For a decade, Carlos Vives was one of the biggest stars in Latin music. The Colombian singer appeared to have it all, artistically and commercially: From the early 1990s to the early 2000s, he boasted record sales in the millions, arena-filling tours and ardent fans as well as critical and artistic respect for pioneering tropi-pop, a genre that combined Colombian folk music with international pop. Before Shakira and Juanes, Vives made Colombian music popular around the world.
And then he disappeared. In 2005, upheavals in the music industry and the breakup of his marriage sent Vives back to Colombia. For eight years, he was absent from the music world where he once reigned.
And now he is back. On Saturday, Vives performs at AmericanAirlines Arena, the third stop on an ambitious, nine-city U.S. arena tour. His new album, Corazon Profundo, is hovering near the top of Billboard’s Latin sales charts after nine weeks. He has a new label, a new manager, a new wife and two young children.
Sitting in a suite at a sleek downtown Miami hotel on a bright spring afternoon, Vives, 51, seems both nervous and excited about his return. At an appearance earlier that week at the Billboard Latin Music Conference, he was mobbed by female fans and television cameras. His performance at the Billboard Latin Music Awards, with the Brazilian star Michel Telo, was one of the broadcast’s highlights.
“When you miss something, you always want it again,” Vives says. “Yes, it’s been difficult, because I was used to a certain kind of life, and everything changed. But at the end your spirit doesn’t change. I have to sing, I have to perform, I have to write, I have to work. I’m happy that life gives me the AmericanAirlines Arena or a little theater in Bogota. Either way I’ll do my best.”
He will need to, because much has changed since Vives’ heyday. Bachata, reggaeton and Latin hybrids of urban and hip-hop music have largely supplanted Latin pop-rock, while the business of selling music and reaching audiences has become a labyrinth of merchandising and sponsorship deals, social media strategies and multimedia campaigns. And Vives is no longer a fresh-faced romantic idol.
“Whooo — for an artist it’s all very complicated,” he says, laughing. “For a provincial from the Colombian Graceland. Life is a struggle to be simple. I want to be simple.”
Things got complicated when Vives’ contract with EMI Latin expired in 2005 as the company was going through management and ownership turmoil that would end in its demise. Despite his success, Vives wasn’t able to negotiate a new deal with another label.
“The music business was failing, and he wanted a lucrative contract that didn’t make sense,” says one former label staffer.
At the same time, Vives split with his wife, Puerto Rican actress Herlinda Gomez, and began a relationship with Claudia Elena Vasquez, who is now his wife and the mother of his 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son. (His teenage son and daughter with Gomez also live with Vives in Bogota.)
With his performing career up in the air, he returned to Bogota and worked behind the scenes. He turned a home recording studio into a popular music club, Gaira Cumbia House, where he presented comedy acts and a children’s theater series as well as traditional and up-and-coming Colombian musicians. He produced a Latin Grammy-winning children’s album and wrote and produced songs for other artists.
“I kept working, but in a place where you couldn’t see me,” Vives says. “There had been a lot of new things going on in Colombia.”
Vives’ success and his music are deeply rooted in Colombia. He started as a soap-opera actor and moved on to romantic pop music, a typical path for a Latin entertainer. But in 1994 he released an album that would transform his career and Latin music.
Clasicos de la Provincia fused traditional, accordion-powered vallenato music from Colombia’s Caribbean coast, where Vives was raised, with pop and rock. It was joyful, infectious, authentic and different, launching Vives to international stardom. Its blend of traditional and contemporary sounds would help set a new template for artists ranging from Juanes and Shakira to Fonseca and Bomba Estereo.
Corazon Profundo continues in the same vein, and features Vives’ longtime band and his songwriting and producing partner, Andres Castro. Many of the songs have themes of rebirth and rejuvenation, including Volvi a Nacer (Born Again), which topped U.S. radio charts when it was released last fall. Vives got another boost from Telo, who was inspired as a child by his music and with whom he recorded another hit, the buoyant, sexy beach anthem Como Le Gusta a Tu Cuerpo.
Vives said the music came more easily this time.
“I think that on previous records we always tried so many things, and there was always something painful about it,” he says. “On this record it was like I had learned something from all the work I’d done before, and it just came out more easily and we enjoyed it more.”
His new manager, Walter Kolm, a former marketing vice president for Universal Latin Music who put the singer together with Sony Music Latino, thinks his client’s renewed energy will be key to his comeback.
“When I met with him I said, ‘Do you want to go back?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it,’ ” says Kolm, who flew to Colombia last year to court Vives. “I think all this time away was good. He has a new family … he was helping many new artists. This comeback finds Carlos in a moment when he can take responsibility for an international tour.
“People like him because he’s real and they know that he’s real. Rockers respect him, pop artists respect him, everyone respects him.”
Leila Cobo, Billboard Magazine’s executive director for Latin music content and programming, says Vives’ stature and history should help bring back his longtime audience and attract new fans, even in a very different music world.
“His music is very unique. … You really can’t replace Carlos Vives,” Cobo writes in an email. “I think there is always a younger fan out there if their parents introduce them to the music. … Latin music is far more segmented now, so you can have Vives fans and [urban-bachata heartthrob] Romeo [Santos] fans co-existing.”
Vives says he’s ready to take on the music scene again.
“I took time to understand that a lot of things have changed, and you always have to adjust to changes,” he says. “It’s not easy for those of us who have a way of doing things, but it’s also difficult for new artists.
“But I think that at the end, while things may change, circumstances may change, there has to be a space for an artist to reach his audience and do his magic, do his work.”