Juan Luis Guerra filled AAArena with merengue, bachata, son

The AAA arena was packed well before 8:30 p.m. with denizens yearning to see Juan Luis Guerra sing his long list of hits that spans three decades. The opening act was a brief performance by Guerra’s niece Amelia Vega, who has been working since her time as Miss Universe 2003 to get her singing career off the ground. She performed her single “Pasa Un Segundito” and two others as her bare midriff undulated between a half dozen male dancers. 

Juan Luis’ show begins with a video from the point of view of a motorcycle transiting through Santo Domingo’s harried traffic as a salsafied version of Coldplay’s “Clocks” played. The video evolved into a random series of images of poverty, tropical life, the Arab Spring and Martin Luther King, Jr. that ended in a crescendo, kicking off the first song of the show “Apaga y Vamonos” from 2010’s ‘A Son de Guerra.’ The song is a resigned condemnation of the status quo with an infectious rhythm that belies its message; the lyrics lament the cyclical nature of the world’s unsolved problems and declares that the only solution is to get up and go (and dance a son).

Guerra’s songs that touch on social issues are hymns for Caribbeans, and the audience had a chuckle when a stationary bicycle rolled out to the center of the stage for his classic from 1986, “Niagara en Bicicleta.” He sang the song as he pedaled in front of a screen projecting images of the Santo Domingo streets, waving at the people as he belted out the hilarious and cynical anecdote about the state of medical attention in the third world.

Part of Guerra’s skill as a musician and songwriter is the way he slyly gets his core audience to stay with him no matter what genre he adopts or topic he sings about: His audience dances just as hard to his songs about God as any of his others. “Las Avispas” had the crowd mimicking the backup singers’ pinching hand gestures, which they do in unison to illustrate how the Lord will send wasps to sting all demons. ‘Son Al Rey’ is a merengue-fied cumbia that both praises the Lord and gets the crowd moving.

Guerra doesn’t talk much during his show. He took a roll call after the fifth song to see where his audience was from: “Puerto Rico? Colombia?” The loudest group (besides Dominicans, of course) was the Venezuelans. The stage had five screens in the background projecting visuals for each song with the logo GuerraTV, but the visuals were superfluous, given the crowd’s affection for Guerra’s oeuvre. And no one was there to watch him dance either. At 6’6, his long gangly limbs seem more suited for basketball, and only occasionally did the spirit move him to break into a few steps. But no one cared as long as he kept singing. 

His quintessential love poem “Bachata Rosa,” from his 1990 album of the same name brought couples swaying together and the kissing camera found Amelia Vega and her new husband Atlanta Hawks forward and power center Al Horford, also Dominican, cuddled up in the front of the arena crooning the lyrics.

When Guerra vacated the stage to allow his group 4.40 to shine for a while, the percussion section impressed with around ten minutes of solos, including an impressive display of guira playing. Later, Guerra performed a medley of salsa songs, and in an innovative solution to performing a duo with one half in absentia, he did his rock hit “La Calle” with a pre-recorded video of Juanes, turning to face the screen with his guitar as if the Colombian singer were really there. Though many wondered where Juanes was that he couldn’t show up to support Guerra’s show.

For the encore, Guerra returned to perform “Voy a Pedir Tu Mano,” one of his jubilant merengues about first love and he closed with a stripped-down acoustic version of “Ojala Que Llueva Cafe,” his tribute to the harsh beauty of life in the Dominican countryside, which left everyone in the audience feeling the nostalgia and melancholy that the show had come to end. But their feet, battered from two hours of non-stop dancing, were probably relieved.


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