Sitting in the back of a darkened arena, a Celtics hat pulled low on his head, a black warm-up suit covering his lanky frame, Dominican bachata and merengue star Juan Luis Guerra cuts an unassuming figure. Get the man on stage, and it's another story. His ability to fuse infectious beats, romantic ballads and lyrical social commentary with strains of rock, jazz and even hip-hop has made him an icon of Caribbean and Latin American music.
Yet after a successful career spanning more than two decades, even Guerra says he is surprised by the success of his latest album "Llave de Mi Corazon (The Key to My Heart)." The album won him his second Grammy this year and dominated the Latin awards shows. Its two songs in English have also made the charts. And on Saturday, Guerra and his band 4.40 launched his biggest international tour in more than a decade at Miami's American Airlines Arena, with 40-plus dates across the United States, Latin America, Europe and Asia. "God had a number of surprises in store for me," Guerra told The Associated Press during a recent break from rehearsals. "I knew when we finished, that we had a very good CD, that this CD was going to be very successful, but I didn't know how much."
The bearded musician, who swaps the Celtics cap for his trademark black beret in concerts, describes the creative process as the need to release "tremendous butterflies inside." Onstage Saturday, the butterflies were in full flight. First came the call to attention of the horn blast, then the carnival-like sound of the congas, the guitars, and through it all, Guerra's trademark honey voice. The title of his latest tour, "La Travesia (The Journey)," is an apt one for Guerra's career. In the early 1990s, he became an international ambassador for the bachata, the Dominican version of a romantic bolero. The genre originated in countryside fiestas and brothels and is recognizable for its slow, sensual sound marked by bongos, maracas and the pluck of the guitar. But Guerra, a graduate of the Berklee School of Music in Boston, says his early musical influences were broad. He's played with Sting and the Rolling Stones and one day dreams of doing a bachata with Paul McCartney.
"I remember my uncle, when he would take me to school, he always listened to a radio station that only played bachata. I was a boy of eight or nine, but it stuck in my consciousness," he said. "I grew up with rock. I loved Jethro Tull, Cream, Eric Clapton." Guerra calls "La Llave de Mi Corazon," released last year, his most romantic album. That's saying a lot for a man whose ballads are often featured on top ten lists of international love songs along with those of Barry White and Astrud Gilberto. He dedicated the album to his wife of 24 years, Nora Vega, with whom he has a 20-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter. "Above all, it exalts the figure of the woman," Guerra said.
That's not to say Guerra has given up the other themes that have long infused his work. He became a born-again Christian in the mid-1990s and in 2004 produced his first religious album "Para Ti (For You)." Its infectious beats won it air time on secular tropical radio stations. "I'm still religious. If you talk about a love of God, that includes the love of your partner," Guerra explained. His past work has also been laced with social criticism, including commentary on the scarcity of resources in Latin America's public hospitals and the struggles of small coffee growers. Guerra has a foundation to help children in the Dominican Republic, has put on concerts to promote peace between Colombia and Venezuela and his recent role has been to promote the Inter-American Development Bank's efforts to reduce poverty in the hemisphere. He says he hopes to pen more social songs in the future, though there are none one his latest CD.