If you know anyone from Latin America, or anyone whose parents are from Latin America, odds are they like to dance to Juan Luis Guerra.
Guerra is a Dominican merengue and bachata singer whose happy music can pull you out of the funkiest funk on the rainiest day. He's been making music for decades and continues to release hits -- it's worth noting that his music hasn't lost its "everything-is-going-to-be-ok-just-dance" edge in the slightest. Guerra says it's even his band's mission, "We all have it very clear from the moment we get on stage; our priority is to make people happy."
o who is Juan Luis Guerra?
He's written some of the most recognizable dance songs in Latin America but you'll probably never find him on the dance floor. "For me it's more important to make other people dance. But I CAN dance."
He's a happily married man who's not embarrassed to still write love songs for his wife. "Normally the things I like aren't the things my wife likes. I love being at my house, she loves going out. It's backwards, it's all backwards. But of course that's how it has to be. We complement each other. You have to sacrifice and be thankful for each other."
He's his harshest critic. "I actually don't enjoy hearing my music on the radio. I listen with a critical ear. I start saying "Caramba! Why didn't I sing this like this or like that." Musicians are "special" in that way."
Why is he relevant today?
He's still making music. This month he released a new live CD and DVD from a show during "Asondeguerra Tour" in Santo Domingo. It rained the entire two-hour concert, but the 50,000 people watching him didn't stop dancing for a second.
If you're thinking "Eh, this guy's old and doesn't speak to me at all…" you might be right, but you're probably wrong.
Guerra studied composition and jazz at Berklee College of Music in Boston. "I heard things I had never heard. They're big on jazz, so I was introduced to Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane. I started to investigate that music and how I could adapt everything I was learning to Latin music. That had a huge impact on my music. When I can mix jazz or reggae with meringue I do."
After graduating in 1979 (OK that graduation year might make him seem old) he returned to the Dominican Republic and was set on forming a band -- like most Berklee graduates. "I didn't know I would work with meringue, bachata, and salsa specifically. I wanted to be a jazz guitarist, but getting to Dominican Republic the trajectory changed and I had the opportunity to work with meringue and doors opened from there," he says. He recorded some commercial jingles while he formed his band, the 4:40, who he still plays with.
The path to success takes three friends and VW Beetle.
The four-man-band would drive around Santo Domingo in an old Volkswagen Beetle listening to the radio, waiting to hear their song. This was the ritual they had for their first three albums. The fourth album, Ojala Que Llueva Café, was the first in which Guerra presented himself as a solo artist.
Guerra won his first Grammy for his fifth album Bachata Rosa (which features one of his greatest hits "La Bilirrubina"). The album sold more than five million copies and mixed jazz, rock, pop and merengue.
Where did "La Bilirrubina" come from?
"I had a concert in Panama coming up when I got hepatitis. My doctor came into the room and said to me, 'That concert isn't going to happen. You have high levels of bilirubin.' I said 'The bili-what?!' After that I decided to make a meringue for the bilirrubina."
His next album Areito in 1992 fused Folkloric merengue with African soukus. He won another Grammy for his merengue hit "Las Avispas".
Skip to 2007, four albums later. His 10th album La Llave De Mi Corazon won 7 Latin Grammys. Over the years Guerra's lyrics became more spiritual and social, like his song "La guagua (the bus)" about faulty social systems, which he made into another happy song.
hat's the secret to music that doesn't age?
"We have the pleasure in the Dominican Republic of having really happy and danceable music, like merengue and bachata. With our music we've delivered various messages, but no matter what, say what we say, the percussions and happiness always comes out in our music."
If he had to explain who he was to someone who had never heard of him, what song would he choose?
"Depends on the situation. Our music takes you through different moods. I think "La Bilirrubina" could be one, or "Ojala Que Llueva Café" could be another. If it's a couple, "Mi Bendicion," which is a new one. I would need to see the person's face before choosing."
Guerra has made people happy for over 20 years with his melodies and lyrics. If he can still make this kind of music in his 50s, it just goes to show that aging depression is not a real thing... so get over turning 30 this year and go listen to "El Niágara en Bicicleta" – tranquilo Bobby, tranquilo.