Juan Pablo Díaz's Straight-Talking Puerto Rican Salsa Gets Latin Grammy Nomination
Juan Pablo Díaz insists salsa speak honestly, even when the truth isn't easy to face.
This revelation came after the young Puerto Rico-based salsa singer and songwriter got the wind knocked out of him several years ago by a failed label deal. "You see the unfinished painting on the cover of Fase Dos," recalls Díaz. "The week after everything fell apart, the artist I had asked to create a cover showed me his work and said, 'This is where I am right now.' I had an epiphany, that that unfinished work is a symbol of what I'm doing. The philosophy on the album: Your work is never finished. You're never done and retired. There's some dark beauty in that honest truth."
It also urged him to craft a follow up to his hit debut that took Puerto Rico's music community by storm. Fase Dos won Díaz his first Latin Grammy nomination and shown what salsa's younger generation can accomplish artistically. Díaz can come out blazing with social commentary ("El Poderoso Caballero") or woo with a stately, old-school bolero ("A tu lado "). He can reimagine rock en Espanol as salsa (Argentine rocker Gustavo Cerati's "Puente") and stick hard to salsa's roots.
For Díaz, the key moment is to capture some essential part of Puerto Rican experience, and to make it resonate widely outside the island. "I'm trying to interpret what I can make out of this world, especially out of my country," he reflects. "I have a message that has local roots but appeals to a universal point of view, to the greed, frustrations, the madness that we're living in. Puerto Rico has been a tough spot for a long time, way before Maria. That's a very local point of view but it's also very relatable."
Díaz found out about his Latin Grammy nomination six days after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. It was another reminder of his generation's unfinished business, of why he makes music that names the poverty and greed, the migration and struggles directly and honestly.
The son of an artistic family, Díaz learned the show business ropes early watching his musician and television host father and dancer mother's professional pursuits. Whenever his mother got a break, she'd head to a salsa club to dance. Salsa was in the air he breathed, but he never thought it would be his career. "I was into classic rock and funk and soul when I started writing songs in my early teens. I was into salsa but more as a fan, not as a performer," says Díaz. "My idol was Lenny Kravitz, and I wanted to be a Puerto Rican version of that, if you'll believe it."
Díaz's first professional calling was acting, both as sought-after voice-over talent and as a comedic stage actor, a founding member of Puerto Rico's top comedy theater group, Teatro Breve. The rough-and-tumble world of comedy honed his stagecraft as a singer. "Comedy helps me project myself, to connect with the public," muses Díaz. "My music has a really serious message, but comedy is a really useful tool in crafting a convincing performance to get that message across."
His role in a theater production featuring salsa with underground favorites La PVC sparked a serious shift in Díaz's musical career. (He continues to work as an actor.) "They asked me to join them for a few songs as part of the background chorus," Díaz recalls. "Then when their lead singer left, they asked me to sing. It taught me all I needed to know about salsa."
Jumping off from this apprenticeship, Díaz took six years to record and perfect his debut, which sailed to the top of the charts and wowed Puerto Rican critics. Salsa by new artists is hard sell, however, though Díaz is absolutely committed to the cause. "Salsa by young people is in a really tough spot. The genre is not as popular as it was and those who follow the genre are my age and older," explains Díaz. "I like to say that salsa is the only genre that competes with its own past, with the golden age of the 60s and early 80s Fania. That's always going to be the reference point. Fans aren't always that adventurous and would rather listen to what they know. But it's not impossible to earn fans' trust."
Díaz has earned that trust by making great music that draws the sounds established during salsa's heyday years. "to simulate that distinctive sound from the golden age of salsa. I put a string section on many of the songs, and I got the chance to work with Louis García, one of the architects of that sound," notes Díaz. "Louis is a legendary arranger, he was Cheo Feliciano's musical director for over 30 years up until his death. So, who's better to develop that "Louis Garcia sound" than the master himself?" He also incorporates other distinctly Puerto Rican styles into his version of salsa, while working with a range of talented Puerto Rican producers who knew how to home in on the right feel: "On the album I also include Bolero, Plena, and a modern rendition of Danza, a Puerto Rican version of the Waltz that is uncommon to record these days. "
Díaz is insistent speaking the truth in a society hungry for it. "The word that defines what we're living in is limbo. We've been told another reality for many years; that's all changed. It's a good thing that we open our second decade in this century and at least we have some definition and we're seeing the tough reality," he says. "As part of the generation that can make a change, we're not demanding luxury. We want the basics of a quality life. My music is reflecting those frustrations,, the disappointment that things are not progressing the way many of us want."
Díaz isn't pamphleteering, and his songs have nuance even when tackling major issues like migration off-island. "Aquí o allá" chronicles a transformation in Díaz's own thinking, away from critiquing those who leave Puerto Rico as giving up or abandoning their home, and seeing that contributions to the island's wellbeing can come from anywhere, so long as people care enough. "I had some experiences in New York City that made me reconsider the way I thought about migration," Díaz remembers. "Many people who stay don't do anything for the country, and a lot who leave are trying to contribute to the country from afar. We've discussed that a lot over the past decade. This is a manifesto of sorts, that says you have to work for Puerto Rico wherever you are. It's one of the more optimistic song on the album."
Whether singing about devoted love or the anxiety that comes from living in an economically struggling place ("País gris"), Díaz keeps things on the level. "For me, honesty in my lyrics is really important. I want to be honest with myself and with my fans. It's a transparent chronicle of what it feels like, what it means to be Puerto Rican in the 21st century," Díaz states. "There are no safe topics I'm addressing in my music. I'd rather be a slave of my true reality instead of the slave of a lie. That has resonated with salsa fans all around the Latin world."