This is a new Alejandro Sanz, and somehow you can sense that, even if you never knew the old one—even if somebody has to tell you that No Es lo Mismo, the title song of his latest CD and current international concert tour, means "It's Not the Same." The song's chugging percussions, railing vocals, catapulting horns and sing-along chorus communicate the essence of seminal, defiant, celebrative transformation.
I just discovered Sanz and his sandpaper-and-honey voice on the radio in Mexico, which I guess you could chalk up as a benefit of living in another country . . . except that I could have found him when I was still back home by tuning my FM dial to 107.1 Super Estrella. Sanz has been in heavy rotation on Spanish-language stations all over the world for at least a dozen years.
Fortunately, I got clued-in before Sanz's show in Guadalajara was sold out. The eight-hour drive over back roads from Mazatln was the perfect emotional drum roll for a balmy mid-March evening under the stars in the city's historic soccer stadium. The huge crowd was proof that the 34-year-old Spaniard is at the top of his career, although I was probably the only person there who needed that evidence. The guy has won eight Grammys. Sanz arrived in Guadalajara from Mexico City, where he'd sold out the prestigious Auditorio Nacional six times in a week—kind of like Neil Diamond used to do at the Forum every August during the 1970s, except that none of Sanz's fans came to see his chest hair.
Not that Sanz isn't a sex symbol. The female squeals that erupted when the lights went down to start the show were a reminder that Sanz got his start as a teen idol. Reports from concert tours for early albums such as Viviendo de Prisa, Si Tu Me Miras and 3 always mentioned hysterically screaming prepubescent girls and their faintings.
But Sanz obviously concentrated on advancing as an artist, and the growing maturity in his music broadened his appeal to the point that he's become one of the most influential Latin pop singers of the modern era. True to that career path, Sanz's set list in Guadalajara was no "I Am, I Said" kind of show. He emphasized his determination to use his commercial clout to continue his musical exploration. Again, you didn't need much Spanish to comprehend the frustration of some in the crowd as they shouted in vain for 10-year-old hits. Sanz just smiled, then responded with nearly all new material presented in an ever-more-cross-pollinated sound that mixed flamenco, hip-hop, jazz, R&B, edgy rock riffs, tango, and even Cuban son. It didn't take long before the command and passion with which Sanz and his band served up these musical styles revitalized the loyalty of fans who'd arrived hoping to relive oldies.
Sanz writes his own music and has composed songs for performers like Ricky Martin and Alexandre Pires, too. But it is his growing confidence as a social critic that transforms the atmosphere on the No Es lo Mismo tour from another star turn or even an exhibition of musical virtuosity into something . . . well, something that isn't the same. There is an earthy camaraderie among Sanz and his fans that is based on a philosophy best summarized by the artwork that adorns everything from the cover of the CD to T-shirts, caps and key chains: an angular line drawing of a glass of water—half-full or half-empty, designated by a plus sign or a minus sign, depending on your point of view.
"There are many ways of seeing something, and they are all valid," Sanz told the crowd during one of several conversational breaks between songs at his Guadalajara show. It was clearly an emotional night for him, coming barely a week after the terrorist train bombings in his birthplace of Madrid, and Sanz sought to translate his No Es lo Mismo catch phrase into a philosophy that endorses peaceful tolerance of people's differences. "We should understand that with so many people, the world cannot possibly have only one way of thinking. We should respect our different perspectives."
Nonetheless, Sanz is not about blandness in the face of the injustice he perceives, and he is particularly outspoken about current conditions in Cuba under Fidel Castro. In the song "Labana" (slang for the country's capital of Havana), he describes the city as a place "where dreams learn how to swim"—a reference to the refugees who risk their lives to cross the waters to the United States. The chorus is almost a taunt: "Cuenta 1, 2, 3, 4, que te vas, Fidel" ("Count 1, 2, 3, 4, and you go, Fidel").
Sanz discussed mixing his art with his politics in an interview with Ramiro Burr of the Houston Chronicle, describing it as another tradition he is following.
"There's a share of responsibility that all of us should assume," Sanz said. "Our musical forebears left us that legacy in the 1960s, all the artists who spoke out for peace and love. Now we're in an era of great conformism where there's a lot of 'see no evil, hear no evil.' So we have that responsibility."
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But while shooting off his mouth before a concert in Venezuela earlier this year, Sanz nearly shot himself in the foot. He criticized Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for being "undemocratic" and suggested the leader should resign, as demanded by last year's public referendums in the country. Said Sanz, "I will give up singing if 3 million people ask me to with signatures."
That was enough for a Venezuelan computer geek named Leopoldo Briceo to ignite a grassroots effort to call Sanz's bluff. On Feb. 17, Briceo launched the Internet-based "Alliance for a World Without Alejandro Sanz," complete with an online petition (www.petitiononline.com/nomasale/petition.html) calling for Sanz "to stop singing and remove himself from the musical environment." As of May 10, the site had gathered 228,724 signatures (more than a few of them repeats, but still).
But like the best artists, Sanz, for the most part, isn't overly specific. The messages in his music can be interpreted by the listener, applied to the conditions and perspectives in his or her own life. The greatness of Sanz's gift is that his audience can do this no matter what language they speak.
Alejandro Sanz performs at the Arrowhead Pond, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 704-2500. Sat., 8 p.m. $35-$100. All ages.