A Rare Interview With Juan Luis Guerra, Latin Music Superstar
Juan Luis Guerra is a Latin music superstar from the Dominican Republic. The singer, songwriter and composer has sold over 30 million records and has won 18 Latin Grammy Awards and two Grammy Awards.
Here & Now’s Robin Young and José Massó, host of WBUR’s weekly music show “ ¡Con Salsa!” conduct a rare interview with Guerra, who described his merengue and bachata-infused music.
Interview Highlights: Juan Luis Guerra
Note: José Massó serves as interpreter for much of the interview with Juan Luis Guerra.
You studied jazz down the street at Berklee College of Music
Massó for Guerra: “So I came to Berklee to study guitar, I really wanted to be a jazz guitarist, and I really came because I really wanted to come for Pat Metheny, and then when I get to Berklee, there’s no Pat Metheny, he’s not there, and so now what do I do?”
Can you demonstrate the difference between merengue and bachata?
Guerra: “Merengue is a fast rhythm, you know, and danceable. Bachata is like a slow, romantic Caribbean bolero.”
On his lyrics
Massó for Guerra: “When he was studying at the University of the Dominican Republic, his mother said ‘you had to study two things, you can’t just study music.’ So then he studied literature, and from there he learned from the great writers, Barlow, Neruda, Garcia Lorca and others and that’s how he became immersed in words.”
On the song, ‘El Niágara en Bicicleta’
Massó for Guerra: “The Niagara on a bicycle. It’s like trying to cross the Niagara on a bicycle, which is impossible, but it’s an expression in the Dominican Republic that basically says that someone is going through a hard time.”
It’s kind of an ironic take on a guy who is trying desperately to get some help at a hospital.
Massó for Guerra: “It is about hospitals, and it’s about something that happened in his case he went to a hospital where he had everything available to him to get treatment, but he said ‘what would happen if I didn’t have the things that make it possible for me to be treated?’ Like what happens in a lot of hospitals in our countries.”
How would you categorize the way that you are as a social commentator for the Dominican Republic?
Massó for Guerra: “He learned early. He learned from Rubén Blades about the fact that he could put social commentary to rhythm, to songs and he said ‘well, I could do the same, I think. Doing it to the music I play.’ In reality social commentaries are the things that we live through, so when he writes about ‘Visa Para un Sueño,’ it’s a reflection of the experiences, of the social experiences that people have.”
What does ‘Visa Para un Sueño’ mean?
Massó for Guerra: “‘A Visa in a Dream.’ I have a dream of getting a visa, which is a dream that many people have so they can leave their countries to come someplace else, specifically they want to come to the United States.”
The one about ‘raining coffee?’
Guerra: “‘Ojalá Que Llueva Café,’ slow merengue. Let me explain to you where it comes from.
Massó for Guerra: “He was in Santiago de los Caballeros, and they had told him there was a gentleman, a person that danced merengue and was a really good dancer, and was 80 years old. So he wanted to meet the person. So the person showed him some poems he had written, and amongst the poems, there was one that spoke about the theme of hoping it would rain coffee. When he saw it he said ‘Wow, this is one of the metaphors that he really would have loved had he seen it.”
People talk about your spirituality, and also love.
Guerra: “Oh yeah, yeah both.”
Massó for Guerra: “Love has always been present since the very beginning, in particular when he started working bachata, where he saw it as being a Caribbean bolero, and the love is expressed for everything, from his wife to the family to his country. It’s love.”
In concerts you call out and reach out to Latinos, and people cheer and walk a little taller.
Guerra: “They love it.”
Massó for Guerra: “He wants them to feel part of the audience. It’s a privilege for him to have them as part of the audience.”
It gives them a chance to have pride in homeland.
Massó for Guerra: “Yes, we have a pride of who we are as Latinos, regardless if we’re Puerto Rican, Dominican, Venezuelan, and we’re very proud of our customs and our history and our traditions and who we are.”
Would you like to be better known in the U.S.?
Guerra: “I guess so, I guess so.”
Massó for Guerra: “Sure, he would love to have more people enjoy his music, in particular non-Latinos, because like he said, his son when he was young, Juan Gabriel, they ask him ‘what does your father do?’ and he answers ‘he makes people happy.’ He says I want to make more people happy, and I want more people to be happy though my music and my songs.”
Juan Luis Guerra Songs In This Segment
“Cuando Te Beso”
“Visa Para un Sueño”
“Coronita de Flores”
“El Niágara en Bicicleta”
“Ojalá Que Llueva Café”
- Juan Luis Guerra, Dominican singer, songwriter, composer and producer. He tweets @JuanLuisGuerra.
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