Latino superstar Juanes: ‘Every Colombian dreams of peace’

Together with Ingrid Betancourt and Shakira, Juan Asteban Aristizábal Vásquez (35) alias Juanes is part of the select club Colombians with a worldwide reputation. The singer recently received twelve Latin Grammy and nine MTV Awards, sold more than 10 million C.D.s worldwide and was number one in 32 countries. MO* talked to the likable Latino star about cumbia, marihuana and his greatest love: Colombia.
20th of Juli 2008. On the Columbian día nacional, Ingrid Betancourt gives a speech in front of thousands of auditors in Paris. She calls upon the rebel movement Farc to drop their weapons and release their hostages. Next to Betancourt, a man wearing a camisa negra, is singing the national hymn: Juanes. A month before that, we talked in the backstage area of TW classic, a Belgian popfestival, with the artist who in 2005 was proclaimed by Time one of the hundred most influential people in the world.
During the eighties and nineties, Juanes’ hometown Medellin, was about the most dangerous metropolis in the world. There drug king Pablo Escobar and his cartel wielded the sceptre. Cocaine, weapons, chaos and violence belonged to everyday life. In 1991 more than six thousand people in the “City of the Eternal Spring” were shot. Everybody knew somebody –nephew, brother, neighbour, classmate- who died through the clash of arms of the rivalising factions.
It’s in the spirit of that time – outstandingly described by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Abduction message or by Jorge Farco’s Rosario- that Juanes grows up in a middle class family. Juanes: ‘Thank goodness we never directly got into trouble with the violent side of the city, but growing up between all that violence wasn’t always simple. Due to the narco’s and cartels, there were a lot of problems. But that’s past history now. Medellin is now enduring an enormous positive transformation. Most of the places that were extremely dangerous and had violent characters and narco’s hanging about dealing drugs, have now bookstores and parks instead. Obviously, we still have problems, like everybody else, but the spirit of Medellin had changed completely. It’s now the most modern city in Clumbia. As a western tourist, you can go there trouble free.’
Juanes stresses the fact that in his childhood, he had mainly know a lot of warmth and love. ‘I’m the youngest among four brothers and two sisters, all of them musicians. At the age of seven, my eldest brother Javier, learnt me how to play the guitar and to sing. My father was busy with tango and folk. At home, I grew up with music form Chili, Argentinia and Cuba; artist like Silvio Rodriguez and Carlos Gardell were listened to in our house. And of course, I received the Colombian salsa, vallenato, guasca, borros, mambucos and pasillos from childhood. Those Colombian roots influence my work as an artist for one hundred percent.’
‘Everything I am today, I have Columbia to thank for. Everything I have inside, the way I’m interpreting things, every time the essence is related to Columbia. Even when I’m travelling the world, even when I’m playing rock, hip hop and pop music, Colombia is always present in my lyrics and melodies, and the way I’m seeing my music.’ Nevertheless it were mainly the guitar riffs form Metallica that inspired Juanes musically as a teenager to found his own band, Ekhymosis.
For about ten years Juanes learned the tricks in Ekhymosis. Eventually he released his solo album in 2000. His Latin rock début album Fijate bien was not only number one in Colombia for ten weeks, but it was also Juanes international breakthrough. Two years later, the successor Un día normal got platinum in Colombia, Mexico and Spain. With the hit single La camisa negra from Juanes third record Mi sangre, Western-Europe fell for him, Belgium inclusive. And to finish the success story: La vida es un ratico, Juanes fourth album, was released at the same day in 77 countries, which made is right away the biggest release of a Spanish album ever. Without doubt president Uribe proclaimed him ‘the Biggest Ambassador of Colombia’.
This doesn’t mean that all this is what Juanes is aiming for. ‘I don’t want to feel the pressure like in “I am ambassador”. I am an ordinary Colombian citizen. Of course I want to show the world the best side of my country. I think this is really important. It hurts me when people tell bad things about Colombia.’
‘The message is that Colombia is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. We have tremendous music, culture, the nicest food en the prettiest woman. Colombia is not like people think it is. We suffer because of the unfair position the world gives us, but the problem is not only our fault. Our drug problem is related to the rest of the world: everywhere people are sniffing cocaine.’
In spite of his status as superstar, Juanes doesn’t mince matters concerning politics. This is not obvious in a country so polarised between left and right wings, where paramilitaries  and guerrillas are getting all the attention. ‘I’m exactly in the middle’ says Juanes. ‘In Spanish this translates as de extreme centro, extreme in the middle. If you listen to the right or the left wing, both are right on some subjects. But, it’s necessary to find a balance. If I was the president of Colombia, I would carry through political reformations, because wealth is so poorly distributed. One of the problems is that not everybody has equal access to land. Another problem are drugs. I think that the drugs market should be partially legalized. That is a very complex matter and probably we are not yet ready for that. But what the addicts need is medical care, not imprisonment. It’s important to find new solutions. The approach from the past doesn’t work. The Farc control the business. They have a lot of money and power, earned on drugs. Poor people, who don’t have alternatives, join the Farc, because they lack opportunities and with the guerrilla, they can make some money. It’s all about opportunities. ‘ Juanes advocates negotiations with the Farc, an idea for which president Uribre at first did not have any affection, but which is much more accepted since the release of Ingrid Betancourt.
‘The point is that we are tired of the conflict, really tired. Peace is the dream of every Colombian.’ And if he can contribute to that, in his own way, as an artist, Juanes does it. In March the tensions between Venezuela, Ecuador and Colombia reached a climax, following the bombing of a Farc-camp in Ecuador, by Colombia. In the middle of diplomatic crisis, Juanes organizes a free Peace without Borders-festival at the Simon Bolivarbridge, which forms the symbolic border between Colombia and Venezuela. Three hundred thousand Colombians en Venezuelans attended the performances by Juanes, Carlos Vives etc.
Another memorable performance was the one in the European parliament in April 2006. Never before had an artist performed during a plenary meeting of the parliament, but for Juanes, Brussels was happy to make an exception. The singer called the attention to issues related to landmines –one of his pet topics. To help the victims of the anti-personnel mines, Juanes started his own aid fund, the Mi Sangre Foundation. ‘In Colombia, every day three people become victims oflandmines. Due to the foundation I met a lot of them throughout the country: soldiers, children, … It’s a hard story. Nowhere in the world are there more landmines than in my country. Afghanistan and Cambodia follow second and third. Nevertheless they receive more help from the international community to deal with the problems related to landmines. After my performance in the European parliament, Europe assigned 2.5 million to Colombia for the further demining of the country. But that is really not enough. The international community is able to do much more.’

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