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Juan Luis Guerra - Biography of a Dominican Icon

By

Juan Luis Guerra

Juan Luis Guerra

Courtesy EMI

  • Born: Juan Luis Guerra-Seijas June 7, 1957 in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
  • Trivia: Juan Luis Guerra's Band, 440 (or 4-40) is named after the standard pitch of "A" = 440 cycles per second.

Internationally, Juan Luis Guerra is the most well known musician from the Dominican Republic. With his trademark bear, usually sporting a hat, he probably owes his 6’5” lanky frame to his father, basketball player Gilberto Guerra.

When Guerra graduated from high school, he entered the Autonomic University of Santo Domingo, enrolling in courses in Philosophy and Literature, the sort of Liberal Arts curriculum that attracts many young freshmen still unsure of what they eventually want to do.

Guerra Goes to Boston:

A year later, his true passion became clearer and Guerra moved to the Music Conservatory of Santo Domingo. Subsequently he won a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston where he studied musical arrangement and composition and met his future wife, Nora Vega.

Finishing college, he returned home and found work as a musical composer in television advertising. He also played guitar locally; it was during these gigs that he met the vocalists that eventually became the 4-40.

First Album:

In 1984, Guerra and the 4-40 released their first album, Soplando. Guerra was very interested in jazz, and he described the music on Soplando as a “fusion between traditional merenque rhythms and jazz vocalizations". Although the album didn’t do very well, it was re-released in 1991 as The Original 4-40 and today is considered a collector’s item.

Record Contract:

In 1985, the 4-40 signed a contract with Karen Records and, in an attempt to be more commercially accepted, Guerra altered their musical style to reflect the very popular, more commercial merengue. He included sections of ‘perico ripiao’, a form of merengue that added the accordion to the more traditional orchestration and was often performed at a very fast pace. His next two albums followed this formula and Guerra/4-40 started to gain in popularity and recognition

Juan Luis Guerra and the 4-40:

Since there were a lot of changes in the vocalists who made up the 4-40 over those years, by 1989 when the group’s first really successful album came out, the group’s name now featured Guerra as the central vocalist and Ojala Que Llueva Café (I Wish It Would Rain Coffee) was billed under ‘Juan Luis Guerra and the 4-40’.

Bachata Rosa:

The success of Ojala was followed by Bachata Rosa in 1990. Bachata Rosa sold 5 million copies, won a Grammy and is still today considered a seminal album in Dominican music. Although Guerra is not primarily a singer of traditional bachata, Bachata Rosa brought world awareness to a Dominican form of music that, before the album, was limited in popularity to the Dominican Republic

Areito and Guerra's European Tour:

1992 saw the release of Areito and the beginning of controversy. Areito focused on poverty and poor conditions on the island as well as in many other parts of Latin America. His countrymen did not care for this change of tone from upbeat music to social commentary, but the album was well received in other parts of the world. Guerra spent that year touring Latin America and Europe.

But living on the road was starting to get to him. His anxiety was high, touring was wearing him down and he started to wonder whether any amount of success was worth living like this.

Fogarate and Retirement:

Fogarte was released in 1994, but it met with limited success and the criticism that his music was getting stale. Guerra did a couple of concerts to promote the album and then, in 1995, he announced his retirement and concentrated on acquiring local television and radio stations and promoting unknown local talent.

During the four years of his retirement, Guerra became interested in and converted to Evangelical Christianity. When he came out of retirement in 2004, it was to present the world with his new album Para Ti which was mostly religious in nature. The album did well, garnering two Billboard awards in 2005 (for "Best Gospel-Pop" and "Tropical-Merengue").

Guerra's music is neither strictly merengue nor bachata but blends those basic Dominican rhythms and forms with his love of jazz, pop, r&b, blues - or whatever musical style has caught his interest at the moment. His lyrics are poetic, his voice smooth with a slight rough edge, his musical sensibility always original.

If you listen to his new, 2007 album, La Llave De Mi Corazon, you'll understand what makes this artist so extraordinary.

Sample Albums

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