Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


GUERRA, Juan Luís

(b 7 June 1957, Dominican Republic) Singer, guitarist, composer, arranger, producer and bandleader; the hottest international Latin artist of the early '90s. Not everyone approved, however: UK salsa disc jockey Tomek wrote '91, 'The baldly exploitative use of merengue (the predominant music form of his native land) to fuel songs that are, frankly, mostly insipid doodles -- the characteristic saxes, for instance, are fetchingly haunting and elusive -- has now reached a level of proficient seductiveness which guarantees the international audience and separates him from the manic, brusque drama which is most other merengue. True, he is adored for his lyrics, and they represent a departure for the idiom. But is his wan solipsism, his fey sentimentalism (not such a dirty word in Spanish) progress? ... Behind the artifice ... lies the soul of another man who could have become an accountant.' The son of a baseball star, Guerra grew up in Gazcue, a middle-class district of Santo Domingo. As a teenager he collected rock albums and admits that although he was raised on merengue, his musical heroes were the Beatles. He decided on jazz guitar, started studies at Berklee in Boston '80 inspired by Pat Metheny, but at a party one night he played his hottest jazz licks, 'and nobody was paying the slightest attention to them. It was really depressing ... I picked up a güiro (the metal scraper instrument basic to merengue) and began to play, and suddenly, se para la fiesta. This was a revelation for me. I realized that jazz and bebop wasn't really my music. It was time to go home' (quoted by Daisann McLane in the Village Voice).

His early albums Mudanza y Acarreo and Mientras Más Lo Pienso Tú '85-6 highlighted the close-harmony work of his vocal group 4.40, described as a tropicalized version of Manhattan Transfer, as well as first-class studio musicians such as the Dominican Republic's foremost tambora player Catarey (the tambora is a double-headed drum fundamental to merengue). The irresistible dance tracks instantly became fashionable. After Catarey's death in a crash during a Venezuelan tour with 4.40, and female vocalist Haridalia Hernández leaving to pursue a solo career, Juan Luís supplied the lead vocals to Ojalá Que Llueva Café ('Let's Hope It Rains Coffee') '89, his relaxed nasal singing style compared to that of James Taylor. Though the album was 'all the rage among tropical yuppies, who like to move fast without sweating up their Armanis' (Cuban-American journalist Enrique Fernández '89), its stylistic mélange managed to transcend class and national boundaries to be a massive best-seller in several Latin countries, a major achievement in a historically nationalist market. He sustained a high profile with hits 'Burbujas de Amor' ('Bubbles Of Love'), which utilized the rural Dominican bachata form to support its peculiar sensual lyrics, and 'La Bilirrubina', both later included on Bachata Rosa, another international chart-topper, including Spain (not previously a major merengue and salsa market); he held both the no. 1 and 2 positions in the Spanish album chart at one stage in '91, as well as reaching no. 1 in Holland. Late that year the single 'Frío, Frío' ('Cold, Cold') kept him in the charts. Guerra was the first merengue artist to receive a Grammy '92, for the 5 million-selling Bachata Rosa. Of the next album Fernández wrote that 'the new, politically correct album, complete with some Taino-language lyrics is out: Areito, which was the name of a pre-Columbian song, dance, theatre and performance art of the Caribbean (hip, our Native Americans) ... has given Juan Luís a chance to stretch musically, into all his world-beat interests and his personal vision'. Areito spent most of the year in various charts, a third of its sales in Spain, and was nominated for a Grammy. The track 'El Costo De La Vida' ('The Cost Of Living') was a tune from the Zairean guitarist Diblo Dibala, who Guerra heard in New York at S.O.B.'s, and was meant to be socially conscious as well as danceable; Diblo Dibala actually performs on the title track (an adaptation of his composition 'Amour et Souvenir') and on two more songs on Guerra's Fogaraté! '94, his strongest and most compelling work to date. Concerning this encounter of Dominican merengue and Zairean soukous, London's club DJ Gerry Lyseight wrote, 'Don't bother looking for the join, there isn't one' (in Straight No Chaser magazine). Guerra employed traditionalist accordionist/singer Francisco Ulloa and his group to get back to merengue basics, yet in a modernistic fashion, on three tracks, including the first hit off the album, 'La Cosquillita', co-written by Guerra and Ulloa. Fogaraté! shot to no. 1 in Spain and entered the Billboard tropical/salsa chart at no. 2.