En español | He wears a rosary around his neck, writes songs about love and landmines, and gets embarrassed about being named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people. But sit and chat awhile with Juan Esteban Aristizábal and you tend to forget he's Colombian rock superstar Juanes.
Devoted to family, music and philanthropy, the composer whose songs have topped the charts all the way from Argentina to Belgium and beyond remains singularly down to earth — but with lofty goals.
"He's attractive to people of all ages," says Spanish singer Miguel Bosé, who often performs in concert with Juanes. "First, through his music, but more importantly, through his attitude toward life. He's a man who acts according to his principles, who is honest in everything he does. His strength lies in his faith."
A lofty description, but one that plays out in Juanes's life. His quest for peace is rooted in action. His desire to give back produces compassion, human rights and rehabilitation through his Mi Sangre (My Blood) Foundation, which helps poor Colombian children — primarily in rural areas — who are victims of landmines and war. "What I do is because life and music have led me to it," the singer says.
And his faith colors everything. "I come from a very, very Catholic family," he says. "We used to pray the rosary every day after dinner." Though he later questioned organized religion and searched for a personal definition of God, he retains his faith in prayer — "praying doesn't mean repeating a prayer" — and defines God as "something much larger than a human being, a powerful energy that is, in fact, love."
His love for music, nurtured in a home filled with six kids, lots of singing and all types of instruments, transformed the shy boy into a singer with 17 Latin Grammys under his guitar strap and more than 12 million albums sold worldwide. "I was touched by the magic of music," Juanes says. "My way to communicate was through my guitar and music."
His dad, Javier Aristizábal, was the musical force in their home, giving him first an accordion, then a guitar to play, he says. Juanes recalls living as a child in Carolina del Príncipe, where his family raised cattle, owned a small market and rented out space for a bar. "Our bedroom was on top of the bar and every night, since I was very little, I would go to sleep and the music I heard until midnight was bar music — tangos, boleros," and the Colombian rhythms that later found their way into his own sound.
At 15, after moving to Medellín with his family, he and some friends formed Ekhymosis — much to his parents' dismay, who feared the band's rock and heavy metal sound and lyrics might be a bad influence. Eventually, he says, "I convinced them [music] was something serious for me."
His dad died 15 years ago, but his mom, Alicia Vásquez, 80, recalls her son's teen years: "He always played guitar in his free time, and other instruments, like the trumpet. What I most remember was his discipline and dedication."
As Colombia's drug and guerilla wars escalated in the '80s, the group's lyrics called for social change. "We didn't write love songs," Juanes says. "Rock was a way to vent." They also helped their community by raising funds and collecting books for schools.
Ekhymosis split up 12 years after they formed. Juanes headed to the United States on his own with $4,000 and his guitar, and ended up in Los Angeles. Alone in his apartment, he wrote more than 40 songs. "I came to know God, myself and many other things I needed to experience," he says. "I found a way to express myself as a soloist. I could talk about what I wanted, write what I wanted. But with freedom comes more responsibility.
One song, "Fíjate Bien," a cautionary tale about stepping on landmines, catapulted him to fame with fans and Colombian groups working with victims of war and other violence. "I wrote the song with no pretentions; it was just a song in the album," he says. "But when it became the single, all these people started to show up, the soldiers, the foundations, and I realized there was much to be done with music."
In 2005, Time named him one of the world's 100 most influential people. "You feel embarrassed," Juanes says. "You don't feel [influential] and you don't expect that [honor]. I was in shock."
But he's grateful for the doors the honor opened. A year later, he launched his foundation. "We focus on rehabilitating the psychological injuries, the toughest ones," he says. "We also promote the concept that peace is a right. The idea is to invest in children, who are the future."
In 2008, Juanes, 38, staged the massive, free Peace Without Borders concert on the Venezuela-Colombia border. The two nations and Ecuador had been on the brink of war due to a Colombian raid inside Ecuador. The concert celebrated the diplomatic end to the crisis.
Last year, with Bosé and other artists, Juanes held an encore concert in Cuba, performing for more than half a million people in what became a controversial musical moment. While the purpose of the concert was to promote peace, many Cuban exiles saw it as a public relations coup for the Castro regime and a lost opportunity for Juanes and other non-Cuban musicians who performed there. "I totally support his concert in Cuba," says Cuban American Mari Medina. "But why hasn't he publicly denounced the political prisoners held in Cuba?" she asks, adding that he has called for the release of such prisoners in Colombia. "You can't be on good terms with both God and the devil."
Juanes never set out to be a voice for any particular political movement, but people label you, he says. "We might be naïve, we might be idealists, but you must have the ability to believe the impossible is possible." Some might have considered global success, with songs only in Spanish, impossible. Yet his hit "La Camisa Negra" soared to number one in 43 countries. "It breaks age and social class barriers," says longtime manager Fernán Martínez.
And it transcends language differences. "Singing in Spanish is much more honest, much closer to my roots," says Juanes. "For me, Spanish is essential. I still think in Spanish, dream in Spanish. It's the melodies and arrangements that transmit meaning."
And that lead to a success that Juanes says brings him closer to his family. The singer is married to model and actress Karen Martínez. "She's my partner in life," he says. "She understands me and puts up with all my craziness." The couple has three children: Luna, 7, Paloma, 5, and Dante, 1. "My biggest joys in life," he says, "are my three children."
That joy prevails in P.A.R.C.E., a CD about love and forgiveness. "Music is my therapy. I use it to heal," he says. "All my happiness, all my pain, is there."