By: Rodrigo O. Sánchez
Photos: Cortesía de The Dream Team Agency
Twenty years ago it would have been almost impossible not to have heard of or seen Carlos Vives. After releasing three fairly unsuccessful albums of ballads, his music was suddenly everywhere in Latin America, thanks to the genre he grew up with: vallenato. While playing the role of composer Rafael Escalona (one of the greatest vallenato stars of all time) on the Colombian television soap Escalona, Vives recorded two albums of vallenato songs titled Escalona: Un canto a la vida and Escalona: Vol. 2. At the height of the success of the show and the two albums he released Clásicos de la provincia (1993), a fusion of vallenato and pop. The album’s incredible popularity took everyone, including Vives by surprise. His record company had dismissed the work as having only “local” appeal. “La gota fría,” the album’s biggest hit, became a classic and the record earned Billboard’s Best Album of the year.
More success followed, including Grammy awards, sold-out tours, and public and critical acclaim. After a break, Vives returned to television in 2012 as a judge on the Colombian version of The Voice. This year, he returns with his first album since 2009, Corazón profundo, which will be ready for release in April. The album’s first single, “Volví a nacer,” is already a hit; it debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Latin Hits chart (which tracks the popularity of songs on the Latin market). As of this writing, the single is still in the top ten after thirteen consecutive weeks on the charts. Here’s what Vives had to say in an exclusive interview with Panorama de las Américas.
What inspired you to write “Volví a nacer”?
My team chose the song for my new album, Corazón profundo. I was inspired when they told me it was time to record a new industry album. I started writing songs and listening to others I’d written but had never released. In the end I chose only a few of those I’d written previously for the album because I felt like I needed to compose new material that would be more in the moment and allow me to use everything I’d learned through my experiences with the band. I wanted fresh songs. I was here in Santa Marta, by the sea, when the call to get an album together came, so I began to write. I wrote “Volví a nacer” for Claudia, my wife, without thinking it would be the first single on the album, just letting things flow, singing about love the way we do here, keeping it traditional but with a modern touch. Claudia and love in general were really the inspiration for the track. I felt she was part of the chance life had given me to make another industry album. I wrote the song in about half a day and let myself be guided by all the information I had in my head as well as other people’s expectations. Then my team announced that they had chosen the track to spearhead my return. It has all the elements you’d expect and sends a clear message announcing my return.
I hear your son is studying music production. How do feel about the way the business has changed and about your son’s future as part of it?
The business has changed in many ways and technology is opening new possibilities, but it’s still fed by its spiritual roots. When I talk to him and listen to his music, I feel like what he’s showing me is very modern but still folkloric and very spiritual. That’s not going to change. Possibilities, alternatives, and other things change, but the industry’s goals are still the same. There will always be a place for good ideas and good music. That doesn’t mean that poorly produced or inconsequential music won’t be made during periods of economic hardship, but it really is easier to make records nowadays; you can record one part in Los Angeles, one part in Colombia, another part in London, and then bring it all together at a single desk. It’s the artist and his or her heart that remains the same. People’s hearts don’t change. There are a lot of different opportunities out there now, and you might think inexpensively produced music is replacing the better stuff, but I don’t see it that way. There’s a market for everything. There will always be room for a good artist, whether they record with eighteen musicians in a studio or do it all on a keyboard in their room.
Why do you think Clásicos de la provincia was so successful?
The Colombian Caribbean is a very magical, wonderfully rich place. It gave birth to a repertoire that grew steadily and was transmitted orally over a period of many years. Our grandparents talked about composers like Carlos Huerta and many others who sang their own songs. Some of that music got sung at family gatherings and there has always been a very sentimental attachment to the songs and the tradition. The music was very familiar, part of the place where we lived, our homes, and it was very emotional. But the folklore that was so important to us never really made it into the music business in any significant way. I started to think about all of this and had the idea for the album. But I didn’t want to do the same thing I’d done before; I wanted to be the producer of the music and its traditions. I wanted the record to capture that magic and emotion you feel in those family gatherings. I wanted to catch the feeling of a troubadour who stands up and sings without a microphone, or lights… with nothing at all, but who really touches people. All that became Clásicos de la provincia.
What has been the most beautiful moment in your career?
I’ve had many beautiful moments. The best one was when I decided to produce music that the music industry at the time thought was just a local phenomenon with no international appeal. My team and I put together a project and it exploded onto the international scene. That was a beautiful experience —the moment when an artist discovers that his own path can take him places he’d never thought possible.
What has been the most difficult part of your career?
Trying to remain stable in an industry that keeps changing. Business people get between my audience and me and at times it’s hard to deal with that. Record labels change, the people change; some people are more supportive than others. Keeping up with all of that is pretty hard.
After all your success, is there anything you feel you have yet to achieve as an artist?
I don’t want to lose our audience. I want to return to the places where people first invited us, where they first loved us. I’ve never thought much about awards, although I appreciate them and am thankful for them. I want my family to stay with me as I grow old. I feel like I still have a lot to offer my audience and I want to share new things with them.
Tell me a little about your work with UNICEF and other organizations.
My wife Claudia and I have worked with underprivileged children, helping them with all of the challenges they face in countries like Colombia. It’s been wonderfully gratifying but I wish we had more resources and collaborators. I feel like we need more time and money because the problems are so huge. The issues are so overwhelming that everything you do seems like just a drop in the bucket. It’s very fulfilling personally, but seeing the harsh reality in our countries also makes you sad.
What’s it like being a judge on the reality show La Voz Colombia?
It’s a great format; it’s a reality show but then again, it’s not. It’s a lot of fun and a special experience. We get to explore all the talent in Colombia and choose 130 voices from a group of about nine thousand. It’s a very wonderful, fair process. And the other judges and I get a chance to be our selves. I’ve done a lot of television but I’ve always played a character and this show gives me a chance to be myself on screen. Colombia has always had enormous musical potential and this experience reaffirms this. It’s been very exciting and a lot of fun.