes songs with a strong backbeat and gospel music flair, in addition to salsas and merengues. 

During our interview at his home in Santo Domingo, Guerra was warm, welcoming, and humble about his many extraordinary achievements. Guerra's wife, Nora, explained that one of Juan Luis's friends once characterized him as successful in spite of himself. "What he really meant," she said, "is that Juan Luis is not the type of person who thrives on the attention he has received." Applause and adulation have never been the forces that drive him - in fact he's a bit uncomfortable with being so well known. It's apparent that Guerra's heart is squarely in the music itself. He spoke at length of his love for the process of writing, playing, and especially recording. In a wide-ranging conversation about his life and career, Guerra revealed himself to be a very informed listener who has broad tastes and is well acquainted with all types of music (including contemporary classical music). While his renown sprang from the sounds of his native land, these days his sources of inspiration come from above and beyond the shores of the Dominican Republic.


I've heard that your father was a great athlete. Were any other family members besides you musical?
My father was a good baseball player and a very good basketball player. He was a semi-professional athlete. But no one in my family was musical or played an instrument. I started playing the guitar when I was about 10 years old. When I was older, I told my mother that becoming a musician was the only thing I wanted to do. 

She thought I should go to the university to become a lawyer or a businessman. She told me that it would be hard to make a good living as a musician in the Dominican Republic. She felt I'd need a good job, and then I could play music too. At Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo, I began to study accounting, but that only lasted two days. I also studied philosophy and literature. Later, I studied guitar at El Conservatorio Nacional de Musica de Santo Domingo. I learned the basics of music theory there, but my teacher told me to go to Berklee if I wanted to learn more.


What did you want to focus on when you came to Berklee?
When I went there, I was a Pat Metheny wannabe. I loved his music-and still do. I also loved Wes Montgomery and wanted to learn to play jazz guitar. There was a turning point for me when I was at a party with some friends. We were jamming together, and after I played a solo on guitar, I noticed that my solo hadn't gotten anyone's attention. There was a güira [a Dominican percussion instrument] on the wall of the apartment, it was there as a decoration. I took it down and started playing some of the rhythms of traditional Dominican music on it. It got the attention of everyone in the room. People started listening and asking about what I was doing. One Berklee student there even asked me if I would write out the rhythm of the patterns I was playing for him. That struck me as odd because these are rhythms Dominicans just play they aren't written out. That moment made an impact on me and I knew that I would do best singing and playing music using the folkloric rhythms of my country.



I'm interested in what happened when you returned home to Santo Domingo after earning your diploma in jazz composition at Berklee. How did you get a recording contract and develop a following? 
Once I got back to the Dominican Republic, I started working with a vocal quartet. We got hired to sing some jingles for TV and radio ads. The repertoire we were singing at first consisted of some of the transcriptions I had made as a Berkee student. In fact, the first piece we learned was a version of "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" that I had transcribed from the Manhattan Transfer album Mecca for Moderns.

After doing that for a while, I wanted to make a recording. The first album we did was called Soplando, and it was pretty musically adventurous. We mixed jazz tunes with original songs that had sophisticated chord progressions. I was using the things I had learned at Berklee. The record didn't sell a lot of copies, but it wasn't intended to be a commercial hit. It was just for people who liked that kind of music. We paid for all of the production costs ourselves.

Later I approached the people at Karen Publishing Company about recording for their label. I had written a merengue tune, and the owner of the company really liked it. He told me that if I could come up with eight more tunes like that, I would have a deal. So I went home and started writing more merengues.


Was this the beginning of your concentration on becoming a songwriter, which ultimately gained you a reputation as one of the Dominican Republic's best musicians and poets?
I had become interested in poetry when I was at the university. I studied poetry by [Chilean poet] Pablo Neruda and Frederico Garcia Lorca, a Spaniard, but I don't think of myself as a poet. I consider myself a musician first. 

When I write songs, I always finish the music completely before I begin to work on the lyrics. You've heard the saying that composing music is 90 percent perspiration and 10 percent inspiration. Well, for me, the balance is tipped more toward inspiration. I've come to rely a lot more on inspiration in my writing. And I use the guitar to write everything-even the merengues.


At various points in your career, in addition to writing love songs, your lyrics have also spoken about serious subjects, such as Dominican social issues. Most recently, on the CD Para Ti, your feelings about Christianity are the subject. Can you speak about the progression?
I have written about social issues in my songs in addition to writing merengues and bachatas or love ballads. I spent some time in the north of the country where they grow coffee beans. The people are very poor there, and they have a saying, "I wish it was raining coffee." I thought about that a lot and used that saying for the title of my song and album Ojalà Que Llueva Café. There is another saying that has to do with getting through problems. That expression equates getting through hard times with going over Niagara Falls on a bicycle. That became the subject and title for the song "Niagara en Bicicleta" It came about after I had gotten very sick with bilirrubina and had to stay at the hospital. The hospitals around here are not well equipped, and a lot of the equipment in them is broken down. I told the doctor when I was getting out of there that I was going to write a song about my experience. After that, I wrote "Niagara en Bicicleta."

As regards my latest album, Para Ti, it contains songs that I've been singing at my church. It has some different kinds of songs on it in gospel and rock styles, but it also has merengues. Some people have thought that I was changing my direction, but I will always write merengues and salsas.


