Sunday, December 17, 2006


Read my review in PopMatters of Ricardo Arjona's Theatre at Madison Square concert (just to clarify, the Theatre at Madison Square Garden is not the same as Madison Square Garden, it's an error on PopMatters, which I'm sure will be fixed shortly).

Here is my original version (I like this lede better):

Outside of the Hispanic community, few people have heard of Ricardo Arjona, but in Argentina his popularity is a phenomenon that can only be compared to Beatlemania. Forty-two year old Arjona (the artist’s more frequently used moniker), a Guatemalan singer-songwriter who has yet to break the North American market, is quickly becoming one of the most popular artists in Spanish-speaking countries. When he arrived at Ezeiza airport in Buenos Aires last September, he was mobbed by fanatics. His 34 shows at the theatre Luna Park in Buenos Aires sold out in just hours, breaking all ticket sale records in Argentina.

Arjona is currently in the middle of his most expansive North American tour to date. He has been selling out fairly large venues, including the Theatre at Madison Square Garden in New York City on Friday, Nov. 24 and Saturday, Nov. 25.

Arjona’s success can be attributed to the fact that his groundbreaking music, often lumped together with “Latin pop” or “world music,” characterized by political statements, sweeping orchestral ballads, songs about women and love, metaphoric language, and clever lyrics, transcends what people normally think of as “Latin music.” The Ricky Martins and Shakiras out there have great rhythms, but Arjona has something to say.

Born in Antigua, Guatemala, he learned guitar at a young age. His first career path was as a schoolteacher, but he began recording in 1988. Since then he has recorded over 11 albums, but it was not until approximately the year 2000 that he started to get noticed.

Although he has been successful on the Latin Billboard charts, his only albums to chart on the Billboard 200 were “Galeria Caribe” in 2000 which peaked at 136, and “Adentro” in 2005 which peaked at 126.

The New York concert on Nov. 25 proved that Arjona’s unprecedented popularity could translate to a North American audience. The concertgoers knew every lyric and were glued to their seats (except when they jumped up for their favorite songs).

The stage was set up like a subway station, giving the concert a theatrical look. At the beginning of the concert, images of a subway train flashed down the three screens over the subway platform. Arjona’s voice was heard offstage singing a haunting version of “Iluso” from his latest album, “Adentro” (which incidentally won the Latin Grammy for best male pop album). He was nowhere to be seen, but the screams from the audience were deafening.

His band came onstage one by one, but Arjona knows how to work a crowd and he built momentum by waiting until the second song, the ballad “Para Bien or Para Mal” from the same album, to arrive on a moving walkway.

His music is powerful and extremely personal, but it is easy to relate to, especially for the immigrants that made up most of his audience. He engaged in dialogue with his fans, speaking only in Spanish. He said, “Buenas noches, Nueva York,” and proceeded to address all the locations where concertgoers might have come from by saying buenas noches to every Spanish speaking country. His fans cheered when their home countries were named. He told his enraptured audience that he would play everything they wanted as well as what he wanted, and he delivered a comprehensive set list representing different stages of his career.

Throughout the show, he spoke about being poor, remembering when his dad bought a car. “Ustedes se acuerdan de esas cosas, verdad? (You remember these things, correct?)” he said. Images of President George W. Bush appeared on the monitors to jeers from the audience as he launched into “El Mojado,” a song off “Adentro” about illegal immigrants. He then sang “Si El Norte Fuera El Sur (If the North was the South),” from the album of the same name, a politically charged song dealing with the internal conflict between wanting to be in America and hating what it stands for, with lines like “Tienen todo pero nada lo han pagado (They have everything but they paid for nothing).”

Then there is his sex appeal. He has a ruggedly handsome face which he seldom shaves and a short ponytail, but women are most attracted to his lyrics. Although many of his songs are about being scorned by women, he obviously respects and loves the opposite sex. During “Desnuda (Naked)” off of “Sin Danos a Terceros,” the females in the audience almost swooned as he sang about how there is nothing more beautiful than a woman’s body. During his ode to older women, “Senora de las Cuatro Decadas (Woman of Four Decades),” off of “Historias,” he chose a woman in the audience (much to the jealousy of half of the rest of the audience) and sang the song to her as she wept.

Arjona’s poetic turns of phrase transform even the most basic statements into something profound. For example, in “Tu Reputacion (Your Reputation),” he sings, “Tu reputacion son las primeras seis letras de esa palabra.” That means, your reputation is the first six letters of that word, which are re puta (big slut). This does not come off as insulting as the lyrics proceed to say that if the past taught her to kiss him like that, blessed are the men who came before him.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Arjona has a song off of “Santo Pecado” called “La Nena (The Girl).” The song is about a kidnapping of a young girl. When he sang it, he sat on a bench and stared at the floor, singing with mesmerizing passion. The images shown on the screen of a tied up girl were horrible to witness, and yet this was one of the most moving moments of the concert.

If his success in Argentina and the audience response at the Theatre at Madison Square Garden is any indication, Arjona has the potential to be the “next big thing.” Although his political messages might not sit well with some American audiences, many of his themes are universal.


Anonymous said...

Congrats! Awesome job!

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