Born Juan Esteban Aristizábal, August 9, 1972, in Medellín, Colombia; married Karen Martínez (a model and actress); children: Luna (daughter).
Record label —Universal Music and Video, 5713 N. Figueroa St., Los Angeles, CA 90042.
Founded the band Ekhymosis in Medellín, Colombia, 1990s; disbanded Ekhymosis and relocated to Los Angeles, CA, to pursue a recording career, 1998; signed to producer Gustavo Santaolalla's Surco label, 1999; released first solo album, Fíjate Bien, 2000; released Un Día Normal, 2002.
Latin Grammy award for best new artist, Latin Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, 2001; Latin Grammy award for best rock solo vocal album for Fíjate Bien, 2001; Latin Grammy award for best rock song for "Fíjate Bien," 2001; Latin Grammy award for best rock song for "A Dios le Pido," 2002; Latin Grammy award for album of the year Un Día Normal, 2003; Latin Grammy award for best rock solo vocal album for Un Día Normal, 2003; Latin Grammy award for song of the year for "Es Por Ti," 2003; Latin Grammy award for record of the year for "Es Por Ti," 2003; Latin Grammy award for best rock song for "Mala Gente," 2003.
Colombian–born singer Juanes collected a total of nine Latin Grammy awards just three years after his major–label debut, and his impressive number
The singer–songwriter's striking looks have lured fans to his music, but it is his straightforward rock that has propelled him to the top of the charts throughout Latin America. Juanes considers himself a musical ambassador for Colombia, where a few of his tracks have become rallying cries for political change. "Everyone knows about the war in our country," a Chicago Tribune article by Achy Obejas reproduced in the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service quoted him as saying. "Everyone knows about the violence, about all our political and social problems. But there is another country too: The one where people are sick of all that, where there are so many hard–working people struggling for a better life, and where the arts are—and have been—flourishing." Juanes's name is the shortened version of Juan Esteban Aristizábal, which his parents, a farmer and a homemaker, named him when he arrived in the world in August of 1972. He was born in Medellín, one of Colombia's main cities. His only formal musical training came from his father and his brothers, who began teaching him to play guitar when he was seven years old. In his teen years, he discovered the music of bands like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, and Metallica. "I felt a lot of strength when I heard that music," he explained to Houston Chronicle writer Ramiro Burr. "I didn't understand the lyrics, but I liked the sound of the guitars and the strength they transmitted."
By the time he was 16, Juanes had formed a rock band in Medellín called Ekhymosis, a name they chose from a Greek word meaning the first stage of a bruise. He fronted the band as its singer and guitarist, and his piercings and eye makeup were a bit daring for Colombia even in the mid–1990s. The band lasted a decade, releasing five records. The first was a full–on metal extravaganza, while the others blended traditional Colombian sounds into standard rock chords. The group's greatest success was their 1997 LP, La Tierra.
When the members of Ekhymosis decided to part ways in 1998, Juanes sold his computer, stereo, and scooter, and used the proceeds to buy a plane ticket to Los Angeles, California. Knowing almost no one in the city, he arrived on a tourist visa and lived in a dicey motel. At night, he earned money by finding work as a freelance musician at Sunset Boulevard bars, and by day tried to break into the music business by getting his demo tapes into the hands of producers and executives. Finally, one of those tapes made it to Gustavo Santaolalla, a respected Argentinean musician and producer who ran an L.A.–based label affiliated with Universal Music. Santaolalla was widely respected in the rock–en–español world, having produced records for acts like Café Tacuba, Julieta Venegas, and Puya, and was already familiar with Juanes because of the success of Ekhymosis.
The two set up a meeting at a coffee house, and it went even better than Juanes expected. "When he told me he liked my music, I almost cried," the artist recalled in a Los Angeles Daily News interview. Juanes was living on the edge of dire poverty at the time, writing songs and eating up his savings. Santaolalla signed him to his label, Surco, and the two spent the next six months working on his debut solo record.
Fíjate Bien, or "Pay Close Attention," was released on Universal/Surco in October of 2000. It featured 12 Spanish–language tracks of rock, hip–hop, and pop, some of which utilized salsa flavors, and others that deployed the Colombian musical strains of vallenato, the romantic–themed, accordion–and bongo–heavy music of Colombia's coastal–region cowboys. But the record was also a somber affair, with lyrics about the violence and civil strife that had plagued Colombia for years. Medellín, Juanes's native city, lent its name to a notoriously vicious drug cartel, while a Marxist rebel group had been seizing territory in the Colombian countryside during the 1990s. While land mines dotted the countryside, the cities were also dangerous because of frequent kidnappings. Juanes knew several people who had died: his best friend was killed when a nightclub was sprayed by gunfire, and his cousin was kidnapped and slain, even though the ransom had been paid. The title track of Juanes's debut came out of a telephone conversation he had had with his mother about the land mines that still dotted the Colombian countryside, which maimed or killed innocent people every year.
Critics who discovered Fíjate Bien wrote glowing reviews, but sales were slow until July of 2001, when it suddenly earned seven Latin Grammy Award nominations. Juanes had not wanted to attend the press conference at which the nominations were announced, but his manager, Fernán Martínez—who had previously managed the career of Enrique Iglesias—encouraged him to show up. Juanes brought just one change of clothes, and was wearing a T–shirt and freshly washed sneakers that were still wet. "I kept telling Fernán, 'I don't want to be there,'" the singer recalled in an interview with Jordan Levin that appeared in the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service. "What if my name is not on the list? No one knows who I am and I'm going to be standing up there like a freak." With his sneakers making a squishing noise when he walked, Juanes answered the occasional query. "Someone asked me, 'Who are you?'" he told Levin. "And I said, 'I'm Juanes. I have an album. I'm from Colombia.'"
