For a decade, Carlos Vives was one of the biggest stars in Latin music. The Colombian singer appeared to have it all, artistically and commercially: From the early 1990s to the early 2000s, he boasted record sales in the millions, arena-filling tours and ardent fans as well as critical and artistic respect for pioneering tropi-pop, a genre that combined Colombian folk music with international pop. Before Shakira and Juanes, Vives made Colombian music popular around the world.
And then he disappeared. In 2005, upheavals in the music industry and the breakup of his marriage sent Vives back to Colombia. For eight years, he was absent from the music world where he once reigned.
And now he is back. On Saturday, Vives performs at AmericanAirlines Arena, the third stop on an ambitious, nine-city U.S. arena tour. His new album, Corazon Profundo, is hovering near the top of Billboard’s Latin sales charts after nine weeks. He has a new label, a new manager, a new wife and two young children.
Sitting in a suite at a sleek downtown Miami hotel on a bright spring afternoon, Vives, 51, seems both nervous and excited about his return. At an appearance earlier that week at the Billboard Latin Music Conference, he was mobbed by female fans and television cameras. His performance at the Billboard Latin Music Awards, with the Brazilian star Michel Telo, was one of the broadcast’s highlights.
“When you miss something, you always want it again,” Vives says. “Yes, it’s been difficult, because I was used to a certain kind of life, and everything changed. But at the end your spirit doesn’t change. I have to sing, I have to perform, I have to write, I have to work. I’m happy that life gives me the AmericanAirlines Arena or a little theater in Bogota. Either way I’ll do my best.”
He will need to, because much has changed since Vives’ heyday. Bachata, reggaeton and Latin hybrids of urban and hip-hop music have largely supplanted Latin pop-rock, while the business of selling music and reaching audiences has become a labyrinth of merchandising and sponsorship deals, social media strategies and multimedia campaigns. And Vives is no longer a fresh-faced romantic idol.
“Whooo — for an artist it’s all very complicated,” he says, laughing. “For a provincial from the Colombian Graceland. Life is a struggle to be simple. I want to be simple.”
Things got complicated when Vives’ contract with EMI Latin expired in 2005 as the company was going through management and ownership turmoil that would end in its demise. Despite his success, Vives wasn’t able to negotiate a new deal with another label.
“The music business was failing, and he wanted a lucrative contract that didn’t make sense,” says one former label staffer.
At the same time, Vives split with his wife, Puerto Rican actress Herlinda Gomez, and began a relationship with Claudia Elena Vasquez, who is now his wife and the mother of his 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son. (His teenage son and daughter with Gomez also live with Vives in Bogota.)
With his performing career up in the air, he returned to Bogota and worked behind the scenes. He turned a home recording studio into a popular music club, Gaira Cumbia House, where he presented comedy acts and a children’s theater series as well as traditional and up-and-coming Colombian musicians. He produced a Latin Grammy-winning children’s album and wrote and produced songs for other artists.