Draco Rosa: From Livin' La Vida Loca to Beating Cancer

PHOTO:  After a bout with cancer, singer Draco Rosa is back with new album Vida.

Courtesy of Draco Rosa

For a while Draco Rosa was losing his grip on life, fighting a gritty battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, which he'd been diagnosed with in April 2011, and finding himself alone in his room, facing his own mortality.

"You're in the void, and that's where God is and that's your best friend, that's your lover, that's your mate. When you reach that point you realize, 'Okay this is who I am and this is the way we go,'" he said, his voice crackling over the phone from Los Angeles.

After being treated in Houston, the 43-year-old singer-songwriter, who is of Puerto Rican descent but was born in the United States, had decided to return to Puerto Rico, where he had a second home, to pursue other treatment options.

"I was in contact with Juan Luis [Guerra] and Rubén [Blades], and I get a call from René [Residente from Calle 13] and Juanes telling me to stay strong," Rosa said. "So we get this idea to do an album. One minute there were just 2 or 3 people involved, and the next thing you know there was 16. I thought that, since things weren't panning out--if it's my turn to, you know, fade--so be it. At least I have this last album with my peers."

This Tuesday, Sony Music Latin released "Vida," a collection of 16 classic Draco songs, all re-recorded duets with the biggest names in Latin rock, pop, salsa and bachata. Among them are Juan Luis Guerra, Alejandro Sanz, Rubén Blades, Shakira, Ricky Martin and Juanes, and that's not even half the list. Rosa, however, has even more cause to celebrate—on December 31st of last year he was declared free of cancer.

Last fall, Rosa decided to undergo a stem-cell transplant. He had been diagnosed almost two years earlier and had tried non-invasive treatments, but they hadn't been effective. Stem-cell transplants are risky because they involve radiation treatments that destroy the immune system and leave the patient at risk of several post-procedural complications. But for Rosa, it worked.

Now, "Vida" is no longer a farewell for Rosa but another milestone in a long and award-filled career. The songs on the new release span the breadth of Rosa's musical output, coming from albums like 1996's Rock en Español classic "Vagabundo," 2004's brooding LA fusion-pop album "Mad Love," and 2009's largely overlooked yet Grammy-nominated Boricua roots groove "Amor Vincit Omnia" (Latin for "Love Conquers All"). They take the listener on a journey through Rosa's surreal world of light and darkness.

"In this process Draco has shown how brave he is," Ángelo Medina, his long-time manager, said. "There's no doubt that since he was a child Draco has faced great challenges. This time he's emerged victorious from the battle of his life. Draco is a new man. This album reflects one of his most difficult moments. Music was his inspiration and source of life."

The challenges Rosa encountered as a child were largely related to music. He began his life as a pop star and musician as a teenager, when he joined the original boy band, Menudo. Stardom undoubtedly brought with it many advantages, but also an immense amount of pressure. The mood swings in his work manifest his dueling desires to court mass appeal and reject it as much as they reflect the fact that his mother loved hard rock and his father salsa.

After a dispute with management, Rosa left Menudo in 1987, then recorded two rock albums in Brazil. Just as he started to become known as a rock guy, he starred in the late '80s period piece "Salsa," where he showed off some serious dance steps and met his wife of more than two decades, Angela Alvarado. The couple has two sons.

In the '90s, Rosa split his time between recording rock albums like "Frío" and "Vagabundo" (produced by Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera) and co-writing and co-producing massive hits like "Copa de la Vida" and "Livin la Vida Loca" for his Menudo bandmate, Ricky Martin. While these pursuits might seem wildly opposed, something about Rosa pulls together the worlds of naïve, cheesy pop and jaded, grungy dissonance. If you listen closely, there is an interesting symmetry between the refrain from the funereal "Blanca Mujer," ("Y acabar de una vez con mi vida/Yo te lo pido blanca mujer") and this couplet from "La Vida Loca": "She'll take away your pain/Like a bullet to the brain."

"I really love that I was able to work with Ricky because I was able to make some money and not have to put myself in the arena, of—you know, I'm not going to go there," said Rosa, laughing about his ambivalence towards the trappings of pop stardom.

Those dual points of view are evident on "Vida." "Blanca Mujer" becomes a duet with megastar Shakira, heavy on orchestral strings, and "Cruzando Puertas" from "Frío" is transformed by Puerto Rican folk hero José Feliciano. There's also a sharp, staccato throw-down by reggaetonero Tego Calderón on one of Rosa's heaviest metal anthems, "Brujería." Quirky Spanish rocker Enrique Bunbury croons on the "Amor Vincit Omnia" track "Obra de Arte," framed as an obsessed lover's confession. Other collaborators include Maná, Puerto Rican singer MiMA, Argentine rocker Andrés Calamaro, Marc Anthony, Romeo Santos and Ednita Nazario.

Some were easier to match with songs than others. Rosa described "hanging in L.A. and hitting the whole vegan scene with Bunbury" until they finally decided on "Obra de Arte."

Perhaps Rosa's biggest challenge on the album was his work with Rubén Blades on "El Tiempo Va." "Rubén sends me his voice from New York, and it throws me for a spin because he's such a masterful vocalist," said Draco. "He's a badass, and here am I, not quite knowing what to do. So I re-sang it all power-miked up and tried to do my best."

"Draco is still growing and expanding as an artist," Blades said via text message. "He has the character and spirit to face and conquer fear and turn it into a celebration of life."

That fearless, celebratory spirit is a defining aspect of Rosa's character. He changed his name from Robi, which was the name he had when he burst into fame as a child star in Menudo, to Draco in an attempt to leave his Robi days behind him. His pride in Puerto Rico is so strong that he was arrested with Illinois Representative Luis Gutiérrez, Edward James Olmos and Robert Kennedy Jr. protesting the US Navy's presence on the island of Vieques in 2001. He speaks perfect Spanish, and in English he's a fusion of chatty New Yorker (he was raised on Long Island before moving to Puerto Rico as a boy) and spacy L.A. rocker, spouting interest in avant-garde art and poetry and calling his fellow musicians "cats."

Rosa's transnational flavor has a strong appeal to those of us who keep moving back and forth in a circular migration between our old homes and our new ones. His romanticizing of the house he built in the Puerto Rican countryside, chronicled in his duet with Marc Anthony, "Paraíso Prometido," symbolizes a desire to return to roots, to that certain tierra. It's been lucrative for the singer as well. He's created a successful business promoting Puerto Rico nostalgia, developing a line of rum called Ron Vagabundo and a homegrown coffee brand, Café Horizonte.

But more than anything he is a natural-born artist who is perpetually moved by the shock of self-discovery, and through that point of view he's found a way to appreciate his struggle with cancer.

"The truth after all this time, after the desperation, I'm convinced that there's this beauty in suffering," said Rosa. "I like things that are distorted. I used to talk about this when I was very young and people would just be, 'Whatever, this guy's just getting fucked up.' And maybe I was. I just realize that, because of what happened, I've embraced who I am more than ever."

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