The Great American Rock N' Roll Dream is being lived out, right now, by a Colombian singer/songwriter who only started speaking English four years ago.
After the breakup of his longtime rock band, Ekhymosis, Juanes (born Juan Esteban Arisitzabal in Medellin, Colombia), armed with songs and ready to record, packed up his bags and headed to California.
"We broke up in '98, and each one started to make music on his own," the singer/guitarist told POLLSTAR from a tour stop in Phoenix. "So I sold all my things and decided to look for opportunities somewhere other than Colombia."
His destination was Los Angeles, and his demo soon caught the ear of famed producer Gustavo Santaolalla, who signed Juanes to his record label, Surco.
His debut album, Fijate Bien, was released in the fall of 2000.
"I was working promotion the whole year," he said. "Things were difficult because the music was different from how everything was sounding in the market at the moment."
His music landed him on the Watcha Tour, a sort of Latin Vans Warped Tour. It was in the middle of that outing, Juanes' first real string of dates in the U.S., when he received the news that would change his career forever: He was nominated for an unprecedented seven Latin Grammy awards.
"It was something that I still cannot believe," he said. "It was like a dream, a fantasy. ... All of a sudden, I get nominated for seven nominations for the Latin Grammys. I was the first one surprised. I never imagined that could happen.
"It was like a huge key that opened a door for my music worldwide. People had not listened to my music prior to the nominations. Basically, what it did was turn some heads around so they could listen to the music and fortunately, they liked it.
"And radio stations started to give me a hand with putting songs on the radio, and I got the awards, I won three Grammys that time."
"Awards are like incentives to keep working and trusting in your music."
Not only was he the leading nominee, he was also asked to perform at the 2001 ceremony. Sadly, the terrorist attacks that September pushed the show back to October, and Juanes was the only artist who performed. His solo acoustic set summed up the somber mood of the event.
Following his wins, Juanes began drawing interest from a not-so-unlikely corner of the world, Spain, where he played 18 shows and returns for 24 at the end of this summer.
"I never imagined that they were going to accept the music the way they have. It's great for me to see that, that things are growing. I love to perform, so it's great when people like to go to the shows, to share the music with them," he said.
The trip to Spain delayed Juanes' plans to start working on a followup to Fijate Bien. He managed to get in the studio at the end of the year and the result, Un Dia Normal, eventually became the best-selling Spanish language album of original songs in the world.
The first single from the album, "A Dios Le Pido," a plea to God for peace, was released in time to be considered for the 2002 Latin Grammy Awards, where it won for best rock song. It also went to No. 1 in a dozen countries. The album has spent more than 50 weeks on Billboard's Top 10 Latin list.
Since his Grammy victories (as well as taking home awards from a number of other organizations), he has launched a full headlining tour of the U.S. and South and Central America.
When POLLSTAR tracked him down at the end of May, he was finishing the first leg of his second Stateside tour before heading off for France, Italy, Holland, Germany and Portugal.
After that European leg, he returns to play more dates in the U.S. The difference between his current tour and his jaunt with the Watcha outing is that the market for Latin music is popping up in surprising places.
His team relied exclusively on word of mouth to promote an acoustic-only gig at Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center, a show Juanes was reluctant to play for fear that nobody would show. His fears were unfounded, as a line outside the door set an attendance record for the Center. And the audience didn't shrink any when he came back through to play Vienna, Va.'s Wolf Trap Filene Center shortly after.
With his tours and audiences growing worldwide, Juanes sais he is just one in a sea of Latin artists breaking in America. But, he said, it's not only Latin fans showing up at his concerts.
"It's been great for me to see a lot of Anglo people that go to the shows," he said. "They sing the songs, I don't know if they understand the lyrics, but I see them mumbling the lyrics. For me, it's very exciting to see that because the melodies have the feelings and that's what I want to share."