By age eight, JUAN LUIS GUERRA was already composing songs and performing them at family events. “I think that music is a gift that God gave me at an early age and that has been with me always,” he would later note. It was a gift that he would hone with hard work and study. He studied music at the National Conservatory of the Dominican Republic, philosophy at the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo, as well as jazz and composition at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
In the early ’80s he returned to his native country, the Dominican Republic, where he composed jingles for advertisements for a time before he formed his own group, 4:40. The group was made up of Maridalia Hernández, Mariela Mercado, and Roger Zayas-Bazán. Back then, fame and popularity seemed like a distant dream as the four friends drove around Santo Domingo in a Volkswagen Beetle hoping to hear one of their songs on the radio. Eventually they did begin to hear songs from their first three albums: Soplando, Mudanza y Acarreo, and Mientras Más Lo Pienso…Tú. It wasn’t until 1989 that Guerra began to dominate the airwaves with the album Ojalá Que Llueva Café, a musical homage to the earth and its bounty, featuring majestic lyrics accompanied by idyllic rhythms. That was Juan Luis Guerra’s first solo project.
After identifying and defining his genre, Guerra began to produce hit after hit. In 1990, his album Bachata Rosa became a radio favorite with songs like “La bilirrubina,” “Rosalía,” and “Burbujas de amor.” The combination of jazz, pop, merengue, and other rhythms not only helped him sell five million copies of the album, but also earned him his first Grammy.
Each of Juan Luis Guerra’s CDs is strikingly different and unique. The jubilation that characterized Bachata Rosa was absent on his more subdued, nostalgic 1992 production Areito, which included the song “Cuando te beso” in two versions, one accompanied by the New York Philharmonic and another accompanied by the American Boys Choir. In 1994 he again reinvented himself when he released Fogárate, in which he fused traditional merengue with South African soukus. Later in Ni es lo mismo ni es igual (1998) he combined merengue with rap, while in 2004’s Para Ti he began to produce Christian music. Guerra’s projects have always illuminated his interest in social, political, and even spiritual problems that affect the world. “What happens in the world heavily affects me,” he states. “It’s to the point that I feel a powerful need to discuss issues in my songs. I have always said that songs can’t change the world, but they can change the people who are listening.”
In 2007 he released his tenth album, La Llave de mi Corazon, the record that he considers the most romantic of his entire career. He integrates English lyrics in the production with songs like “Something Good,” a duet with Italian vocalist Chiara Chivello, and “Medicine for my Soul,” the English version of “La Llave de mi Corazon.” That same year the Latino Association of Entertainment Journalists of the United States named him “The Star of Year.”
He has accumulated countless awards in his productive career as a musician, including nine Latin Grammys, two Grammys, ten Billboard Awards, and four Latin Billboard Awards. The Academia Latina de la Grabación (LARAS) named him “Person of the Year” in 2007, while the Dominican Senate denominated him the “National Singer/Songwriter.” One year later, Billboard recognized him for his untiring social and philanthropic efforts by awarding him the Spirit of Hope Award. His alma mater, Berklee College of Music, also awarded him an honorary doctorate in May 2009.
In the spring of 2010, Juan Luis Guerra released his eleventh production, A Son de Guerra, in which he offered the usual mix of romantic songs and songs with deep spiritual and social messages. The album brings together two musical geniuses. On one side is “La Calle,” rock-reggae with a bit of cumbia featuring Juanes. Then “Lola’s Mambo,” a big-band number dedicated to the singer’s dog Lola, featuring famous jazz trumpeter Chris Botti. Several of the songs on A Son de Guerra have pointed social messages; for example, “La Guagua” uses a mixture of son, rap, and guaracha with darkly humoristic lyrics to comment on the failures of our social system. “Apaga y Vámonos” is an upbeat merengue with lyrics that scrutinize the importance of personal integrity. Ever faithful to Dominican rhythms, Guerra includes “Bachata en Fukoka,” a musical testimony to his trip to Japan and a reaction to his encounter with the people and his impressions of the country.
The album also offers a romantic song, “Mi Bendición,” likely taking inspiration from Guerra’s wife of 25 years, Nora Vega; a spiritual hymn called “Son al Rey” based on Psalm 103; and a joyful salsa with a powerful message entitled “Arregla los papeles.” He included songs in English on this album like “Caribbean Blues,” as well as a tribute to his native Dominican Republic in “Cayo Arena,” where he paints a musical landscape as he describes one of the island’s small but popular keys.
Right when the production was wrapping on A Son de Guerra, the prodigious musician undertook the titanic labor of organizing the benefit concert “Song of Hope for Haiti” along with some of his famous colleagues to help raise funds for the victims of the earthquake in Haiti. The event was a complete success, as well as his historic participation a few days later in the New Orleans Jazz Festival. But if you ask him to account for all of his incredible achievements and honors, Juan Luis Guerra wastes no time reflecting on such things, preferring to concentrate on the here and now: “Every day is a new beginning,” he affirms. “I’m always thinking that the best is yet to come.”