The success of Juanes, the Colombian rock star who is one of the most popular musicians in Latin music of the last decade, can obscure his integrity. His popularity has enabled him to open up Latin pop music to rock’s energy and authenticity — but he would not have been able to do that if he had not been the kind of songwriter who goes with his gut and means what he says. Certainly he’s a pro, and he sought success. But he’s also for real.
In retrospect, that sincerity makes it seem inevitable that he would do an acoustic MTV Unplugged project, recorded live at the New World Center in Febru. Produced under the auspices of MTV Tr3s, the network’s Latin music channel, it was released on CD and DVD last week. Executive producer Jose Tillan, the Tr3s general manager who suggested the idea, was also behind Ricky Martin’s career-changing Unplugged album.
The project comes at the right time. Juanes turns 40 this summer, and more than a decade of nonstop touring, recording and promotion (even as he married and had three children) had worn him out. His last album, P.A.R.C.E., his first without longtime producer Gustavo Santaolalla, made relatively little commercial impact and felt uninspired. A downside of being an artist who writes from the heart is that you won’t have much to say if you’re depleted.
For all his years of performing, when there’s a lot at stake — as at his 2009 concert in Cuba for more than a million people or the start of the Unplugged taping – Juanes can grow visibly and audibly nervous. That mostly doesn’t show in the final product. Instead you see him up close and quiet, pouring himself into the songs. Without having to capture a giant arena, he can focus on the music in a whole different way — and we can see and hear him without the rock star gleam.
The project’s music director, Juan Luis Guerra — also a commercially successful master of sincere song craft who dropped out of pop music for years to dedicate himself to his evangelical faith — became something of a mentor to Juanes. Some tracks are lush with horns and strings, with a touch of classic Latin big band; others are stripped down. Some have a folkloric feel that harks back to Juanes’ roots, learning to play guitar at home in Medellin with his father and brothers.
Todo En Mi Vida Eres Tu (Everything in My Life is You), one of three new songs, is an intimate, plaintive, jazzy ballad sung with just piano and cello, unlike anything Juanes had done. On a hit like A Dios Le Pido (I’ll Ask God), we hear the rhythmic drive and virtuosity of his guitar and the spiritual fervor of the song – and its innate catchiness. He’s growly, syncopated and free on Me Enamora, another hit.
A standout moment is a duet with the rakish veteran Spanish singer-songwriter Joaquin Sabina on Sabina’s jaunty New Orleans style blues, Azul Sabina. They grin and play vocally, and Juanes finds an unexpected new lightness.
Guerra contributed La Senal (The Sign) , a love song that could be to a person or to God, both a plea for that love to be returned and an acknowledgement of the joy of giving oneself over to an emotional force stronger than yourself.
The finale, Odio por Amor (Hate for Love), swells with an anthemic choir, the New World Center glows with golden lights and Juanes is visibly emotional. Whatever he does going forward, he seems to have found his inspiration again.