Does Para Ti reflect a new spiritual awakening to Christianity for you?
Like I said, Para Ti contains the songs that I sing at my church. When I'm not on tour, I play there three times a week. Most of my band plays with me at the church. This album has as its theme my love for Jesus Christ. I accepted Jesus about 10 years ago. I didn't grow up with a faith tradition, and I had found that even though I was successful in my career, I was still somehow feeling very empty inside. I had no center. I had gotten fame and fortune, but I didn't have peace in my heart. I felt anxiety frequently and was taking medication to help with that. A friend told me about Jesus and that the peace I was looking for in other places could not equal his peace. I wanted that, so I opened my heart to him and began to feel very full with the love of Christ. Life is much easier for me this way, and a lot of good things have come from it. All of my performances now are for the glory of God. When I hear beautiful music, I think of him. Jesus is the creator of everything, so he must be a great musician. Think of all the talent he has given to men like Beethoven or Pat Metheny. 


You are largely credited with elevating the bachata from fairly humble traditional folk dance style to a popular romantic ballad style.
People credit me with giving new life to bachata, and I have written many bachatas. But to tell the truth, I heard bachata elements in songs by the Beatles. The songs "'Till There Was You" and "If I Fell" are very much like bachatas. On "'Till There Was You," the Beatles used bongos. That's not a drum we would use down here for a bachata, but other than that, it is very much like a bachata.


Generally, there are very few cover songs on your albums. Tell me how you came to include "Viviré," a beautiful love song from your Fogaraté album that was written by African musician Papa Wemba. What attracted you to this song and inspired you to write new lyrics for it and arrange it as a bachata?
I had heard Papa Wemba playing with Peter Gabriel in New York. I really loved his song "Viví" and wanted to do it on my own recording. But I had no idea what he was singing about in the lyrics because I couldn't understand his language. So I wrote my own lyrics to his music.


Other songs on the Fogaraté album show a strong influence of Afro-pop and soukous music. Did you play all of the cool guitar lines on those songs?
No, my label will help me bring in special musical guests for the sessions. I brought in the African guitarist Diblo Dibala. He is such a great musician. He played guitar on all of the songs but one. I was very interested in soukous music then and wanted to get Diblo because I love his playing.


You seem to bring your group to many of the Spanish-speaking countries around the world.
That's true. Last year we went to Panama, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico, as well as Miami and New York. We will tour some more this year. I plan to go to Spain again and perhaps to London and Holland. We should go to Los Angeles and Boston because we haven't been there for a long time.

I usually tour three or four months out of the year, but not all at once. I like to go out for about a month and then come home and rest before going out again. Last year we went to Spain and did 28 shows in six weeks. That's a lot of moving around. You wake up and don't know where you've been or where you're going; you just keep moving. In the 1990s, I used to be gone for months at a time. When my son Jean Gabriel was young, I was gone so much of the time. He's 18 now. My wife and I also have a daughter Paulina, who is five. I like to spend more time at home with my family these days.


As an artist who has had so many hits, there must be some songs you have to sing at all of your shows. Is there one song more than others that you look forward to singing each night?
It's become a tradition that we have to sing "La Bilirrubina" and "Estrellitas y Duendes," and several others every night. I remember once going to see Three Dog Night perform. They were great and played most of their best-known songs, but they didn't sing "Eli's Coming." I left a little disappointed because I really wanted to hear that one. It made me think about my own shows and how I don't want people to leave without hearing their favorite song. We keep looking at the set list, thinking that it's too long. But when we try to decide what songs to cut, we never end up cutting any because we want to include the songs everyone knows. So the set list is getting longer and longer. I think my favorite song to perform is still "Ojalà Que Llueva Café." One song that everyone likes that I don't look forward to singing every night is "La Gallera." It's a very fast merengue, and the melody is very high for me. We usually do it as an encore, and by that time both the band and my voice are pretty tired. 


You earned your Berklee diploma as a jazz composition major. Have you drawn on those skills to arrange the music for your recordings?
I did use the things I learned about writing for horns from Ted Pease, Bob Freedman, and Ken Pullig at Berklee. When I started out, I was writing all of the fast horn lines for the merengue tunes on my albums.


What music are you listening to these days?
I listen to many different kinds of music. I really like Steve Reich. I have two recordings of his music. One is Music for 18 Musicians. Other classical composers I like are Leo Brower from Cuba, Brazilian composer Villa Lobos, and Joachin Rodrigo from Spain. I bought the sheet music to a two-guitar arrangement of [Modest Musorgsky's] Pictures at an Exhibition. That is one of my favorite pieces. I have also been listening to blues albums by Freddie King and Stevie Ray Vaughan. There is a young blues player named Jonny Lang that I like. He is a good singer and player. I like a lot of jazz too. I heard Mike Stern in New York. He is an incredible guitar player. I like Ralph Towner and Egberto Gismonti. Egberto plays piano even better than he plays guitar. I saw him play in Santo Domingo at the Teatro Nacional and was very impressed. 

Lately, I've been really listening to Beethoven-especially his seventh symphony. When I heard that symphony, I wondered how something like this could come to the mind of a man. It's so beautiful, so perfect. I think it is celestial. I think one day I'd like to try to write something symphonic and do all of the orchestrations myself.


That sounds like it could be a long-term goal. Do you have any new projects that you are planning for the immediate future?
I want my next recording to be a live album. I will put some of my best-known songs on it, but I am also writing some new ones for it, too.


Do you have a parting shot that you'd like to leave with our readers?
Yes. To those at Berklee and elsewhere, I'd say experience all the music that you can and listen to the best musicians. There is no greater teacher than the music itself. Anyone wanting to be a recording artist needs to have some originality. 

I think of the Edge, the guitarist in U2. He is not a virtuoso, but his playing has a lot of original things about it. You don't have to be a virtuoso to make a contribution to music. You just need to find something different; that's the key.