Forty Years Into His Career, Juan Luis Guerra Says the Latin Grammys Still Give Him Butterflies


Though the renowned Dominican star Juan Luis Guerra has been making music since the Eighties, he’s constantly finding new inspiration. Sometimes, the ideas come to him when he’s looking back at his four-decade career: In fact, his new EP Radio Güira was partially influenced by a radio show he had years ago, as well as his longtime love of Dominican güiras, percussion instrument that’s common in folk and popular music from the Dominican Republic.

Radio Güira, which came out earlier this month, is full of little interludes, radio-style commercial and announcements, and even a special recipe (which happens to be one of Guerra’s favorites.) Full of bright new songs that capture Guerra’s rich musical taste, Radio Güira has found the artist during a busy period, both creatively and professionally. In addition to working on lots of new music, he’s been in the middle of a tour across the U.S. (Rolling Stone caught up with him just days after a major performance in New York City.)

He’s also been getting lots of recognition for his recent work. “Si Tú Me Quieres,” a song the Colombian artist Fonseca tapped him for, is up for Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best Tropical Song at the Latin Grammys, which take place in Spain on Thursday. Though Guerra will be playing a show in Puerto Rico instead of attending the ceremony, he’s still moved by the nominations. “These moments always feel new, even when a lot has happened to you already. It’s new experiences,” he says.

Tell us a little about the inspiration behind the great songs on your latest project Radio Güira, which was released last week.
We wanted to do something truly innovative and different, perhaps trying rhythms we hadn’t done before. That was the case on “Mambo 23,” where it’s this specific type of mambo-merengue we wanted to do something new on, or with folkloric sounds on the guitar. We decided to show the public this new side. The idea of the radio came from the fact that I had a radio show a long time ago called Radio Viva, and the concept is very similar to Radio Güira, with different languages announcing the time and different recipes.

That’s actually a real recipe from the woman who cooks in my house. To me, it’s the best recipe for beans that exist on the planet. Her name is Nuna, and I asked her to come to the studio to share the habichuela recipe. So that’s why everyone’s getting to know Nuna’s voice on the album. (Laughs.) She went to the studio and was really dedicated. She kept asking, “What do I need to do?” And we said, “Just share the recipe and forget everything else.” So she did her job and it came out wonderfully.

Where did the name and the concept for Radio Güira come from?
The project kicked off when we found the name Radio Güira and that’s when everything started. We were trying to find a name that captured the sounds we were after, and that idea come up. A güira is my favorite folkloric instrument and I’ve always been drawn to people who play the instrument. I love my güira — I actually have a lot of them — and so from that moment, when we named it, everything came together: the idea for the updates, the recipes, the different languages.

Do you see the world you’ve created on this project continuing? Might there be a second part of Radio Güira?
Probably. It would be marvelous to keep going with a second half of this, because there are still so many things we can do with it; so many languages to explore and things to try. I mean, it’ not for sure, but it’s a maybe. [Laughs.] Right now, we’re working on the music for a film that’s coming out next year, and that’s been keeping us busy. I’d also love to do something that’s very classic and there are a lot of sounds that have been drawing my ear recently. I think there’s a lot of new talent that’s been opening me up and making me think about different influences.

Throughout the years, people have become so connected to your lyricism and the stories you tell in your songs. What can you share about your creative process when it comes to writing music?
In regards to the lyrics, that’s a very specific process. I’m always composing, but when I say composing, I’m referring more to making melodies and harmonies. But with the lyrics, it’s usually once I finish a song that I start to write verses. Every composition is different, of course, and each composer has their own forms and approaches. In my case, it’s that way: It’s like the melody and harmony bring me to precise lyrics. It’s really the last thing I work on in every song. On this album, you’ll see that the messages are very joyful. It’s all about creating a good feeling in people and giving the moments of happiness we need so badly at this moment.


You’re nominated for three Latin Grammys for the song “Si Tú Me Quieres,” which you joined the Colombian singer Fonseca for. How did that song happen and what’s it been like to seeing it impact so many people?
I’m extremely happy about the song with Fonseca. From the moment he sent it to me, I told him it was gorgeous. It has this beautiful, sticky melody and I was thrilled to get to work with him. In addition to admiring him a lot, he was a wonderful voice as well. Juanes also joined in writing the song, so we really kept this one in the family.

Already, you’ve won more than 20 Latin Grammys throughout your career. At this stage, has this kind of recognition changed for you? Does it mean something different?
It’s the most important award in our industry, and I always look at it with gratitude. It’s the same every time: It’s butterflies in my stomach. These moments always feel new, even when a lot has happened to you already. It’s new experiences. So if I go to the Grammys and get an award, it’s like it’s happening for the first time.

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