Out of the Chord Closet

I counted three strikes against Colombian rockero Juanes, the first when I heard he had just earned seven Latin Grammy nominations; he subsequently walked away with three trophies. For me, this was strike one: if winning a Grammy is the musical equivalent of hitting it big in the nickel slots, a Latin Grammy is like prevailing in a marathon Pog battle.

Strike two came later that same year, during Juanes' performance on the 2001 Latin alternative Watcha Tour. There he was in the cavernous Universal Amphitheater one summer eve, a tanned elf armed only with a tuneless guitar and a too-cute tribal tattoo encircling his right bicep. The seething rockero audience booed his mercifully short set; I think I might have chucked a half-full Coke cup toward him.

Last year, I switched from Coke to bile. Critics nationwide hailed his 2002 release Un Día Normal as masterful; I thought for certain that one of those critics had to be toking–the Chicago Tribune scribe who gushed that the album was "a tropical postscript to the Song of Solomon–sacred and sexy, a plea for life, a supplication for one more minute of breath to say 'I love you' to those who matter." I deemed Juanes "the scourge of Latin alternative."

"The media have been fawning over the tiny Colombian for the past year, as if his wimpy music will somehow save Latin alternative and end his country's 30-year civil war," I sniped. "Trust me: it won't do either." I concluded by noting that his show was sold out at the House of Blues because "the apocalypse is upon us."

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Strike three. That should have been 25-to-life, but now, on the eve of his gig at the Grove, I am in love with Juanes.

My transformation didn't have anything to do with a more careful second listening. I had always secretly admired his perfect hooks and rollicking amalgamation of various Colombian rhythm forms–cumbia, vallenato, porra, to name the most vigorous. I had always held the opinion–never publicly, but close to my heart–that he represents the truest synthesis of Latin American sounds and rock since his countryman/woman Aterciopelados.

But I didn't want to acknowledge it. Part of it was jealousy. Juanes is rock-star handsome. His luxuriant mane flops ever so daintily above his firm shoulders. His saucer eyes shine from a face chiseled like a Greek's in the Elgin marbles. As a straight man, how could I not be jealous of the chulas who grope him at shows?

Part of it was aesthetic arrogance. Critics and some fans rejoice in exalting unknowns and then dumping them; Deborah Harry is famously supposed to have observed, "When you're starving, you're a genius, but when you make it, you've sold out." Juanes is more popular than Jesus right now. How could I not despise one of the few Latin alternative artists who have gone platinum with their album?

What finally brought me out of my chord closet, however, was hearing a cumbia remake of "A Diós le Pido" ("I Ask God"), the first single from Un Día Normal. Juanes composed the original shortly after Sept. 11. It's an immensely jiggly tune dominated by a guitar lead that scrapes as menacingly as a guacharaca. In this slower cumbia style, I could really absorb the tune, hear its intention to save mankind through simple optimism. And I finally got it: what makes the song and Juanes essential to this life is his lyrics. He's begging the Almighty to take care of the globe and his ravaged Colombia. In the chorus, he sings breathlessly, "And if I die, may it be of love/And if I fall in love, may it be with you/And that your voice be in this heart every day/I ask God." It's one of the most stunning unions of the sacred and sensual since Prince.

"A Diós le Pido" proved I had it wrong all along: Juanes is one of the rare successful artists who can shepherd the faithful through these uncertain Clear Channel times. Loving Juanes reminds me not to be so dogmatic in my distaste for melody millionaires–just this once, though. If you think I'll ever obsess over Paulina Rubio, save for her absolutely remarkable ass–itself a blend of the sacred and sensual–you're wildly mistaken.

Juanes performs at the Grove Of Anaheim, 2200 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 712-2700. $20-$47.50. Sat., 8:30 p.m. All ages.

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