By Ashley Zimmerman
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By John Hood
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A spotty, Spotified copy of Juanes: MTV Unplugged streams on an iPhone as New Times travels 70 mph down an unassuming stretch of I-75 near Resaca, Georgia. It's the Monday after Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, and we are relying on the same 4G network that's playing the music to sustain a healthy signal during our international phone conversation with the Colombian singer/songwriter.
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"Sí, aquí estoy," he says patiently, graciously accepting our apology for the shoddy cell service.
The Grammy-winning rockero is in the midst of his Loud and Unplugged tour, performing in front of sold-out crowds around the U.S. and Canada. Right now, he's en route to Florida, where he'll wrap the North American leg in Tampa.
Before he hits the Big Guava, though, Juanes will visit our little slice of the Sunshine State for a hugely anticipated concert at Hard Rock Live this Thursday.
"It's an important show for me," Juanes tells New Times. "I consider South Florida my home in the United States. I'm excited to perform for that crowd."
But Juanes, accompanied by a ten-piece band and two backup singers, was just as excited to perform for Canadian audiences on the two nights preceding our conversation.
"The shows in Montreal and Toronto were sold out," he says. "It's very multicultural. There are a lot of Latinos [in those two cities] but also a lot of Europeans. I was very surprised by the reception."
Of course, though, Juanes is being humble. The 40-year-old musician has an exceptional ability to transcend language barriers and connect with audiences around the world. His 20 Latin Grammy awards, five Grammy nods, and two wins, along with the 15 million albums he's sold, are a testament to his global reach.
"I feel that at the shows, people who aren't Latino can still connect with the music," Juanes says. "They connect with the rhythm and the melodies, even though they're not necessarily connecting with the lyrics. I think that's the magic of music."
For the Loud and Unplugged tour, he is performing with a very big band. But he is also stripping down the arrangements and experimenting with the set list, looking to accentuate his songwriting prowess and musical dexterity.
"It's an acoustic show, but it has a lot of force," Juanes explains. "We basically run through my catalog, do a few covers by artists we love, like Bob Marley, Joe Arroyo, or Bruce Springsteen.
"Overall, it's very free. And there's a lot of interaction with the audiences," just like the ones he learned to captivate at an early age.
Born in Carolina del Príncipe, Colombia, and raised in Medellín, Juan Esteban Aristizábal Vásquez picked up his first guitar at age 7 during the height of drug lord Pablo Escobar's reign. Heavily influenced by Metallica and the sociopolitics of his hometown, the musical prodigy formed his first band, Ekhymosis, at age 15.
After a few years and several small shows, the group put together enough money to record a two-song demo, documenting the horrific violence and injustice that plagued Medellín.
When Ekhymosis disbanded in 1999, Juanes carried this socially conscious approach to songwriting into his solo career. And over the years, the Colombian songwriter has poured just as much energy into activism as music, fighting for Colombians affected by land mines, kidnapping victims, and many other causes, including global peace.
"The work never ends," he says. "I began my musical journey at a very early age. And from a very early age, I've also felt connected to God through my upbringing, my family, my schooling.
"God has given me so much joy and blessings throughout my music career, and I feel that one way to show my appreciation is through performing. When I'm singing and see that the crowd is happy and smiling, it's like, 'What better way to thank God?' "
In 2009, Juanes organized a free concert, Paz Sin Fronteras ("Peace Without Borders"), in Havana's Plaza de la Revolución to mark the United Nations' International Day of Peace. Featuring performances by Miguel Bose and Olga Tanon, Los Van Van, and a headlining set by Juanes, this benefit performance drew an estimated crowd of more than a million people.
U.S. Congressman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts championed the global peace exchange on the House floor on September 22, 2009.
"The message of the Peace Without Borders concert is to circumvent politicians and, using the medium of music, speak directly to young people and encourage them to think in fresh ways — to change their way of thinking — and leave behind the old politics, the old hatreds, prejudices, and national enmities that have locked too many people into patterns of conflict, violence, poverty, and despair, dividing them from one another. It is an attempt to break down barriers and ask people to join in common purpose.
"I applaud Juanes," the congressman added, "and all the participating artists for their courage, their vision, and commitment to working together to communicate directly to the Cuban people through the language of music."
But for some, Juanes' peace concert was a mistake and an insult. Many members of Miami's Cuban-American community, in particular, were furious about the show. Some extremists even threatened the singer and his family. Two years later, in 2011, pressure from Cuban exiles forced Juanes to cancel a show in Miami that just happened to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs.