MIAMI (Billboard) - At first glance, the Japanese island city of Fukuoka, said to be the country’s oldest city, is an unlikely hotbed for bachata — traditional, romantic dance music from the Dominican Republic.
But last year, after a 22-hour flight, Juan Luis Guerra found himself performing for an all-Japanese audience who danced and sang along, their voices breaking with emotion to the beat of a genre whose tales of heartbreak and lost love have earned it the moniker musica de amargue (bitterness music).
Guerra, a veteran performer who has sold more than 20 million albums, was so moved by the experience that he wrote a song about it. “Bachata en Fukuoka,” the first single from his upcoming album “Sondeguerra,” is lilting and whimsical, not so much an homage to the city as a cross-cultural love story with music as the unifying element.
“Anyone would be impressed to see Japanese dancing bachata,” Guerra says. “They dance bachata and merengue just like us.”
Over his career, the Dominican composer/arranger has reformulated bachata and merengue, transforming them into sophisticated yet commercial art forms. A tall, thin man of few words who explodes with emotion onstage, Guerra seems the antithesis of the tropical star. But no other contemporary artist has been able to export a regional, tropical genre with the same degree of mass success and critical acclaim.
Now, with “Sondeguerra,” his label wants to capitalize on his international potential. The set, Guerra’s second for Capitol Latin (formerly EMI Latin) after spending his career with indie Karen Records, will be the first album to be conceived, marketed and released under the newly restructured label.
“Sondeguerra” will be released simultaneously in the United States, Spain and Latin America, and in August it will be released in the Netherlands, France, Italy and Japan — where it will be timed with an encore visit from Guerra. He also will perform in China at the Shanghai Fair.
Stateside, campaigns with Walmart and AT&T have supported the single, which entered Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart April 24 at No. 50 and rose to No. 6 during the week ended May 16. Walmart released the track April 6 as a physical single, with a previous Guerra single, “Como Ti,” as a B-side on the vinyl version, marking the first time Walmart has released a physical Latin single.
Ostensibly a bachata and merengue album, it also includes “Lola’s Mambo,” an instrumental big-band track featuring trumpeter Chris Botti; “La Calle,” a rock-edged cut featuring Juanes; and “Caribbean Blues,” an English-language song that, in Guerra’s words, “is a dream with the Beatles.”
“Sondeguerra” also features salsa, reggae and Cuban son, some of it laced strongly with rock guitars, most of it palatable to the pop ear. Several tracks carry a subtle yet clear social message, a Guerra staple. On the album he tackles issues of immigration and social responsibility but with trademark humor and without preachiness.
“I play bachata and merengue,” Guerra says simply. “I feel bachata as if it were mine. Of course, there are many bachata acts who came before me, but my bachata is specifically mine, with metaphors and R&B influences and other elements. That’s what I do.”