Sales for Fíjate Bien quadrupled after the Latin Grammy nominations were announced. The title track, the song he had penned about land mines, became a hit, as did "Podemos Hacernos Daño." They began to air on Spanish–music radio, and Universal put Juanes on tour. He played his first American dates on the Watcha Tour. A critic for the Los Angeles Daily News reviewed one performance at the Universal Amphitheatre, and found the Colombian singer a compelling performer. "On stage, Juanes merged with the music and the beat: jerking, bobbing, and banging away on his Fender Telecaster in a muscle shirt like a young Bruce Springsteen," the newspaper reported. "In contrast to this disheveled ecstasy, his playing was clean and precise, his despairing voice given passion by the urgency of his lyrics."
The Latin Grammy ceremony was scheduled for September 11, 2001, but was canceled that day after hijacked planes hit the World Trade Center in New York City. When the winners were finally announced, Juanes won Best New Artist of the Year, Fíjate Bien won Best Rock Solo Vocal Album, and its title track took the award for Best Rock Song. Juanes missed his chance to perform at the Miami ceremony that fateful day, but later said in the Chicago Tribune article by Obejas that the day changed his life in a more profound way. The songwriter who had written about Colombia's violence had felt relatively safe in the United States until 9/11. "I saw it on TV, like so many other people," he told Obejas. "All I could think about was that my family was traveling that day, and that nowhere was safe."
Following the Latin Grammy wins, Juanes worked on his next solo record for several months with Santaolalla in a Los Angeles studio. Un Día Normal was released in May of 2002, and was a marked change, at least in themes, from his first. "I wanted to show a different side of my soul," he told Dallas Morning News journalist Mario Tarradell, according to a Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service report. " Fíjate Bien was a very dark, depressing album. But when I was writing Un Día Normal I wanted to share with the audience different things. I didn't want to talk about the storms exploding in my country. I wanted to talk about the hope, the family, and the good things. Un Día Normal is a positive album."
The first single from Un Día Normal, "A Dios le Pido (Of God I Ask)," quickly became a huge hit in Colombia and elsewhere in the Latin–American diaspora. The song's lyrics celebrated love—of family, of country, of being alive—despite the pervasive violence and fear that shook the lives of ordinary Colombians on a daily basis. The song hit the charts in Colombia just as its presidential election race was coming to a close, and later that month Colombians elected Alvaro Uribe Vélez, who campaigned on a promise to rid the country of the sectarian violence. In the build–up to Vélez's August inauguration, Juanes's song became an anthem for Colombians both there and abroad who hoped for a new era. It stayed at No. 1 in Colombia for seven weeks, and topped the charts in other Latin American countries as well. It sat in the Top Ten Billboard Latin Albums chart for a stunning 65 weeks.
At the 2002 Latin Grammy Awards, Juanes performed "A Dios le Pido," and it won him his fourth Latin Grammy, this one for Best Rock Song of the Year. The following year, the record took another five Latin Grammys: Album of the Year, Best Rock Solo Vocal Album, Best Rock Song for "Mala Gente," and Song of the Year and Record of the Year for "Es Por Ti (It's For You)." One song from Un Día Normal that did not win an award was "Fotografía," Juanes's duet with a pop star of Canadian–Portuguese heritage, Nelly Furtado. Writing in the Houston Chronicle, Burr termed it "a reflective and instantly catchy midtempo rocker with gorgeous harmonies [T]he pair resemble a rejuvenated Fleetwood Mac when they harmonize."
At the 2003 Latin Grammy ceremony, Juanes performed with the Black Eyed Peas, an alternative hip–hop act. The show's producers, hoping to win potential crossover sales, asked him to deliver his acceptance speech in English, to which he agreed—but he wore a T–shirt that read "Se Habla Español," or "Spanish spoken." He remains committed to reversing the international reputation Colombia has endured since the 1980s as the province of vast drug wealth, corruption, and random violence. "I know a lot of times, people have a bad image of my country," New Jersey Star–Ledger reporter Adrian Sainz quoted him as saying on the night of the 2003 Latin Grammys. "That's why it's so important for me to be here, to represent the other side of Colombia."
Juanes and his wife, Colombian model and actress Karen Martínez, welcomed the birth of their daughter, Luna, on September 6, 2003. The family moved from Los Angeles to Miami, which made it easier to visit home. "I go to Colombia to visit my family, even if it's just for a day or two," he told Burr in the Houston Chronicle. "I always miss Colombian food."
Niño Gigante, Codiscos, 1993.
Ciudad Pacifico, Codiscos.
Amor Bilingue, Codiscos.
La Tierra, 1997.
Ekhymosis, Fonovisa, 1997.
Fíjate Bien, Universal, 2000.
Un Día Normal, Universal, 2002.
Contemporary Musicians, vol. 43, Gale Group, 2004.
Billboard, September 13, 2003, p. 3.
Boston Herald, September 27, 2002, p. S24.
Business Wire, August 27, 2003, p. 5166; September 9, 2003, p. 5940.
Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), September 11, 2001, p. L3.
Hollywood Reporter, October 18, 2002, p. 18.
Houston Chronicle, March 24, 2002, p. 7; June 16, 2002, p. 7; December 14, 2002, p. 9.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, August 8, 2001; September 30, 2002; December 13, 2002.
New York Times, November 3, 2002, p. 6.
Star–Ledger (Newark, NJ), September 4, 2003, p. 27.
— Carol Brennan