Juan Luis Guerra y 440

Ójala Que Llueva Café

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Juan Luis Guerra is possibly the most important Latin/Tropical artist of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and Ojalá Que Llueva Café is both his first masterpiece and the album that made him a star. Guerra and his backup singers 4.40 had already made three records before 1989's Ojalá Que Llueva Café, and while these were lovely and engaging, the leap in quality is often astonishing. The role of 4.40, which had begun on an equal footing, had become progressively lesser throughout the first three records; here it definitely appears anchored in a supporting role for Guerra's stellar talents. Indeed, Ojalá Que Llueva Café is the album in which Guerra not only comes into his own as an artist, he incontestably announces himself as a major writer, composer, and singer. The first of the trilogy of albums that made Guerra's reputation, followed by the international blockbuster Bachata Rosa (1990) and the ambitious Areito (1992), the (relatively) less well-known Ojalá Que Llueva Café is arguably the finest of them all. It has more stylistic variety than the newer bachata feast of Bachata Rosa, and clocks in at little more than half-an-hour, packing a stronger punch than the somewhat long-winded Areito. Ojalá Que Llueva Café can also be considered responsible for introducing the unbridled elation of merengue and bachata to the world at large. In this respect, it should be held in the same pivotal esteem as Rubén Blades' Siembra, or Bob Marley's Catch a Fire. Interestingly enough, much like Blades and Marley with salsa and reggae, Guerra's approach to Dominican popular music is not exactly that of a purist. Rather, what made his own music so special is his ability to inform traditional dance rhythms with modern, imaginative arrangements, and lyrics equally adept at romance, partying, spirituality, or social and political concerns. Of course, none of this would matter, or would have happened, if it were not for the extraordinary batch of songs that make up this album. Out of its eight tracks, only the rushing "La Gallera" feels slightly inadequate. Everywhere else, Ojalá Que Llueva Café is an explosion of the joy of living, irrepressible rhythms, gorgeous melodies, moving lyrics, and rousing vocal and instrumental performances. Few albums can boast an opener as startling as the whirlwind merengue attack of "Visa para un Sueño" (used to great effect on Nanni Moretti's Cannes winner Caro Diario), whose script about the struggle of Dominicans to get a U.S. visa belies the frenzied enthusiasm of the music. As soon as it is over, "Ojalá que Llueva Café" slows down the tempo to a Caribbean folk-meets-African highlife pulse that turns into a song of hope as beautiful as you'll ever hear in your life; not coincidentally, it has become one of Guerra's best-loved and most often covered compositions, as well as his signature song, together with "Burbujas de Amor." Later on in the program, the feisty "Woman del Callao" reaches the same heights with its daring mixture of funk and calypso, plus Spanish and English vocals (in a delicious pidgin English accent, too). Out of elements that in lesser hands inevitably become overused pastiche, Guerra conjures a track that could have comatose people dancing, and which by law should be played at any party worth its salt. The rest of the album is comprised of three beautiful love songs graced with terrific vocal harmonies, "Razones," which flirts with salsa, "De Tu Boca," which sounds like a pop ballad with a Caribbean feel, and "Reina Mía," which brings back the restless zig-zag of merengue with a vengeance. The album closes on the tender "Ángel para una Tambora," a farewell to Guerra's percussionist Ángel Andújar, who had recently died on a car crash. With its stunning re-formulation of Dominican music through the contemporary idioms of pop, rock, salsa, or jazz, Ojalá Que Llueva Café brought back a renewal in Latin/Caribbean music unprecedented since the advent of Fania Records in the '70s. Even better, the album presented the world with the gift of Guerra's voice singing merengue, something as precious as Harry Belafonte singing calypso or Celia Cruz salsa, capable of transcending any borders and languages in its mission to bring happiness to all the people of this planet.

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