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Juan Luis Guerra reaches a perfect pitch.

It is a rule of thumb as old as the music business itself: When musicians themselves begin to talk about the arrival of a new talent, listen carefully. The people who spend their waking hours planning how to capture the public's attention through music know something genuinely special when they hear it.

"Have you heard Juan Luis Guerra and Cuatro Cuarenta?" From New York to the Caribbean, this question inevitably comes up when the subject is tropical music. For the past five years, the Latin music scene has been abuzz with talk of a fast rising star, a lanky Santo Domingo native whose new twist on merengue rhythms, poetic lyrics, and sophisticated melodies have propelled him and his group past long-established stars of the movement to the very forefront of mass popularity.

Even the mainstream media have taken notice. Newsweek magazine, in a recent feature that documented the current movers and shakers of the Latin music world, cited Guerra's "unique Caribbean pulse" and noted the composer has "searched the bruised regional soul and merged his merengue with salsa, Afro-Antillean folk and the romantic ballad known as bachata."

So far, fans on four continents have pushed sales of Guerra's new recording, Bachata Rosa, to over 3.5 million copies - an unheard of figure for a recording by a Dominican artist. Audiences in the thousands have mobbed his group's concerts in cities through-out Latin America and Europe, and Guerra's just-concluded thirteen-city tour of the United States may rank as the most successful North American tour by a Hispanic musician ever.

The object of all this attention is a quiet, intense young man whose unpretentious attitude and mold-breaking attributes make him every bit as interesting as the music he creates. On the surface, the 34-year-old Guerra seems quite the opposite of the smooth and sexy image we have come to expect from the music hit factory. Perhaps that is one of the keys to the Dominican's amazing success - a supreme self confidence in his distinctive image and personal style, and the ability to resist any attempt to conform to an arbitrary industry norm.

At six feet, four inches tall, the bearded Guerra, in his trademark baggy black clothing, stands almost motionless onstage, an imposing yet slightly bemusing figure. His consciously-designed stage manner is a real key to understanding Guerra's unique synthesis of styles. Although he wraps his music in the rhythmic and orchestral trappings of merengue and other tropical styles, Guerra's lyrics more often than not reflect the Nueva Cancion movement's concern for socially meaningful writing and highly personal delivery.

Whatever the reasons for Guerra's exploding popularity, his star is beginning to shine in some unlikely places. In a recent edition of Rolling Stone magazine, the bible of rock and roll, the singer/songwriter was lauded as "a Paul Simon from the other side; a sophisticated verbal and musical whiz who spins the fast and raunchy merengue rhythms of his own country into elegantly structured pop jewels." Critic Daisann McLane went on to proclaim Guerra's hit song "Burbujas de Amor" a tune that "belongs on an all-time list of perfect pop songs, in any language." Even Brazil, a country used to exporting music rather than importing it, has paid Guerra the highest compliment. Currently a virtual carbon copy of "Burbujas de Amor," rendered in Portuguese by singer Fagner, is one of the most frequently heard songs on Brazilian radio.

In recent months, Guerra and 440 have played to sold-out audiences of thousands in an extended concert tour that has taken them from Mexico to Madrid and most points in between. The group's performance fee has escalated from around $10,000 a night to a sum approaching $50,000. All in all, quite an accomplishment for a guy whose musical interests just a few years ago included everything but the music of his homeland.

As a youngster growing up in Santo Domingo, Guerra recalls he was an "imitation hippie." Although the Dominican Republic has had its political differences with the United States, its people readily admit to having a fondness for North American culture Thus, it is perhaps not surprising that Guerra grew up listening to rock music and idolizing North American musicians.

By the time he was old enough to begin formal study of music at the National Conservatory, his interests included fusion jazz. When Guerra left the Dominican Republic in 1980, it was to make the pilgrimage north to Boston's Berklee College, famed for institutionalizing the study of jazz. His goal was to become another Pat Metheny, the brilliant and popular jazz guitarist.

But that dream was short lived. Guerra recalls, "I remember being at a dinner party one night, playing my hottest licks on the guitar, and nobody was paying the slightest attention to me. It was really depressing." Then, in a corner of the room, he spotted a guiro, the scrapper that plays a central role in outlining the rhythms of merenque and other tropical music styles. "I picked it up and suddenly, everyone was listening, se para la fiesta! This was a revelation. I realized that jazz and bebop weren't really my music. It was time to go home."

Although Guerra had given up on his initial dream of becoming a jazz guitarist, much of what he learned at Berklee proved to be of great value as he began to analyze Dominican music and create his own style. His clever arrangements, with their jazzy touches and keen harmonic sense, reflect the Berklee influence.

Guerra's daring extends to his choice of collaborators. The other members of 440 - Roger Zayas, Marco Hernandez and Adalgisa Pantaleon - all have benefited from conservatory-level musical training. And the group's choice of guest artists is unusual for pop-oriented music. Bachata Rosa includes the work of Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, one of today's most talked-about young keyboard virtuosos.

The musician's talent for crafting poetic lyrics is also a striking departure from the customary Dominican pattern of spicy, double-entendre themes. On "Bachata Rosa," he credits the late Chilean poet Pablo Neruda for two of the song's phrases. Fellow musicians say he is always stealing away to an airport bookstore to peruse volumes of poetry when the band is in transit. Guerra also admits to a fondness for the surrealist movement, citing a particular interest in the work of Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel and painter Salvador Dali.

"And then there's the bachata," says longtime friend Richard Gomez, today a Los Angeles-based keyboardist/arranger. "I think it's his ability to put everything together and make it work. What Juan Luis did was take that simple music and put poetic words to it. This has been one of his most important contributions to our music."

Do not look for the word bachata in any dictionary. Despite the exposure the word and the music are getting via Guerra's hit recording, the form was largely the province of the Dominican Republic's lower classes until Guerra returned from Boston to rediscover his native musical roots. Basically a Dominican ballad form similar to the bolero, the bachata is typically performed with maracas, bongos and a guitar. In the past, the music has been largely performed and recorded under less than ideal circumstances, and was virtually shunned by the country's elite. In Guerra's capable hands, the humble bachata is no longer the exclusive domain of maids and the rural poor.

And then there is the name of the group itself. Cuatro Cuarenta (440) is a technical musical term - the number of cycles per second that creates the "perfect pitch," the concert pitch to which all instruments are tuned. A simple concept, but reflective of the thought Guerra and his group put into everything they do - simple and as pure as the innate beauty and quiet dignity Juan Luis Guerra discovered in his country's long-neglected bachata.

Mark Holston, a lifelong musician, writes about jazz and Latin music for a variety of publications.
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Author:Holston, Mark
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Sep 1, 1991
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