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Fresh Colombian

Colombian pop star and guitar shredder Juanes, whose combination of fiery Latin rhythms and subtle rock bombast builds on the success of fellow quirky countrymen Shakira and Aterciopelados, sits facing the stage of Los Angeles' Kodak Theatre. It is September 17, one day before the Third Annual Latin Grammy Awards. He watches as ranchera legend Vicente Fernández (soon to be dubbed the Latin Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences' Person of the Year) prepares to rehearse.

"This is great," says the affable Juanes (born Juan Esteban Aristizábal) in Spanish. "I love the way this gentleman sings, hermano." The 28-year-old Juanes smiles easily and talks graciously, even though he has spent three hours rehearsing "A Dios le Pido," his nominated hit single that he and Canadian singer-songwriter Nelly Furtado would perform live the next evening on CBS.

A year has passed since he stunned the industry by winning three Latin Grammys, including Best Rock Album and Best New Artist. But since the 2001 awards ceremony was scheduled for September 11, the attacks on America thwarted his big night -- when he would have played his hit "Fíjate Bien" on national television as the night's most-nominated artist, traveling farther, Latin Grammy-wise, than any other rocker. The tragedy bumped the awards to a mere press conference at the Conga Room in L.A. the following month, where Juanes performed acoustically without fanfare or bright lights.

Juanes has since become a commercial success, and his musicianship, singing and writing abilities make him perhaps Latin music's most interesting solo artist. Judging by his first two solo efforts, the spotlight on Juanes should only increase.

"Everything happens for a reason," says a nonplussed Juanes. "I feel more prepared now, and I prefer to sing the more hopeful A Dios le Pido' now than Fíjate Bien,' which is like a warning, last year. But this is not a revenge for me. True, I waited a long time, but I feel very happy, not at all bitter. My mother is going to be here, and I want to share my music with everyone."

Juanes' mother holds a special place in his heart. She advised a defeated Juanes to stay in L.A. in the late '90s, at a time when he was living like a gypsy.

"Wow . . . I lived all over the place," says Juanes about his love-hate relationship with Los Angeles, where he spent parts of 1998 and 1999. Since then, he has returned to his birthplace of Medellín, Colombia, but keeps a temporary U.S. residence in Miami.

"You can get very lonely [in L.A.]. But it is a fact that this city also brought me very good things, and I'm very grateful to it."

At minimum, Los Angeles supplied Juanes with hope. He had outgrown Ekhymosis, the band he fronted for more than 10 years in Colombia and that he left as soon as he found his signature sound. Ekhymosis became one of Colombia's best live rock bands, but its albums were uneven at best. After four albums, the band signed with Fonovisa and recorded 1997's Ekhymosis, arguably the group's finest. Ironically, the album did nothing but confirm the fact that Juanes was something special. Even though the band tried hard to follow Juanes, he wanted to go even further.

"We went through all phases, including the Metallica one," says Juanes. "But I realized my thing was much closer to home." His "thing" was an amalgamation of Latin influences -- cumbia, vallenato, Cuba's Nueva Trova and even Carlos Gardel tangos, done with an edgy rock attitude. Even with Ekhymosis, it was evident that Juanes had it: the songs, the voice and the lyrics -- a smart, direct and moving chant of war and peace, of love and despair. He also stood as one of Latin rock's best guitarists and -- just in case -- he had the looks.

Yet he lacked one thing: food. "I ran out of money and came to a point where I was ready to return to Colombia," Juanes recalls. "That's when I got Gustavo's call." He refers to Gustavo Santaolalla, rock en español's top producer (Café Tacuba, Maldita Vecindad and others), whose assistance he had sought for years. "He was the one I wanted to work with," says Juanes. "When he called me and said he liked my demo and wanted to work with me, I was so happy, I just broke down and started crying."

With Santaolalla, who signed Juanes to his Surco label (a joint venture distributed by Universal), Juanes recorded 2000's Fíjate Bien. The album reached number one in Colombia, but an ambivalence toward Juanes' style by pop radio programmers, and a general lack of radio outlets for rock en español artists, caused it to sputter elsewhere, selling just 150,000 copies worldwide.

"Just look at a band like [popular Mexican group] Café Tacuba: In Los Angeles, they're only played by KCRW [an English-language Santa Monica College NPR station]," says Anibal Kerpel, Santaolalla's partner and associate producer of both of Juanes' albums. "There's just no outlet for Latin alternative music on the radio."

It wasn't until after the nominees for the Second Latin Grammy Awards were announced at a press conference in Miami that Juanes broke through onto the mainstream pop dial.

"I didn't want to go," said Juanes. "I told [manager] Fernan [Martínez, former manager of Enrique Iglesias], What if nobody calls my name? I'm going to look like a fool.'" Martínez insisted and, at the last minute, Juanes washed his only pair of tennis shoes and bought a $12 tee shirt from a street vendor. That was easy. The harder part was just getting into the press conference -- nobody knew who the hell he was.

"My name is Juanes, and I have an album," he said at the door. After some back-and-forth needling, he finally gained entrance in time to hear his name called seven times, more than big superstars like Christina Aguilera, Alejandro Sanz or Paulina Rubio.

"It was a symbol of the change in the industry," said Santaolalla, himself a Latin Grammy winner for his work on Café Tacuba's 2000 album Revés/Yosoy. "Now there is room [in the Academy] for a more alternative sound."

Fíjate Bien's nominations revived the album, propelling sales to almost 350,000 copies worldwide. But it wasn't until the follow-up, last year's Un Día Normal, that critical darling Juanes morphed into a legitimate commercial player. Three months after the release of "A Dios le Pido" as a single, the album had sold 650,000 copies worldwide.

"People think this is an overnight thing," says Juanes, who began a 15-city tour of the U.S. last month. "But it's not. Fortunately, it all came to me after many years of sacrifice, and at any given time, it can all disappear. This is a very fragile thing, so I must be careful and continue walking the musical path in an honest way."

Back at the Latin Grammys, Juanes is ready to perform. While Un Día Normal was released after the Latin Grammy nomination period, "A Dios le Pido" came out as a single just in time to be nominated for Best Rock Song. Minutes before the winner is announced, Juanes gets his chance to perform live on TV, singing his hit with Furtado, who also sings with him on "Fotografía," one of Un Día Normal's highlights.

Too bad. "A Dios Le Pido" is not a song for Furtado. Beneath its harmless cumbia/vallenato structure, the song is a powerful anthem that has a rocking spirit, and its call-and-response chorus requires the flawless diction and improvisational skills of a salsa sonero. Juanes obviously would look much better by himself, but that doesn't matter, as he does in fact earn the Best Rock Song Latin Grammy.

After accepting his award, Juanes runs to the press area. Before reaching the podium, the only thing in his mind is "How did it sound? How did it sound?" Then, his mind still racing, he talks about his favorite issue -- the current state of Colombia's art -- and waxes eloquently, and humbly, once more. He acknowledges the multiplatinum Shakira and vallenato pop star Carlos Vives, and then he becomes especially passionate.

"But it all began even before the '90s, with people like [salsa star] Joe Arroyo and [vallenato composer] Rafael Escalona," he says. "All the violence in Colombia, with all its sadness, has also generated lots of creativity. . . in soccer, soap operas, literature and, of course, music. We have a story to tell and a great desire to live."

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