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With Torres' production help, the hyperactive "Quebradita en el Mar" was Monreal's true breakthrough. The song was recorded by Banda Arkangel R-15, and became one of that band's most popular live showcases, even being performed by the group at the annual Festival Acapulco, a summer celebration internationally televised on Univision. It was later reinterpreted by Grupo Laberinto under the title "Conquista en Miami," with the song's setting shifting from Puerto Vallarta to South Florida.
Monreal says the song's various recordings have earned $18 million in international album and single sales, but says he saw only a tiny fraction of it because his Luna contract required him to pay the recording, marketing, and various other costs. It was not the best possible deal for a fledgling songwriter to make, but Monreal has no regrets.
He credits Luna -- which was purchased in 1999 by Sony Discos -- with creating a musical career for him, and he values that creative outlet more than any royalty money that comes his way. "They gave me the legitimacy," he says, "the status of a songwriter."
What instantly set Monreal apart from many Latino songwriters was his stylistic versatility. With equal facility, he could crank out a sentimental ballad, a banda party song, or a corrido narrative.
His ability to adapt has proven useful in a Latin music market characterized both by potent sales figures and the absence of a single, defining sound.
In each of the last two years, the Recording Industry Association of America has reported Latin music sales of more than $600 million (not counting English-language mega sellers from Latino artists like Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Martin), nearly 5 percent of gross record receipts in the United States. Groups like Los Tigres del Norte and Banda Arkangel routinely achieve gold status (500,000 copies sold) and beyond for their album releases. And the increasing popularity of Latin music induced the recording industry to launch the Latin Grammy Awards last year.
But the Latin music market, so often pigeonholed as a monolithic cultural entity, is remarkably fragmented, spanning the distance between the salsa grooves of Cuban exiles in Miami to the accordion-driven rancheras of northern Mexico.
Monreal floats between these different worlds, able to write for any group that a record label approaches him about. He even believes he could write rap songs, if called upon to do so.
But Monreal is most deeply attached to his mushy, sentimental ballads. An unabashed romantic, he looks upon such expressions of love as the epitome of musical refinement. By comparison, he regards his more popular cumbia tunes as vaguely frivolous.
"Ballads are what I like doing best, because they have a story," he says. "They're romantic. It's like writing a book in three minutes. But it's harder to sell, because the circle is so closed, it's very difficult for songwriters to penetrate. But I'm getting there."
The circle that Monreal wants to penetrate is the small songwriting clique that provides material for massively successful balladeers Luis Miguel, Marc Anthony and Enrique Iglesias. For all his success with midlevel Latino acts, Monreal knows such romantic icons are on a different level. One song recorded by any of these singers could pay the bills for years.
These days, Monreal is particularly proud of a ballad called "Me Enamore de Ti (I Fell in Love With You)," a collaboration with longtime friend Danny Griego, a raw-boned, Nashville-based singer-songwriter with a passing resemblance to a young George Strait.
Monreal and Griego met in the mid-'90s through Griego's dad, Manny, who is director of technology at Glendale Community College.
A Phoenix native who graduated from Scottsdale's Horizon High School, Griego -- like Monreal -- inadvertently stumbled into music at a time when he had another career going. Owner of a chain of Subway franchises in Sun City and Wickenburg, as well as Matt's Saloon, a popular honky-tonk on Prescott's historic Whiskey Row, Griego was camping and fishing at Big Lake in Eastern Arizona in 1990 when he was struck by a bolt of lightning. As therapy for his temporarily paralyzed right arm, he learned to play the guitar, and began writing songs.
Like Monreal, he found himself hooked on songwriting, and in 1993 he decided to sell off his businesses and move to Nashville. These days, he's writing with legendary country tunesmith Hank Cochran ("I Fall to Pieces," "Make the World Go Away") and weighing record-label offers.
With Monreal's lyrical help, he's also hoping to achieve a rare crossover, taking Spanish-language country music into Mexico.
"It's a real interesting merger," Griego says. "Not a lot of people realize that country music is heavily influenced by Mexican music, things like the Spanish guitar. What we're doing is bringing it full circle."
"We mutually respect each other's creations," Monreal says. "I like what he writes in English, and he asks me how to get the same feeling in Spanish."
Calling Monreal "one of the best writers in Latin music," Griego says: "Passion is his big strength. He writes from his heart. I think we both write from experience. Music came and sought us out. It wasn't something we were pursuing."