Robi Draco Rosa has always dedicated himself to music and the creative and existential risks that inspired him, whether it was quitting Menudo, one of the world’s most popular bands, to pursue his own unconventional music; ingesting perilous amounts of drugs and alcohol, or flouting industry expectations in order to pursue a resolutely independent, and usually unprofitable, path.
“I used to have a T-shirt that said ‘Risk everything, regret nothing,’ and I always wore it proudly,” says Draco, 44. “I was convinced that [age] 27 was it… I lived fast, did everything I could.”
But at the depths of a two-year battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, Draco found that even music failed him.
“My Les Paul got too heavy,” he says. “I thought, let me play another guitar, but then the strings hurt my fingers. So I thought maybe I can do the piano.”
He began listening to the kind of sentimental music he’d always despised: Christmas songs, Frank Sinatra, Rachmaninoff. Even that became too much.
“Once I had the stem-cell transplant I had to turn the music off,” Draco says. “I was really in touch with my body and with God. And that was dominating everything.”
Since he was declared cancer-free at the end of last year, Draco has backed away from his long romance with living on the edge.
“I’m so grateful, so thankful, so appreciative,” he says. “It’s so miraculous for me to be here and see people again. Every encounter matters more than ever. I’m just – very much more in the moment.”
His recovery has been accompanied by the kind of high-profile commercial project he once rejected, Vida (Life), an album of duets on Draco’s songs with a who’s who of Latin music stars. They include Mas y Mas with his former Menudo bandmate Ricky Martin and songs with Juan Luis Guerra, Shakira, Romeo Santos, Juanes, and Marc Anthony, among others.
The album earned three Latin Grammy nominations, including Record and Album of the Year, and launched a tour that brings Draco to the Fillmore Miami Beach on Saturday.
“I was so surprised all this came together,” he says from his manager’s office in Los Angeles, where he lives. “Had I not been ill, none of this would have happened. … Now I’m back on my Les Paul, I’m engaged in this rebirth. Life is awesome when you have it.”
Draco began acquiring his outsider sensibility at age 7, when his Puerto Rican father, angry that his three U.S.-born children weren’t speaking Spanish, abruptly moved the family from Long Island to a small town in Puerto Rico. Taunted as a gringo, the rebellious Draco moved in with an uncle in San Juan at 13.
That same year he successfully auditioned for Menudo, the Puerto Rican boy band that was a pop phenomenon in the 1980s. His sweet falsetto and exquisitely chiseled face put Draco up front singing lead in most of Menudo’s bubblegum songs, while a younger, smaller Ricky Martin danced in the background.
But at 17, Draco, who had begun writing his own songs, abruptly quit Menudo while it was on tour in Brazil. He refused an offer of $100,000 to come back. He discovered Rilke and Rimbaud, drinking and drugs, got tattoos and a motorcycle, and began making dark, moody, dissonant rock that earned him a cult following but was triply radical for a nascent Latin rock movement.
He added Draco as the name of an androgynous, goth-glam alter ego, acted in films, painted a self-portrait in which he pointed a gun to his head. While record labels were attracted by his Menudo pedigree and his songwriting talent, they were put off by defiant acts like trashing hotel rooms and refusing to appear on TV shows he considered inane.
When Draco emerged from a stint in rehab for heroin and alcohol addiction in 1995, Martin asked him to help with a new album. Though he co-wrote and co-produced Martin’s breakout megahits (Un, Dos, Tres) Maria and Livin La Vida Loca, he insisted on doing so under an alias, Ian Blake (for Ian Astbury of goth-punk band The Cult and poet William Blake). In Draco’s own, ironic version of Vida Loca, you hear a wild nihilism glossed over by Martin’s charismatic energy. He accepted only a few commercial writing and producing gigs after that, for balladeer Julio Iglesias and for Puerto Rican diva Ednita Nazario (under the name Dolores del Infante).
Although he has had occasional moments in the spotlight, Draco remained an artist revered for his creativity, talent and integrity, but mostly ostracized by the music industry. By the late in the last decade, he had largely made peace with his choices and settled down. He has enjoyed a long, happy marriage to actor and director Angela Alvarado, with whom he has two sons, now 19 and 12. He started an organic coffee farm in the mountains of Puerto Rico with his father and sister and made a bucolic (for Draco) album called Amor Vincit Omnia (Latin for “love conquers all”).
But his health began to fail, first with rheumatic fever and then a cancer diagnosis in 2011. When his manager and an executive at Sony Discos suggested the duets album, the usually rebellious singer consented.
“In my mind it was like, ‘This is my swan song, this is it,’ ” he says.
He recorded tracks with Anthony, Juanes and Andres Calamaro in his home studio in L.A., but mostly he worked alone with vocals sent in from around the world.
“Between [chemotherapy] cycles I would come into work,” he says. “Some days I would just lay on the sofa and say I’m too tired. But other days I was amped … and I’d be like, ‘Let’s go!’ ”
Some of that urgency came from Draco’s sense that this might be the last music he would make. He found new meaning in songs drawn from throughout his career. On El Tiempo Va (Time Passes), an elegiac song from Amor Vincit done with salsa pioneer and Draco idol Ruben Blades, lines like “This life is all there is, there’s no rebellion left, only freedom” took on a far more somber tone.
“That was the last one I sang, and I wanted it to matter so much, because of the uncertainty I was living,” Draco says.
Other songs surprised him in a different way, like Reza Por Mi (Pray For Me), with bachata-pop idol Romeo Santos.
“Normally I would be thinking, ‘What am I gonna do with a guy who does that kind of music,’ ” Draco says. “But in the end, what a beautiful piece. … I like to think I learned a lot from everyone on this album.”
Cancer has left him with a newly necessary sobriety and thoughtfulness. Monthly visits to the clinic are a reminder that his illness could return.
“There’s no guarantees,” he says.
Alcohol, that standard adjunct to the rocker’s life, is out.
“I spend more time alone now, which is strange,” he says. “I thought I did before, but I really spend time alone now. There’s nothing for me to do after I perform except stay in and read, because after a gig everyone hits the bar. I’m adapting and discovering who I am.”
Which includes figuring out who he is as an artist happy to be alive.
“I’m in this realm that’s somewhat mainstream, and I enjoy it, but I’m not too deep in it because I haven’t had that kind of success,” Draco says.
“I’m at a crossroads. And I have this opportunity… to connect to people and hopefully share the experience.”
While he’ll keep experimenting, Draco also sounds as if he wants to make music that’s more accessible and in tune with his new state of mind.
“I want to lift up some spirits and go where it’s not comfortable for me, while still staying genuine and honest,” he says. “I want to dance a little more. There’s a lot of simple things I just want to share with people.
“I am a lot happier, and I’m OK with it. For years I was not. There were a lot of horrors ... the nights were heavy. Now I’m happier. And that’s a good thing.”