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Juanes: A Superstar Slows Down, Shifts Gears

Juanes' latest album is all acoustic, and was recorded in front of a live audience as part of MTV's <em>Unplugged</em> series.
Juanes' latest album is all acoustic, and was recorded in front of a live audience as part of MTV's Unplugged series.

The new release from Juanes marks a departure for the Colombian pop star. The all-acoustic album was recorded in front of a live Miami audience for MTV Unplugged.

Born Juan Esteban Aristizábal Vásquez, Juanes — who appears Friday and Saturday at the Hollywood Bowl with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and conductor Thomas Wilkins — has been one of Latin America's most popular young musicians for the past two decades. His first four albums topped music charts. He has won a Grammy Award and 17 Latin Grammys.

Juanes has also sung for huge crowds around the world: a concert for peace in Havana, a World Cup kickoff, even a Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. He founded an organization for victims of landmines. He married a beautiful model and actress and they have three gorgeous children. But even with so much going for him, the artist says he recently found himself at a crossroads.

"To be honest, I was feeling a little bit tired, a little bit sick of myself and depressed," Juanes says. "I was not enjoying the process. So I decided to make a little stop in my career and just rethink everything."

That was last year. Not long after, MTV's Spanish-language channel, Tr3s, asked him to do an Unplugged session. Juanes says he embraced it as an opportunity to take a breather and recenter himself.

To help with that process, he turned to one of his heroes, Juan Luis Guerra. In the 1990s, the singer and songwriter was considered the Dominican Republic's premier poet and musician.

"He's one of the most incredible musicians from South America," Juanes says. "He's like a legend, like another Beatle member. He's like, wow!"

Speaking from his home in the Dominican Republic, Guerra returned the compliment.

"Juanes is a great guitar player," Guerra says. "He's a great singer also. Juanes' songs are so beautiful, but I wanted to give a new version of them."

Guerra became the producer and arranger for the Unplugged album, and also something of a mentor for Juanes. Guerra himself had taken a break from playing his fusion of merengue and bachata with jazz and classical influences, in order to devote his time to Christian gospel music.

"You need time to rest, to think about your career, to find another way," Guerra says. "That's what I did and I think that's what Juanes did, also. He was kind of, 'Too much work,' and he needed to stop."

"I remember the first moment I got to his studio in the Dominican Republic in [Guerra's] house," Juanes recalls, "and I was a little bit nervous. Then I just found this guy Juan Luis so relaxed, so calm, so sober. And he just inspired this peace inside me."

Juanes says the two of them jammed for hours, taking breaks to ruminate about life. "For me it was it was almost like a journey, like something spiritual," he says.

Juanes found still more inspiration from another idol of his, journeying to Madrid to ask Joaquin Sabina to collaborate on a song. The Spanish singer-songwriter and poet had also put his career on pause — but that four-year break was prompted by a stroke, followed by a deep depression.

"Joaquin Sabina is one of my favorites," Juanes says. "He's like a legend. He's like our Bob Dylan or our Bruce Springsteen. He's one of our most talented writers of our Latin music."

The result of the collaboration was "Azul Sabina." Joaquin Sabina wrote lyrics and Juan Luis Guerra arranged the song, calling on the spirit of Louis Armstrong.

"I said, 'That's what we need. We need a clarinet, a trumpet and a trombone,'" Juanes says. "It's a blues, like kind of 1950s New Orleans sound. We really had a good time."

Juanes says singing with Sabina, working with Guerra and the whole Unplugged experience was just the shot in the arm he needed for his career and his life.

"This a new beginning for me," he says. "Now I have no fear. I want to take risks. I just feel so happy to have that freedom and say, "You know what? Let's forget about everything and just break things. Go fast and break things and do whatever comes from your heart. That's what I'm doing now."

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As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition,, and
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