The folk-rock singer-songwriter tradition of social commentary remains robust around the world, and in Latin America, no one keeps it alive more than Ricardo Arjona.
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Easily the most substantive lyricist in Latin pop, Arjona’s poetic turns of phrase are buttressed by his dramatic melodies, sincere baritone and intense good looks. For his fans, generally an educated group who might have been Dave Matthews or U2 fans had they been born in the U.S., Arjona makes music far more interesting than the Latin pop that has recently hit the airwaves around the world.
Freedom to express himself is something Arjona doesn’t take for granted, having grown up in Guatemala during periods of military dictatorship. As a college student (he graduated with a degree in education), he developed his socially conscious side.
“That was a very pamphleteering period of my repertoire, because I wrote about everything I wanted to protest,” Arjona says. “And there were plenty of things to protest, being under a military government. I wrote the romantic songs when I wanted to impress someone.”
He has always been willing to defy convention and examine the tenants of sacred subjects, including religion, not exactly a popular stance in devoutly Catholic Latin America. The subject has been a thorn in his side since he was 8 and made the mistake of asking a nun at his school whether Jesus had a girlfriend. His punishment was 20 days of kneeling on a sunbeam for one hour a day. Later, on “Jesus Verbo, No Sustantivo” from his 1993’s Animal Nocturno, he takes aim at religious hypocrisy and seemingly arbitrary rules. “I know you hate protocol, my brother,” Arjona tells Jesus in a line that drew anger in some quarters.
In l996, the Mexico-based Guatemala native experienced a defining moment with the release of “Si El Norte Fuera el Sur,” the title track from the 1996 album. The song satirized the United States and amusingly fantasized about what the Americas would be like if the map was turned upside down. (Che Guevara becomes a burger flipper.) It was a hugely popular song and served to further separated Arjona from the pack of traditional pop lyricists. The track became the favorite of artists such as Shakira, and Arjona became known as a songwriter’s songwriter.
But it was a seemingly harmless song four years later would bring him unexpected headaches. The track was “Mesías” from his July 2000 Galería Caribe, which added Cuban salsa and Colombian vallenato elements to his music. In an attempt to describe what a modern-day messiah might be like, Arjona wrote he was “preparing a blow and no one knows the date,” that he would have “a partner in Japan, another in Afghanistan.” He also mentioned that the Pentagon would accuse the “messiah” of being a terrorist. He ended the abstract song describing “a cloud of doubts casting a shadow over the sun.”
After September llth the lyrics appeared to be visionary, and some overeager journalists seized on such lines to call Arjona a “prophet” who must have been talking about Bin Laden and the World Trade Center. Arjona himself says the United States government investigated the song. Although it was unlikely that Bin Laden would be having “a drink with Bill Gates” or “armed bodyguards with guys from Israel,” as detailed by other parts of the song, the interest sent Galería to No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Latin Albums and “Mesías” into the Hot Latin Tracks top 20 in late 2001. Arjona’s abiding lament is that nobody paid attention to “Mesías” until the tempest in a teapot erupted.
Parallel to his political commentary is a romantic streak. He has an eloquent ability to express intimate ideas outside the realm of simple pop lyrics. He can turn the everyday into something magical and extraordinary. The power and subtlety of his breakthrough hit, 1994’s “Te Conozco,” from the album Historias, was hugely appealing: “I know about that surgery you didn’t tell anyone about/I know you hate routine just a little more than you hate the kitchen/Tell me if he knows you half as well/Tell me if he has the sensitivity to find the exact place where you explode in love.”
Arjona can awaken the most disinterested female psyche. He speaks to women in a way they’ve always wanted to be spoken to. Also from Historias, “Señora de las Cuatro Décadas” attempts to seduce a 40-something beauty: “Your figure isn’t what it was at 15/But time doesn’t know how to wilt that sensual touch/Nor that volcanic force in your eyes.”
Arjona has a new album, Santo Pecado (Blessed Sin), his first in several years. For new fans, it is a great introduction to this complex artist, and for old friends, it is a return to Arjona’s finest musical moments when a stormy world inspires him to express himself. The album reflects crises in his personal life and maintains his incisive look at the world around him. “There’s an evolution after nearly four years of living in the middle of a very interesting personal whirlwind that was very inspiring for me as a composer,” he said.
One of the most moving songs on the album is “La Nena”. In it he takes a melancholy and unflinching look at the epidemic of kidnapping in Latin America, telling a heartrending story of a missing girl: “The hand that killed her chauffer now muffles her screams/The girl is a one followed by zeroes starting today.” It is an accounting of a horrific act make the more horrific by Arjona’s deadpan recital of the “everyday” events. A dissonant, orchestral rock tune that uses 65 musicians, the song is a fascinating work of rhythm and mood.
“It might never be played on the radio,” Arjona admits. “Surely, many people will say, ‘Hey, I bought this record to be entertained, not to hear you paint life with dark colors.’ But that’s the area where I develop myself, and I feel the obligation to write about what occurs to me. It’s in the news every day. Writing it put me into a deep depression, but that’s how the song came about, and I have to share it. In addition, I think the production quality makes it one of my most important songs—the quality of arrangement is one of the best on this record or on any of them.”
Like most of Arjona’s work on the new album, “El Problema”, the first single from the album, is about reflection and painful honesty on a relationship gone south. Arjona questions not just why the relationship ends, but also examines his own weaknesses. “EL Problema” features some of rock’s top studio musicians, including Vinnie Colaiuta on drums and Kim Bullard on Hammond B-3 organ. With its organic feel, it can’t be accused of pandering to Latin pop radio, which prefers polished AC Ballads. “The problem isn’t your absence, the problem is that I’m waiting for you,” Arjona sings in his trademark mix of poetry and self reflection. This single as well as the bandoneon-flavored ballad “Mujer de Lujo” are likely to become favorites.
The album was mixed by Ben Wisch, who’s worked with Marc Cohn, a singer-songwriter Arjona admires.
A poetic lyricist for whom authenticity is everything, Arjona is unlikely to ever attempt translating his feelings into English. But it’s worth getting a Spanish dictionary to enjoy and reflect on the perspective of the Latin American Dylan.
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