Latin rocker Juanes projects political voice in U.S.

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Eight years ago, Colombian rocker Juanes was an immigrant seeking opportunities in Los Angeles before he found a music producer who gave him his big break.

Colombian singer Juanes poses for a photograph at the Standard Hotel in Los Angeles, May 6, 2008. REUTERS/Hector Mata

Today, Juanes is probably the most universal of Latin America’s stars, having sold 10 million records worldwide from Japan to Germany with his fusion of Latin folk music and rock, sung in Spanish.

At 35, he’s determined to put that clout to good use, whether to push for peace on Latin America’s borders or, while on his U.S. tour, to prod immigrants to get politically involved in this year of elections and immigration crackdowns.

“The economic situation, the elections and the immigration issue are really serious and affecting many immigrants,” Juanes told Reuters ahead of four shows in Los Angeles to promote his fourth album “La Vida ... Es Un Ratico” (Life Is A Moment). “I think people are more reserved and scared.”

At his two-hour concert at the Nokia Theatre on Wednesday, the black-clad rocker urged the heavily Hispanic audience in the most Hispanic of big U.S. cities to keep fighting for immigrant rights and told them how Los Angeles inspired him.

He is also working with the Rock the Vote campaign to get U.S. citizens of Latin American origin to register to vote in November’s presidential and congressional elections.

“Those who can vote are the voice for those who don’t have the possibility,” said Juanes, whose full name is Juan Esteban Aristizabal.

Since his launch in Los Angeles, the singer and guitarist has made four albums with Argentine producer Gustavo Santaolalla, two-time Oscar winner for the soundtracks of “Brokeback Mountain” and “Babel,” and won 12 Latin Grammys with hits like “La Camisa Negra” and “A Dios Le Pido.”

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His latest album was released in 77 countries on the same day, the largest worldwide release for an all-Spanish language artist. Although there are no plans for a crossover to English, he says he would like to record some songs in that language to “share some ideas with the American people.”

Parallel to his commercial success is his rise on the world’s social activism stage where he is compared to rockers like Bono. TIME Magazine declared him “One of the 100 Most Influential People in the World” and he was invited to perform at the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize Concert.

Having grown up amid the violence of the Colombian city of Medellin, where drug cartels were the de facto power, Juanes is dedicated to doing everything he can to bring about peace.

In March, after border tensions between Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador sparked military mobilizations, Juanes organized a free concert for 200,000 people in a week, convincing six top Latin artists to perform.

“I don’t know if I am more political, but I do have more clarity and criteria to make decisions and form opinions,” he said. “But at 35, I am pretty much married to peace.”

In 2005, he started his foundation Mi Sangre (My Blood) to help victims of landmines in Colombia. He sings about survivors in the ballad “Minas Piedras” on his latest album.

In Colombia, he says the security situation has improved, but guerrilla groups continue to wage war after five decades and the damage done by the drug trade is pervasive.

Through it all, Juanes seeks to remain neutral in politics and believes both sides of a conflict must be heard.

“I belong to the extreme center,” he said.

When pushed to say which U.S. presidential candidate best represents the interests of immigrants in the United States, Juanes momentarily abandons his neutrality.

“I would say Obama,” he quietly confided.