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.